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Saturday, June 10 • 10:00am - 10:20am
A(I) Rapper: Who Voices Hip Hop's Future?

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In recent years, the world of hip-hop has become a rich site for the cultivation of techno-optimistic projections about the creative potential of AI-driven artistic tools. As STS scholar Ruha Benjamin notes in the introduction of her seminal book on racial bias in tech, Race After Technology (2019), the use of hip-hop iconography (and icons) to sell the promise of AI is really no coincidence, stating: “What better aesthetic than a Black hip-hop artist to represent AI as empowering, forward-thinking, cool - the antithesis of anti-Black discrimination? Not to mention that, as an art form, hip-hop has long pushed the boundaries of technological experimentation through beatboxing, deejaying, sampling, and more” (27). In recent years developments at the intersection of rap music and AI have taken the form of an AI rapper named FN Meka “signing” to Capitol Records (although he was subsequently dropped soon after, following public backlash regarding his caricatured rap persona and complaints of exploitation from the rapper who had allegedly voiced Meka), and the circulation of viral deepfakes built from tools like Uberduck AI, which allow users to ventriloquize popular rappers like Jay-Z and Kanye West and use their voices to “perform” any written text within the platform. As a black feminist rapper and STS scholar I worry about what these developments could mean for the future of hip-hop innovators. Beyond that, as I articulated in a recent Public Books article about these developments, I want to consider how “we can be more proactive in developing rap compositional tools that prioritize safety, and vitally, pleasure for those who are the most at risk of being erased within hip-hop culture and on the platforms built by big tech”.

In this talk, I will explore these questions as they have emerged for me in the process of working with the team at Glow Up Games, a women-of-color led game studio, to develop a rap composition feature for a mobile game about the HBO scripted series Insecure. Drawing on the work of ethnomusicologist Matthew D. Morrison, I first illustrate how the uses of AI as a tool to increasingly separate black artists from their artistry must be seen as a reflection of “Blacksound,” what Morrison calls “the “sonic and embodied legacy of blackface performance as the origin of all popular music, entertainment, and culture in the United States.” In doing so I hope to establish a much needed dialogue between critical media studies scholars who have identified phenomena like “digital blackface” to speak to the myriad ways in which non-black people have adopted black personhood through digital platforms, the work of STS scholars like Dr. Ruha Benjamin and Safiya Noble, who apply the lens of critical race studies to call out systemic algorithmic oppression, and the countless black studies scholars, ethnomusicologists, music writers, and artists, who have long called attention to the exploitative and racist dynamics that shape life in the music industry for black artists. Ultimately I wish to share how my experience of co-designing a rap composition tool might offer a promising pathway towards developing sites of resistance against the insidious possibilities for AI-generated rap through the use of culturally engaged, hip-hop feminist design principles.

avatar for Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo

Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo

David S. Josephson Assistant Professor of Music, Brown University

Saturday June 10, 2023 10:00am - 10:20am EDT
PS 401 (Design Center)