The minstrel show has returned, riding on the apocalyptic horses of artificial intelligence, social media, and NFTs. FN Meka, a rapper created by artificial intelligence who gained TikTok fame through viral short music videos, exists. This fact itself is unfortunate. More unfortunate is that the artificial construct was temporarily signed to Capitol Records. The company dropped FN Meka in response to complaints from Industry Blackout, an activist organization of Black professionals in the entertainment industry, who accused the creators of engaging in racist stereotypes and a modern version of blackface.
The journey to FN Meka and the rebirth of the minstrel show was slow, but obvious. Characters like Russel Hobbs of the Gorillaz are guilty of opening the doors for this form of digital blackface, but FN Meka presents a full leap into an older tradition. Instead of donning black makeup, white owners can now create their own Black artists from scratch, built with the racist biases inevitable when artificial intelligence is crafted under a white supremacist society.
It’s not difficult to understand how FN Meka made it this far. It should have been obvious to Capitol that there were problems with signing an AI rapper who, despite having a white creator, uses the N-word in his lyrics and exploits images of Black struggle for his own benefit. But Capitol Records exists under capitalism, so all of that was irrelevant – or worth not looking into – in the face of the potential profit that could be licked from the bottom of the cultural barrel.
With the same aim of maintaining their bottom line, Capitol has now rejected their future cash cow to prevent further backlash against the company, despite only recently forcing FN Meka onto another artist’s song. It all made perfect sense; FN Meka has more than 10 million followers on the planet’s hottest social media platform, and the precedent for white artists crafting Black avatars, or emulating Black cultural aesthetics, has long been set.
Putting aside the long history of white musicians stealing Black music to build the base for their own popularity, we can look at more recent stages on the road to the creation of FN Meka. The Gorillaz are the example closest to my heart; I was in a Gorillaz cover band for five glorious days in the fifth grade. But the animated band includes a Black character, the rapper/drummer Russel Hobbs. While he may seem benign at first, there is something troubling about a Black artist completely under the control of white creators. They decided which rappers got to voice Russel next, they decided what his voice sounds like, and they decided that his origins would involve a drive-by shooting.
Similarly, the DJ duo Major Lazer fused different Black genres and blended them with Black characters on their artwork and early music videos, despite neither of the initial creators being Black themselves. The music video for their 2009 hit “Pon De Floor,” for example, features a dancehall-style beat, a Jamaican artist providing vocals, and Black dancers daggering throughout. The vocalist’s name, Adidja Palmer, is nowhere to be found on the title of the track, but is tucked away lower as a writer’s credit. At least Palmer was likely compensated for his participation, as opposed to the Black rapper behind the voice of FN Meka – Kyle the Hooligan – who says that he was scammed and ghosted by the character’s creators.
This isn’t to say that white creators ought not create Black characters at all, but that there is something particularly gut-wrenching about the artificial fabrication of Black entertainers. Real Black entertainers are cultural and political icons, and often ambassadors for different groups of Black people. White creators and companies have long exploited and ridiculed that fact, and this endeavor feels all too similar to one of America’s foundational forms of fun, the 19th century minstrel show. Minstrel shows were stage performances featuring dancing, skits and music, performed primarily by white people. They played negative caricatures of Black people, often bumbling around the stage or taking on the role of the happy slave.
Elements of the minstrel can be seen all over FN Meka. Despite the creation being rooted in theft from Black culture, it is unlikely any Black person will actually profit from Meka’s success. The modern reality of his creation also makes him a uniquely troubling form of the old tradition. FN Meka’s lyrics are AI-generated, using data from the internet to create the nonsense he spouts. There are more than enough examples of AI programs exemplifying the racial biases of their creators, and even more so for those based on data from social media.
While this kind of technology has more obviously terrifying implications for programs created for law enforcement, for example, it still poses a cultural danger here. Minstrel shows were used to ridicule Black people and justify their oppression; FN Meka feels like it feeds something similar. He is a rapper/influencer straight from the bogeyman nightmares of white conservatives.
While Capitol has cancelled its involvement with FN Meka, that doesn’t take away the AI rapper’s millions of followers. It is also unlikely that this will be the end of such projects; if they make money, companies will chase them. The only thing that can prevent this seems to be backlash from fans and organizations like Industry Blackout. Capitalism may not have a conscience beyond its smirking digitized face, but it does respond to threats to its ability to extract all wealth and soul from the planet.
Akin Olla is a contributing opinion writer at the Guardian
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