This month, news broke that Capitol Records had signed the label’s first “robot rapper.” FN Meka, a 3D animated character with music and lyrics supposedly crafted by artificial intelligence, was created by the company Factory New in 2019. And though neither of Factory New’s co-founders, Anthony Martini and Brandon Le, are Black, FN Meka was a mess of racist tropes. One early social media post depicted a jailed FN Meka being beaten by a corrections officer. The character’s most recent song, “Florida Water,” contained repeated use of the n-word.
On Tuesday, when the single, which has since been removed from YouTube, started making the rounds, the non-profit activist group Industry Blackout demanded an apology from Capitol, calling FN Meka “an amalgamation of gross stereotypes [and] appropriative mannerisms that derive from Black artists.” Hours later, Capitol announced it was “severing ties” with the project immediately: “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.” (Capitol Records did not respond for comment.)
At the core was a question of ethics: Who contributed to what the first AI rap star would look or sound like? In an article last year, Music Business Worldwide reported that “technically speaking, FN Meka is voiced by a human.” Earlier this week, Factory New’s Martini told the New York Times that the voice behind it was “a Black guy.”
That “Black guy” is Houston-based rapper Kyle The Hooligan. Though Kyle says he didn’t voice FN Meka for “Florida Water,” he was integral in the character’s identity and output, dating back to its creation. He says he wrote and performed FN Meka’s first three songs, “Internet,” “Moonwalkin’,” and “Speed Demon” entirely himself—a job for which he says he still hasn’t been paid. VICE spoke with the rapper about his experience voicing the rap robot.
VICE: How did you get involved in this project? What did you think that you were walking into?
Kyle The Hooligan: It was supposed to be a collaborative effort. They had this AI character that they wanted to make a rapper and [have it] live in the music world. As the voice, they told me I’d be at the forefront of it. So I started making music for them. They promised me equity and a percentage into the character, and it was like, OK, we're gonna be working together.
It was kind of cool and different for me to actually go into this AI world and still be able to do my music in my career. They were after a certain sound that was trendy at the time, so I gave them everything they wanted. They never compensated me. I basically got ghosted afterwards.
Then, it just got weird, you know? Now I’m seeing they have posted stuff about Meka getting beaten by the police, all this shit.
What year did they approach you for this project?
In 2019, Brandon [Le, one of the co-creators of Factory New], hit me and that’s when the studios and all this stuff started coming into play. When I started working with them, they weren’t doing any rapping videos, but had a couple videos here and there. But I am the original voice for the actual rapping.
How involved did they want you to be in this project?
They wanted me involved in every “cultural” or “cool” aspect of it. They wanted me to tell them if something was cool and when something was not. And ultimately, my sound and my music [shaped the character]. They got that pass because I was involved. Them cutting me out of it was like they basically used me for the culture. I didn’t know about none of this Capitol [Records] stuff going on, the deals, or anything. This was all news to me, because I thought it was over with.
I’m seeing all of this stuff, and I never even got compensated. At the time, I was a young, indie artist trying to come up. I thought it would be a good opportunity to lead this and get some equity. I trusted [Le], and it was nothing but broken promises.
You also mentioned on your Instagram that you were ghosted. At what point in this project did you no longer hear from the team?
Our last point of communication was somewhere around 2020, possibly 2021. We sent a few DMs here and there. I was supposed to get paid last year, but I guess they never got to it. I’m not too sure. I thought it was over and that they weren’t doing FN Meka anymore, so I went on with my life. Now, I’m seeing I got replaced. There’s a new voice—a different voice, but they blew up with all of the original records I did.
Do you know who this new voice is?
Someone DMed saying that he was the second voice, but I didn’t really go too deep into it.
What was the recording process like? To my understanding, they’ve explained that the AI generates the lyrics and humans perform it.
I wrote and performed the songs and just pitched it up so it didn't sound like me. But if you really listen to FN, and listen to my music, you can hear little things that will give it away that it’s me.
They basically wanted something trendy, 6ix9ine was popular at the time, so I wrote it in that style, because that’s what they wanted. I do rockstar, melodic type of music. So I needed something different for the character. It wasn’t no AI—it was my voice, pitched up.
How long had you been making music before you were approached by Brandon?
I was making music since the seventh grade. I was in a group called YTV. I started taking it seriously after high school, when I moved to New York around 2016. I used to be in a group called GØDD COMPLEXx with SAINt JHN, Clint’n Lord, Mike Geez, and my cousin Pyrex. I was already doing music. I already had motion going on. That’s probably how they found me.
Anthony Martini is quoted as saying Meka is voiced by a “Black guy,” but your name wasn’t otherwise publicly mentioned in relation to the FN Meka project. Was there any expectation that you would remain anonymous during this rollout?
It wasn’t an expectation. I was gonna keep it lowkey, also, because I didn’t want to tie it into my actual career. I wanted to keep it as a side thing. I wanted to keep my personal career separate from AI because I didn’t really understand it. But I felt like it was cool to get into.
[Martini] ended up hitting me up, letting me know he’s involved now. I feel like they hit me up basically to be on some, We have to get the Black guy back involved, because it’s looking crazy. He hit me up after the news came out about FN saying the n-word, saying, “How would you feel about working with us again?" If they would have never put me out and just left me high and dry, it would’ve never even got to this point.
Brandon Le told Genius that FN Meka is an amalgamation of Icy Narco, Lil Pump, Trippie Redd, and 6ix9ine. Since you voiced FN, why do you think that they left you out of that narrative?
I’m not so sure. Maybe to keep it anonymous. Maybe not to collide with what I’m doing. We could have really done something great here. I’m an independent artist, I was just trying to feed my family. It’s really cool to see where it ended up—it’s one of the biggest things that's being talked about right now. The shit really got a record deal, from what I did. I just want to shine light on independent artists working hard. I’m sharing my story so this doesn’t happen again, because it’s not cool to take advantage of people’s hard work.
Do you have any regrets about how this ended?
Signing is cool because you have all the eyes on you, but this showed me that just my voice alone can make something that's not even real pop. Once people are really tuned into who Kyle The Hooligan is as an artist, then they’ll really know my story. I want people to actually know what I’m about—not just this.
Correction [08/25/22]: A previous version of this article stated that Kyle The Hooligan is Atlanta-based. He is based in Houston.
Kristin Corry is a senior staff writer for VICE.