“The whole internet loves Milkshake Duck, a lovely duck that drinks milkshakes! *5 seconds later* We regret to inform you the duck is racist…”
The Milkshake Duck meme, originally tweeted in 2016, will be springing into many people’s minds today, after Capitol Records announced that it was severing ties with FN Meka, a virtual artist whose signing had been recently trumpeted as a coup for both the label and for AI-powered avatars more generally.
Well, that went sour pretty quickly once people started listening to FN Meka’s music. Campaigning organisation Industry Blackout’s open letter to Capitol is a good place to start to understand the criticism of the project.
“While we applaud innovation in tech that connects listeners to music and enhances the experience, we find fault in the lack of awareness in how offensive this caricature is,” they wrote. “It is a direct insult to the Black community and our culture. An amalgamation of gross stereotypes, appropriative mannerisms that derive from Black artists, complete with slurs infused in lyrics.”
Those lyrics included use of the n-word, which quickly led to questions – and, indeed, anger – about the diversity of the team at startup Factory New that created FN Meka and the AI systems behind him.
Although Factory New’s founder Anthony Martini pushed back on that – “not this malicious plan of white executives… actually one of the most diverse teams you can get — I’m the only white person involved,” he told the New York Times – as the criticism grew, Capitol pulled the plug on its involvement in the project.
“CMG has severed ties with the FN Meka project, effective immediately,” said the label in a statement. “We offer our deepest apologies to the Black community for our insensitivity in signing this project without asking enough questions about equity and the creative process behind it. We thank those who have reached out to us with constructive feedback in the past couple of days — your input was invaluable as we came to the decision to end our association with the project.”
A lesson learned well beyond Capitol’s offices? Let’s hope so, given the growing number of AI-powered avatar-artist startups and projects in 2022. A positive outcome would be for everyone to ask more questions about the systems AND the humans behind these artists, and for the companies launching them to address these issues from day one. Yes, it may dispel a little of the mystery and/or suspension of disbelief in the avatar, but that’s a challenge worth bearing.
As for FN Meka, he still has more than 10 million followers on TikTok, the platform that fuelled his high-profile signing in the first place. Whether the project is quietly shut down or reworked in some way in response to the criticism remains to be seen.
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