When Artificial Intelligence Makes Black Music, Who Really Wins?

When the artificial intelligence-generated track “Heart On My Sleeve”, featuring Drake and The Weeknd’s voices — without their consent — went viral on TikTok and YouTube last April, it ended the conversation about AI music as a short-lived fad. The song, created by an anonymous user named Ghostwriter, was yanked off streaming services less than a month after being uploaded but had already amassed over 11 million views on social media, according to Rolling Stone, as people believed it was a real collaboration. Months later, the faux Drake and The Weeknd track spurred Grammy nomination chatter after being submitted for consideration. However, Recording Academy chief Harvey Mason Jr. took to Instagram on September 8th 2023, to address conflicting reports that the track could be eligible for an award. “I’m sorry, but I have to clear up some of this bad and really inaccurate information that’s starting to float around,” Mason Jr. said in a video on Instagram. “Even though it was written by a human creator, the vocals were not legally obtained, the vocals were not cleared by the label or the artists, and the song is not commercially available. And because of that, it’s not eligible.” 
By then, concerns around the powers of AI in music hit a fever pitch, with many questioning the future implications for artistic creativity and music distribution. But amid the scandal, something else deeply concerning about AI in music went overlooked: its target on Black artists. In addition to Drake and The Weeknd, the likeness of other Black artists appeared on a slew of original AI songs and covers that surfaced online over the last year — including Beyoncé, 2Pac, The Notorious B.I.G., Rihanna, and Kanye West They aren’t the only examples of Black artists being reference points for AI creations. FN Meka, the “world’s first” AI-powered rapper, was signed to and dropped by Capitol Records in 2022 following intense backlash for appropriation and digital blackface, as his appearance of face tattoos, flashy jewelry, a green braided mohawk, and dark skin mocked stereotypes of Black rappers. 
These viral instances are an obvious sign of the changing times, as AI is slowly becoming a more commonplace tool for music creation and artist discovery. However, more often than not, it’s Black artists — both dead and alive — and their music that we see at the center of controversy surrounding the AI conversation. Music marketing specialist Junae Brown tells Unbothered she hasn’t seen “any other artists that were not Black have such huge, deepfake situations happening” with their music. “Yeah, they’re going to try to copy some pop stuff and other things,” Brown, CEO of Browned 2 Perfection, says, “But what do we see first? Drake, The Weeknd, Kendrick Lamar...” — that is, Black artists. Producer and Recording Academy member Mason Taylor suggests that Black artists are primary targets in these situations because of how much of a force they’ve been across all genres. “I think the obvious answer is people come to Black artists for the creativity,” he says. “I have to chalk that up to the fact that we’re the most creative ones. We were the ones that came with the pen in so many different ways, so people wonder, ‘Well, let’s see if we put this Black creative with [that] Black creative’s instrumentation, and see if this song is just as good, or maybe we’ll make it twice as good.’ Which [is] scary to me.”

If you think about when Black music arrived on the mainstream scene ... Where white people were taking soul music and stamping it and making it their own — this is a reintroduction of that through technology.

Grammy-nominated artist Syleena Johnson
That fear harkens back to the 1950s and 1960s when the music of Black artists like Little Richard, Big Mama Thornton, Chuck Berry, and The Supremes was stolen, whitewashed, and popularized by white acts like Elvis Presley, Phil Collins, The Beach Boys, and Pat Boone. That was scary, too. However, what emerging AI tech is currently being used to do to major Black artists in music — in some ways appropriating, duplicating, and profiting off of their work through AI-generated Black entities (like an FN Meka) — feels downright terrifying. Even if some haven’t spoken up about it yet, others, like Grammy-nominated artist Syleena Johnson, are admittedly shaken about what the technology signals for the role of Black artists in the future. “I think that because technology is expanding so much, AI is probably allowing for so much [innovation] that it could put actual human beings out of work,” she says. With the way AI can replicate an artist’s specific voice, lyrics, and musical style, many wonder if this is where the industry’s future is headed and if we (Black creators) will even have a place in it. 
Considering how others outside our community have historically undermined Black music, Johnson suggests that history is repeating itself through AI’s current rise in the industry. “If you think about when Black music arrived on the mainstream scene [and crossed over to white audiences], I’m talking about the Etta James, Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, and Aretha Franklin [eras] — the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s eras of music where white people were taking soul music and stamping it and making it their own — this is a reintroduction of that through technology,” the “All Falls Down” singer-songwriter notes. “Everything that comes when we have new technology or a way to work smarter and not harder, evil people always figure out a way to make it work for them so it can’t work for others. And that’s what this example is.”
Johnson isn’t the only Black artist worried about the “evils” of the people using AI compromising music integrity. In April 2023, rap legend and producer Pete Rock angrily wrote on X (formerly Twitter), “AI is mad disrespectful and if y’all don’t see that but think this AI stuff is dope then you are a part of the problem. They can’t beat Black culture so what do they do when they can’t measure natural talent? Silly shit like AI!” Rock wrote. “AI is such a cowardly act that bears no real soul or feeling.” His criticisms joined similar expressions from other industry voices, like ​​prolific audio engineer and producer Young Guru, who spoke out last year over a viral clip that showed a man using a filter to create an AI-generated voice that mimicked Kendrick Lamar. “This has dominated my Howard group chat for a couple days,” Guru said alongside the clip in a since-deleted Instagram post, per Complex. “I’m at the point where I can voice my concerns with our current state of AI. I have followed as many versions of what AI could do for some years now. I remember being at MIT and students showing me a project where they were actively feeding a computer ‘all’ the jazz records that ever existed. So that AI could analyze and create music in any style of any musician. I didn’t think we would get here this fast with the voice.”

We need AI in all parts of our life, but as far as music goes, we believe in creating art with integrity and [making] music from the ground up ... We have to keep our integrity as we move through the music industry.

Tiara LEWIS of R&B duo Tyra + Tiara
Years ago, AI seemed like a far-out concept that could hardly dominate any industry, let alone the music landscape, but times have quickly changed. According to new research from music distribution company Ditto Music (per Mixmag), 59.5% of artists already use AI to create music, while another 47% are willing to use the tech for future songwriting. According to a survey of 1,200 of its users, the company’s findings also revealed that over half would consider using AI in several other aspects of music making, including production, mixing, mastering, and creating album artwork. Despite the open-minded perspective of AI being a futuristic approach to music innovation, some people still view the rapidly growing AI frontier as an imminent danger to the music industry, and rightfully so, as dozens of articles about its harm pop up when you google it. But the reality is AI is here and has been since 1956 when university professor Lejaren Hiller created the “first substantial piece of music composed on a computer” —and by a computer — as noted in his New York Times obituary. His creation marked a foundational moment in AI development. And now, nearly 70 years later, producer Taylor says he’s witnessed the music industry finally “get a grasp” of AI, with other producers using it via production software. But while the functions of AI are finetuned, there are still plenty of questions about its legal aspects and ethics penetrating the music world. How will ownership standards be set? Will AI royalties exist? Are artists and labels able to copyright voices to protect against infringement? Can Black artists financially benefit when AI copies their pioneered genres and music styles? A fully established infrastructure for such queries has yet to exist. Although some artists have taken matters into their own hands to stay ahead of the AI curve.
While R&B sister duo and aerospace engineers Tyra and Tiara Lewis, of Tyra + Tiara, are apprehensive about AI’s takeover of music, they have still adopted solutions to balance the growth of tech with the way they craft music — similar to how hip-hop revolutionized the music world through the sampling technique, or how DJs upgraded their equipment to keep up with today’s digital age. By fusing math, science, and technology, the pair of independent artists have conceptualized a new way to write, produce, and engineer their own authentic projects from scratch. “We need AI in all parts of our life,” Tyra acknowledges, “but as far as music goes, we believe in creating art with integrity and [making] music from the ground up.” Tiara adds, “The younger generation needs to understand the world of AI, and I think we are slowly developing that, but we have to keep our integrity as we move through the music industry.” Even Johnson, despite her reservations, has found AI helpful in creating music videos, as seen in her “Monsters in the Closet” visual released last year. “I used pictures of me when I was a child, and each little girl in the picture sang the song,” she explains. “Very, very, very creative.” 
And then there are others a bit more daring in claiming an actual stake in the AI music uprising and, thus, putting Black innovation at the forefront, like legendary producer Timbaland — who teased his own track featuring AI-generated vocals of Biggie last May. Shortly after, he announced a new venture to Forbes, in which he planned to commercialize AI software to “evolutionize how songs are made.” “It’s going to really be a new way of creating and a new way of generating money with less costs,” Timbaland claimed. He said his motivation for the new idea, which includes utilizing AI voice filters, stems from an underrepresented Black America in the wealth that results from world-changing tech creations and investments. “We’re the culture man, so I at least got to come in the door,” Timbaland added. “Usually, someone else gets to it, and it blows up.” After seeing “amateurish” attempts at creating AI voices, the beatmaker also said he wants to establish a system the industry and consumers can trust, one still based on human involvement with a verification system that shows AI authorization. “I don’t want to be afraid of what’s going on,” he noted of the AI revolution. “I want to be the guy to figure out a solution.”

I don’t want to be afraid of what’s going on. I want to be the guy to span out a solution.

timbaland on ai in music
For some, a solution to combat the rise of musical theft with AI doesn’t appear to include any real benefit for Black artists, even if someone like Timbaland, a revered Black creator, is getting involved with the technology. As Brown points out, “We already have to fight for ownership. We already have to fight for credit. We already have to fight for compensation. Who wants to then have some random person, in a random basement, create a whole thing out of AI just simply using your voice and your livelihood, and then it goes completely viral? They’re making money, doing this and doing that. That feels kind of crummy as an artist.” 
Contrary to popular belief, AI music is as much a concern for artists as it is for consumers intrigued by the computer-generated offerings — especially those who still crave real music made by real people, as an AI takeover could threaten the existence of authentic music as we know it. What will we do if an AI program fails to capture the raw, gritty vocals our favorite soul singers have blessed us with or the catchy rap ad-libs that propel a hit song to success? The core elements of musicianship can’t afford to be lost to soulless, AI-generated concepts. We, Black people, cannot afford to lose the essence of what has made our music exceptional for generations. “If you look at the industry right now, imitation is becoming the real thing,” Johnson says. “Unfortunately, that is why AI has been able to exist. As we keep making things easier [with AI], [music] keeps getting thinner and thinner. And so now we can’t be surprised that we have AI creating music, creating full-blown artists, because this is what we’ve allowed. This is what we’ve facilitated. This is what we’ve stamped. So this is what wins.”
So, how do we win the battle against AI music? Only time will tell how the technology advances in the future. But for now, the work starts with fighting for AI protections for Black artists, and it continues with Black creators finding more ways to use AI for their benefit. How we create and consume music is constantly changing, and the hype around AI being a game-changing tool for artists and the music industry only increases by the day. Whether that tool is used for good or bad is up to who programs it. But as Brown notes, “AI is based on human cognitive function, and I think in knowing and remembering that, we can hopefully protect Black artists and also propel them forward into what’s next.” 

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