Viewed in its worst possible light, the FN Meka controversy—in which Capitol signed and then dropped a virtual rapper who used the N-word in his songs and portrayed racist stereotypes in videos—seems like an unthinkable blunder. But a closer look at the details, along with conversations with sources close to the situation, suggests that, while unforgiving and fraught with oversights, Capitol’s role in the FN Meka fiasco may not have been as insensitive as it might seem.
But more than anything, it’s yet another glaring result of the lack of diversity throughout the music industry — not just at Capitol, not just at major labels, but everywhere.
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At the heart of this particular issue is not only the use of racial stereotypes by the character FN Meka, created by the music company Factory Now and who has over 1 billion views and 10 million followers on TikTok alone, but also the issue of his ownership. Notably, the character uses the N-word in several releases (though not the one song released and subsequently pulled by Capitol), and an early video depicts the character being beaten by a white police officer while in prison. And even though the character was voiced and the music created by some black creators, Factory Now apparently has no black stakeholders to benefit from using Black stereotypes.
“We find fault with the lack of awareness of how offensive this cartoon is,” the activist group Industry Blackout wrote in an open letter posted on social media, which also called for any funds Capitol spent on the project to be donated to charity and the company’s black artist budgets. “It is a direct insult to the black community and our culture. An amalgamation of crude stereotypes, appropriated mannerisms emanating from Black artists, complete with profanity infused into the lyrics.”
As the controversy erupted on Tuesday, Capitol quickly and unequivocally backed down and distanced itself from the project, saying it had “severed its ties with the FN Meka project, effective immediately” and added: “We offer our deepest apologies to the black community for painlessness in signing off on this work without asking enough questions about the fairness and creative process behind it. Thank you to those who have reached out to us with constructive feedback over the past two days — your input has been invaluable as we come to the decision to end our partnership with the project.”
So how did such a situation happen at a major record label owned by the world’s largest music company, Universal?
First, at a glance, the immediate impact of the project on the music industry of 2022 is obvious: hip-hop, TikTok popularity, NFT and gaming. Not only did FN Meka have 1 billion views and 10 million followers on TikTok, he was the platform’s ambassador for its first NFT drop and also had lucrative, high-profile branding deals with Amazon and Microsoft’s Xbox. FN Meka’s first (and only) Capitol release, “Florida Water,” was announced on August 14th as “the world’s first AR artist signed to a major label. Artist, influencer, and Web 3 resident all rolled into one, FN Meka blurs the line between humans and computers” and “is the #1 virtual being on the platform.” The song was a collaboration with top gaming streamer Cody “Clix” Conrod and top rapper artist Gunna (who currently is in jail in Atlanta, with labelmate Young Thug on unrelated racketeering charges).
While the only person, real or virtual, to use the N-word in “Florida Water” is Gunna, who is black, previous releases and videos feature other stereotypes. However, what is problematic about the use of Black stereotypes is who benefits from them.
While Factory New co-founder Anthony Martini emphasized in an interview with The New York Times published Tuesday that the voice actors for the character were people of color and were being paid for their work, apparently none of those involved in the project are black.
Sources close to the situation acknowledge that Capitol’s main mistake was failing to adequately vet previous work, not to mention the character and ownership of the company, before starting the project. They also noted the relatively new nature of the agreement structure. While artificial intelligence and TikTok have been prominent topics in the music industry for years, deals like the one Capitol closed with the creators of FN Meka last year are far from typical. Both Factory New co-founder Anthony Martini and a representative for Capitol confirmed that no money was advanced. This would largely render moot calls to reallocate any money generated by the project or paid by Capitol to Factory Now, though it apparently generated a certain amount of income in the 12 days it was available on streaming services, and other costs may have been involved. . (Also, the deal was struck under Capitol’s previous leadership, though a company spokesperson emphasized that its current management accepts full responsibility for the situation.) Sources also say Variety that the company was already in the process of terminating the agreement by the time the Industry Blackout statement was issued.
Further complicating the matter for Factory New is a claim by Houston rapper Kyle the Hooligan, who posted a video on Instagram claiming he wasn’t paid for his work belting out some FN Meka vocals.
“Basically, they came to me with this AI crap and [asked] I’d like to be his voice,” he recalls. “I thought it would be a collaboration. I was promised equity in the company, percentages, all of that. Next thing I know, n—s was just imagining me. I used my voice, I used my sound, I used the culture and it literally left me high and dry. I wasn’t getting a penny from anything and they got record deals.”
Martini, who did not immediately respond VarietyIn his requests for comment, he downplayed the controversy to the Times, saying he expected the deal to be canceled, citing “blogs that have latched onto a clickbait headline and created this narrative.” He also described the team behind FN Meka as “actually one of the most diverse teams you can find — I’m the only white guy involved.” Asked about the image of FN Meka being beaten by the police officer in prison, he admitted: “Some of the original content, now, if you take it out of context, it looks obviously worse or different than what was intended.”
However, Grammy-winning songwriter and activist Tiffany Red, founder of 100 Percenters, was one of many to angrily reject any explanations and excuses. Asked if she would have checked out the previous FN Meka releases before signing a deal, she exclaimed: “Yes! If your company is capitalizing on hip-hop and R&B” — which are the most impressive genres of music, both culturally and commercially, of the last 25 years — “you’ve got to have people there who care about that stuff in top positions .
“It’s not about AI or NFT – it’s about diversity and inclusion at the top of these music companies,” he continued. “It’s so frustrating: The industry says, ‘We want your voice, your talent, your rap, your dance — but we don’t want you.’ Why would they promote such a dangerous narrative? Guns, gangs, prison — all they talk about is black pain. Where is our joy? They need to be more responsible – it’s affecting our children!”
Red — who wrote an article on this topic Variety in June — acknowledged that Capitol and even Factory Now are not alone in this long-standing and ongoing situation. “They are not the only ones who need diversity and inclusion when it comes to senior leadership. It takes intention and literal representation to fix this outdated system.”
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