Issues of representation via digital avatars

FN Meka is a rapper avatar  look, outlaw persona and suggestive lyrics were inspired by real-life music stars like Travis Scott, 6ix9ine and Lil Pump. He was created by humans. Despite being the first musical artist partly powered by artificial intelligence to be signed by a major record label, FN Meka was dropped by Capitol Records in August after criticism that the character perpetuated racial stereotypes.

With younger audiences continuing to accept and embrace the presence of digital avatars in music (take the TuPac hologram in 2012 or Snoop Dogg performing as his Bored Ape NFT at the last MTV Music Awards), do fake characters based on real people amount to unseemly borrowing, even theft, or just the kind of homage that has always defined pop music? Even when artificial intelligence does help write music, should the humans behind it be accountable for the machine-created lyrics? And as far as race is concerned, how do the rules of cultural appropriation work when the person doing the appropriating is not a human being with a unique cultural background but a fictitious identity backed by an anonymous, multiracial collective?

So where does FN Meka become offensive? There are humans behind the design and inspiration of the character – with Travis Scott serving as a reference – but I would argue that the issue arises when those who are creating the avatar don’t represent the demographic of Travis Scott himself. All in all, if you’re going to create an African-American music avatar, get a real life African-American to create him. As a female music artist myself of LatinX heritage, I would certainly feel uncomfortable and misrepresented if a non-Latin, white, male person or peoples were only to create a digital version of me or inspired by me. I also know many queer artists who would certainly feel misrepresented if non-queer people were to design their avatars and so on. 

Being part of a certain demographic – especially an often misrepresented minority – comes with set values and experiences that build identity. In order for that identity to be recreated digitally, the influences must be direct from people who not only understand but carry said values and experiences first hand. Sinead Bovell, a futurist and the founder of WAYE seconds this; “there are humans behind technology […] When we disconnect the two, that’s where we could potentially risk harm for different marginalised groups.

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

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

“There’s so much overlap between digital culture and Gen Z culture and Black culture, to the point where a lot of people don’t necessarily recognize that a lot of things Gen Z says are pulled from African American vernacular,” she said. “To interact with that culture, to be a part of that discourse, is to use certain digital and cultural markers, and if you don’t have access to that discourse because you’re not Black, one way to do that is to hide one’s own ethnicity behind the curtain of the internet.”

James O. Young, a professor of philosophy at the University of Victoria who studies cultural appropriation in art, acknowledged there is a long tradition in music of placing a premium on the artist’s lived experience. Young quoted one of my personal favourite musicians of all time, the jazz legend Charlie Parker: “If you didn’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.”

“One of the claims is, ‘This is digital blackface,’” Young said of FN Meka. “Maybe it is.” But he advocated for balanced examination, rather than swift reaction. “You’ve got to be very careful: I don’t think you want to claim that all representations of Black people are somehow morally offensive.”

Meanwhile, as culture is increasingly mediated through the digital realm, questions of how to account for all of the other people who directly or indirectly touched that art will multiply, undermining the conventional notion of the artist as expressing her indivisible perspective.

There is a team of people behind the creation of FN Meka and other digital avatars. Are we asking that every member of that team is an African-American rapper? No, that would be unrealistic. Even for real life artists like myself, my team of musicians and visual creatives is made up of people of all different races, ages, sexualities, nationalities and religions. I am not exclusive with who I work with, only with what work and creative values they hold up. 

I think of the Pixar film Soul when I think about how best to represent a community of people. Soul is a film about an African-American musician who loves jazz and neo soul. In Pixar’s BTS short which takes you through the making of the film, the team is made up of African-American jazz musicians, black men, black women, asian women, white people and other demographics. 

What’s important is that a sector of the team represent the protagonist and his demographic to a tea (African-American jazz musicians) and the rest of the team support, in allyship, those same values despite being part of a totally different demographic (take queer Asian-American women for example). The film is a success because the values and experiences are well researched and aligned. This approach, I believe, would be one of success in the creation of digital avatars moving forward. 

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