“Virtual Rapper” has been launched. Questions about art and technology remain.

The story of FN Meka – a fictional character described as the first music artist powered in part by artificial intelligence to be signed by a major record label – may seem for once strange. in August, Capitol records dropped FN Mekawhose look, outlaw personality and suggestive lyrics have been inspired by real-life music stars such as Travis Scott, 6ix9ine and Lil Pump, amid criticism that the project trades him in stereotypes.

But for seasoned observers of pop technology and the debate over cultural appropriation, the rise and fall of the so-called robotic rapper, whose songs were already written by humans, has raised important questions that won’t go away any time soon.

Last month alone, AI artwork win – win Award in Colorado and computer program improvised Classical music solos in real time in New York City. From DALL-E 2, the technology who creates visual art on demand, to Hatsune Miku, a Japanese software that does something similar to music, the art world may be on the brink of a drastic change in how its products are created.

Young people are increasingly comfortable consuming culture via digital avatars like FN Meka. It was already happening in hip-hop: a hologram of rapper Tupac Shakur, who died in 1996, performed in Music Festival 2012; Travis Scott gave a concert By his avatar in the video game Fortnite in 2020; And Snoop Dogg and Eminem sang about their digital selves and their Bored Ape avatar in a metaverse performance at the MTV Video Music Awards last month.

In this gritty new world, do fake characters based on real people amount to inappropriate borrowing, even stealing, or just the kind of homage that has always defined pop music? Even when AI helps write music, should the humans behind it be held accountable for the machine-generated words? And as far as race is concerned, how do the rules of cultural appropriation work when the person making the appropriation is not a human with a unique cultural background but an illusory identity backed by an anonymous, multi-ethnic group?

“A lot of our ideas and moral codes as human beings may have evolved for a context in which we have separate human representatives,” said Zev Epstein, Ph.D. A student at the MIT Media Lab who studies the intersection of humans and technology. “These emerging technologies require new legal frameworks and research to understand how we think about them.”

For FN Meka critics, having more black people or people of color in the rooms where the character was conceived, designed and promoted may have helped prevent the negative stereotypes they say reinforced it. Industry Blackout, a nonprofit advocacy group, said FN Meka “insulted” black culture and absorbed the sounds, looks and life experiences of true black artists. The Capitol sounded in agreement when he apologized for his “indifference” in a statement.

For critics, FN Meka’s (exaggerated) debt to AI and its exclusive digital presence had the effect of discharging the people who were really the decision makers. “There are humans behind technology,” said Sinead Bovell, futurologist and founder of WAYE, an organization that educates young people about technology. “When we separate the two, this is where we can risk doing harm to various marginalized groups.

“What worries me about the world of avatars,” she added, “is that we have a situation where people can create and benefit from the ethnic group that an avatar represents without being part of that ethnic group.”

The culture most likely to be exploited in pop music in general and especially in hip-hop is black culture, said Imani Mosley, a professor of musicology at the University of Florida.

“There’s so much overlap between digital culture, Generation Z culture, and black culture, that a lot of people don’t necessarily realize that a lot of the things Gen Z says are taken from African American slang,” she said. “To interact with that culture, and to be part of that discourse, means using certain digital and cultural labels, and if you don’t have access to that discourse because you are not black, one way to do that is to hide one’s race behind the curtain of the internet.”

But for some, the denigration of the creators of FN Meka raised the specter of artistic censorship.

James O. acknowledged. Young, a professor of philosophy at the University of Victoria who studies cultural appropriation in art, said that there has been a long tradition in music of prioritizing the experience experienced by the artist. Young quotes the famous phrase attributed to jazz legend Charlie Parker: “If you don’t live it, you won’t come out of your century.”

More recently, however, the consensus has moved toward punishing only art that arises from lived experience, at the expense of both art and political solidarity, Jung said. He referred to an episode five years ago in which she was a white artist pleased To paint the black body of civil rights martyr Emmett Till.

“One of those claims is, ‘This is a digital black face,’” Young said of FN Meka. “It might be.” But he called for balanced screening, rather than a quick reaction. “You have to be very careful: I don’t think you want to claim that all representations of Blacks are in a way morally offensive.”

The broader impoverishment highlighted by both sides in this debate is the lack of language and concepts to discuss art that people did not make, or did not make entirely.

Epstein, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab, cited the thought of Aaron Hertzman, a scientist at Adobe Research. in a paper called Can computers make art? Hertzmann argued that at present art can only be made by humans, the only ones able to interact socially with other humans. In this understanding, machine learning is a tool; The artist behind a sketch by DALL-E or similar program Midjourney is not the program, but the person who gave her the instructions.

However, Hertzmann allowed, “One day, better AIs may be seen as true social agents.”

Meanwhile, with culture increasingly mediated by the digital realm, questions about how to account for all other people who have directly or indirectly touched this art will multiply, undermining the traditional concept of the artist as expressing its indivisible perspective.

Epstein said some of the artwork is now the result of “a complex and pervasive system of many interacting human actors and computations”. “If you create a DALL-E 2 image, is this your artwork?” he added. “Can you be the social agent for that? Or are they supported by other humans?”

The last question is deeply deceptive: Does it even matter who composes the song, paints the painting, or writes the book? Metaverse avatars and artificial intelligence are intrinsically derivative: they are all completely guaranteed to be images of already existing artists and their works.

Anthony Martini, co-founder of Factory New, the virtual music company that created FN Meka, is steadfastly on one side of this debate: “If you were mad at lyrical content because it was supposedly artificial intelligence,” he said, “why not get mad at the content?” Lyrics in general?”

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