When I went to Coachella in 2012, I saw Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg’s set, where the hologram of long-deceased legendary rapper Tupac performed “Hail Mary.” I thought little of it at the time — other than the apparent surreal feeling of the voice of a long-dead man screaming “what the fu*k is up, Coachella?!” to the crowd. This has grown into a touring business with catalogs of Roy Orbison, Whitney Houston, and Frank Zappa playing to packed crowds as if they never left. Charlie Brooker couldn’t have written a better story of Black Mirror (well, he did with the season five episode. “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too”). We see what can happen when corporations or estates have full access to catalogs of deceased musicians — a P. T. Barnum-style attraction where movements are taken from previous performances.
Already, A.I. programs have created the skeletons of new songs from Nirvana and Amy Winehouse files. In an industry where artists fight for morsels of money to be compensated, digitization provides another roadblock. What does this mean for decisions in terms of genre? Imagine if people not connected to the essence of the music decide on what they feel a style of music looks like. FN Meka isn’t just a messy, nonchalant swipe at hip-hop, but an amalgamation of what happens when decision-makers are divorced from the emotion of an art form. Unfortunately, we have to learn this lesson for the millionth time. It will always feel empty when you take Black people out of the equation when trying to replicate the work born of their experiences.
Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett have long used avatars for Gorillaz’s electronic, alternative rock styles as an inventive way for fans to experience their music. The craziest thing is we almost expect something like FN Meka now — the gold grills on the avatar, the use of the “n” word in songs, and the whole concept born from a collective of people who aren’t Black themselves. That’s a long game that has been played throughout the history of music. Now, technology provides a clock of anonymity of audacity for some who feel they can distill hip-hop to the lowest minstrel form denominator.
Black artists have long used hip-hop as a megaphone to speak about their life experiences. We might want to dance and celebrate in one song and speak out about social injustices in another. The world is lucky enough to partake in its seamless beauty. Out of New York’s deteriorating economic conditions in the 1970s, a way of life was born. On the preface of its 50th anniversary, hip-hop is everywhere — from electronic music festival stages, language, and pillars upon which social media companies build their brands. But with this progress, stereotypes are still prevalent. While the concept of FN Meka may have quickly been removed, it still existed. The fact remains that somebody in an upper chain of command signed off on it.
During the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, record labels (including Capitol Music) tweeted statements of support and donated to causes. Not even two years later, they turn around and co-sign a demeaning character of the people they claim to be to support. FN Meka made an Instagram post mocking police brutality. It not only makes those commitments seem flimsy, but is even worse because those labels have no problem taking profit from the people who are affected by those injustices. Rap lyrics are being used in criminal cases, and his A.I. character co-signs only perpetuate an unfair blanketed thought process about hip-hop.
Think about it — the label could have borrowed from Slick Rick’s storytelling, Lupe Fiasco’s lyrical prowess, and Jay-Z’s intricate use of double entendres — but they didn’t. They went for outrage instead of furthering the culture through new technology. This could have been a moment where a whole new audience sees how influential hip-hop continues to be. Instead, we got another instance of what can happen when the blood, sweat, and tears are removed from the equation. Black artists will continue to create and innovate — that goes without question. Technology will always grow — but unless the makeup of the deciders to use it changes, we are always doomed to repeat this situation.