Hot Takes: Fear Not, AI Is Not Coming For Afropop

how would the super-fast Artificial Intelligence influence our beloved music?

In 2012, an up-and-coming rapper named Boogey released a mixtape titled ‘Artificial Intelligence’. Replete with samples of robotic voices and braggadocious, highly technical writing, the project would become acclaimed, putting the young rapper in all-time great conversations afterwards. More than ten years later, the actual AI has again resurfaced in African music, this time not a narrative prop but the real thing. Or rather, the closest thing to the real thing.  

Artificial Intelligence, which is most commonly referred to by its acronym of AI, is hardly a new phenomenon in science. From the 1940s, pioneering cybernetic scientists such as Norbert Wiener wanted to inculcate “a whole theory of control and communication, both in animals and machines.” With the Second World War in flux, many nations were finding new ways of being efficient in their tasks without overt reliance on the human factor. 

Through the years and with much innovation, AI has morphed into a cultural breakthrough. Useful in just about any field, from helping detect the coronavirus to being utilised by filmmakers, it’s been perhaps the most divisive technological development in recent history. And for the first time, it’s seriously being considered among music audiences, as an alternative to the hard-wrought style of creating and releasing songs. 

Some days ago, the AI enthusiast Roberto Nickson went viral with a video of him reproducing Kanye West’s vocals through Artificial Intelligence. A jarring and revealing experience, the video brought to the fore how much popular music could change in the coming years. “All you have to do is record reference vocals and replace it with a trained model of any musician you like,” says Nickson in the video. “Keep in mind, this is the worst that AI will ever be. In just a few years, every popular musician will have multiple trained models of them.”

Watching that video, I found myself asking the question: “How would this affect Afropop? For better or worse?” The consensus on the programming is that music creation could become lazy as a result. What used to inspire musicians to sit around studios and soak creative energy might just be taken away; then you’d have automated music and would there be a need for actual producers and musicians? It’s an ethical dilemma as much as a technological one, but if this present circumstance is any illumination, popular African music has always been inching towards this moment. 

In the past, live instruments were the most acceptable form of music creation. Except for a few genres with electronic history, most of the sounds emerging from Africa—whether Highlife, Juju or Kwaito—were created through the peculiar rhythm of human ears gauging the weight and pairing of instruments. Then came laptops and software like Fruity Loops (now known as FL Studio), which revolutionised and democratised production emerging into the 2000s. Even the later invention of Auto-Tune was initially considered a threat to natural voices, but years later, it’s a practice that’s been subtly ingrained into music. 

The thing about Africa is that sometimes we learn about technological advancements too late. Since Western countries and governments understand the essence of research and fund them adequately, it’s understandable how knowledge about such conventions would be widely available over there before sparking serious conversation in the continent. To this end, Afropop may have already been incorporating techniques of a lesser-developed AI into the music-creation process. Being cultural vagrants who oscillate between several worlds, musicians are well-placed to carry these conventions into the sphere of popular discourse. 

A similar case happened during the NFT rave of the past few years. Quite familiar among visual artists already, it was the entry of musicians like Don Jazzy and BNXN which brought it a wider reach. Suddenly more people wanted to know what NFTs were and how they worked. The premise is simple: technology that is distinctly tailored to music has sparingly been made, rather it’s musicians who’ve gone out of their way to learn these techniques. Still consistent is the human factor, because it demands a certain level of measure for any credible art to come about. Another argument arises: NFTs as a way of sharing music haven’t retained their popularity because it relies on widespread audience awareness, which unfortunately isn’t present. On the other hand, using AI can be solely executed by the artists themselves, and that’s a nuance worthy of recognising. 

In an article, Jonathan G. Shaw, who is a lecturer and author of ‘The South African Music Business’ related his experiences of AI and how it could be adapted to music. His point stands similar to mine; fractions of AI are already in use, such as the digital audio workstation (DAW) and modern synthesiser, while across film, fashion and gaming, there are several AI platforms which can instantly create music patterned to the peculiarities of any given piece. 

His most poignant thought was however the legal implications, which were also raised on Nickson’s Twitter thread. “If AI generation works,” he asks, “who will own the copyright of these works? If all the AI is doing is scanning historical works, identifying patterns and reordering them, is this not an example of a derivative rather than an original? Whoever owns the original would also own the adaptation. Perhaps the owner of the software may own its output, or would the user?”

Art is the most distinctly human of mankind’s advancements. While AI might help in its creation process, the random and unpredictable quality of an artist is what lends the form its surprise and acclaim. A possible downside of AI making music is its possible reiteration of cliched perception, depending on the software and the uniqueness of the orders given to it. 

The case of FN Meka points us in a curious direction. A major music-meets-technology news from last year, the AI-created rapper was later dropped by the label Capitol Records following complaints of its perpetuation of racist stereotypes. Beyond his green-coloured dreadlocks and jewellery, which establish his gritty outlook, a video of Meka being beaten by a police officer while saying the N-word demonstrated the logic of garbage in, garbage out. It was an implicit showcase of America’s prejudices against Black men, the single story that has so often plagued the mind’s audacity to wander.

Situated in the delicate position of being a global phenomenon, Afropop is learning to love itself. Doing this includes building the structures back at home so there’s something to return to. However, the conversation about ownership of sound has frequently come up, about the chances of African musicians when their white counterparts begin creating music that could pass as Afropop. Would they not shut down their awards to us and begin recognising themselves? 

While a valid concern, it’s quite reactionary to think they would immediately get the sauce that enlivens African pop music. If anything, it’s most possible that the reward systems might be considerably altered in their direction, but the pristine quality of music that’s made from the distinct experiences associated with its genre is unrivalled. This would likely be the influence of Artificial Intelligence on our popular music as well. Art would always need a guiding hand and a human hand, so Afropop is safe. It’s not coming for us because it’s already here. 

Featured image credits/NATIVE

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