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Presented in its worst possible light, the FN Meka controversy — in which Capitol signed, and then quickly dropped, a virtual rapper that used the N-word in its songs and was depicted in racially stereotypical scenarios in videos — seems like an inconceivable blunder. But a closer look at the details, along with conversations with sources close to the situation, suggests that, while inexcusable and loaded with oversights, Capitol’s role in the FN Meka fiasco may not have been as insensitive as it might seem.

However, above all, it is yet another glaring result of the lack of diversity throughout the music industry — not just at Capitol, not just at major companies, but everywhere.

At the center of this particular issue is not just the use of racial stereotypes by the FN Meka character, which was created by the music company Factory Now and has more than 1 billion views and 10 million followers on TikTok alone, but also the issue of its ownership. Specifically, the character uses the N-word in several releases (although not the one song released and then withdrawn by Capitol), and an early video depicts the character being beaten by a white police officer while in prison. And although the character was voiced and the music created by some Black creators, Factory Now apparently has no Black stakeholders who stand to profit from its use of Black stereotypes.

“We find fault in the lack of awareness in how offensive this caricature is,” the activist organization Industry Blackout wrote in an open letter posted to social media, which also called for the donation of any funds expended by Capitol on the project to charity and the budgets of Black artists on the label. “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.”

As the controversy snowballed on Tuesday, Capitol quickly and unambiguously dropped and distanced itself from the project, stating that it has “severed ties with the FN Meka project, effective immediately” and added: “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.”

So, how did such a situation happen to a major label that is owned by the world’s largest music company, Universal?

First, at a glance, the project’s immediate appeal in the 2022 music industry is obvious: hip-hop, TikTok popularity, NFTs and gaming. Not only did FN Meka have 1 billion views and 10 million followers on TikTok, it 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 14 as “the world’s first A.R. artist to sign with a major label. Artist, influencer and Web 3 resident, all in 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 chart-topping rapper artist Gunna (who is currently in prison in Atlanta, with labelmate Young Thug on racketeering charges unrelated to the song).

While the only person, real or virtual, who used the N-word on “Florida Water” is Gunna, who is Black, previous releases and videos feature it and other stereotypes. Yet as problematic as the use of Black stereotypes is who stands to benefit from them.

While Factory New cofounder Anthony Martini stressed in an interview with the New York Times published Tuesday that the voice actors for the character were people of color and were paid for their work, apparently none of the stakeholders in the project are Black.  

Sources close to the situation acknowledge that Capitol’s primary error was a failure to sufficiently vet that previous work, not to mention the character and company’s ownership, before embarking on the project. They also noted the relatively new nature of the deal structure. While AI and TikTok have been prominent topics in the music industry for years, deals such as the one Capitol struck with FN Meka’s creators last year are hardly standard; both Factory New cofounder Anthony Martini and a representative for Capitol confirmed that no money was advanced. That would largely render moot calls for a redistribution of any money generated by the project or paid by Capitol to Factory Now, although it presumably did generate a certain amount of income in the 12 days it was available on streaming services, and other expenses may have been involved. (Also, the deal was struck under Capitol’s previous leadership, although a rep for the company stressed that its current management accepts full responsibility for the situation.) Sources also tell Variety that the company was already in the process of terminating the deal by the time the Industry Blackout statement was issued.  

Complicating the matter further for Factory New is the claim by Houston-based rapper Kyle the Hooligan, who posted a video on Instagram claiming that he wasn’t paid for his work voicing some FN Meka vocals.

“Basically, they came to me with this AI shit and [asked] would I want to be the voice of it,” he recalled. “I thought it was going to be a collaboration. They promised me equity in the company, percentages, all this stuff. Next thing I know, n—s just ghosted me. Used my voice, used my sound, used the culture, and literally just left me high and dry. I didn’t get a dime off of nothing and they got record deals.”

Martini, who did not immediately respond to Variety’s requests for comment, played down the controversy to the Times, saying he anticipated the deal’s cancellation, citing “blogs that have latched onto a clickbait headline and created this narrative.” He also characterized the team behind FN Meka was “actually one of the most diverse teams you can get — I’m the only white person involved.” Asked about the image of FN Meka being beaten by the police officer in prison, he acknowledged, “Some of the early content, now if you take it out of context, it obviously looks worse or different than it was intended.”

However, Grammy-winning songwriter and activist Tiffany Red, founder of the 100 Percenters, was one of many who angrily dismissed any explanations and excuses. Asked if she would have vetted FN Meka’s previous releases before signing a deal, she exclaimed, “Yes! If your company is benefiting from hip-hop and R&B” — which are the most impactful genres of music, both culturally and commercially, of the past 25 years — “you need to have people in there who care about this stuff in top positions.

“This isn’t about AI or NFTs — this is about diversity and inclusion at the top of these music companies,” she continued. “It’s so frustrating: The industry says ‘We want your voice, your talent, your swagger, 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 have to be more responsible — this influences our kids!”

Red — who wrote an op-ed on this subject for Variety in June — acknowledged that Capitol and even Factory Now are hardly alone in this long-running and ongoing situation. “They’re not the only ones in need of diversity and inclusion when it comes to senior-level leadership. It takes intention and literal representation to fix this outdated system.”

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