From Kendrick Lamar to Ye, can the music industry finally reclaim deepfakes from their malicious intent?

Deepfake technology has been associated with a long list of dark, bizarre, and mildly horrifying digital trends over the past few years. Nonconsensual celebrity porn, dystopian political disinformation, and others have all been tech-related, giving it an air of controversy. The emergent AI tool has even been used, in some cases, as a scapegoat, as in this strange cheerleader vaping scandal we have seen gaining momentum in 2021. The predominant public concern about deepfakes is that many are unable to detect whether something they encounter online is real or not. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) even created a ongoing research project that lets you know how close you can spot the difference. The difficulty of identifying what is real versus fabricated is a testament to how believable and realistic these computer-generated simulations can seem.

Another significant concern with deepfakes is their problematic nature when it comes to subverting the truth without the consent of those in the images being transformed. The Guardian Science Editor, Ian Sample, deepfakes defined in January 2020 as “the 21st century’s answer to Photoshopping”. Leveraging deep learning, a form of artificial intelligence, the technology is capable of creating fake events, mostly in the form of videos, although it can also be applied to photos and audio.

The sample noted that many deepfakes found online are porn-related. At the time of writing his article two years ago, until 96 percent deepfakes discovered by the artificial intelligence company DeepTrace involved simulation porn of female celebrities without their consent. This nonconsensual media is created by mapping the well-documented faces of celebrities onto the bodies of pornstars. While female-related deepfakes are mostly explicit content, DeepTrace’s report also found that males targeted by the technology are largely found on YouTube and that the content they are featured in tends to be based on comments.

Although deepfakes seem to have only become more controversial over the years, high-profile musicians have recently used the technology in a different way, in the form of music videos. May 9, 2022, a few days before the release of his album Mr. Morale and Big Steps, Kendrick Lamar released a music video for his single ‘The heart part 5‘ on Youtube.

In the six-minute video, the award-winning rapper is seen from the chest up, wearing a simple white t-shirt and bandana against a red background. During the song, his face changes to an array of famous black men, from OJ Simpson and Kanye West to Will Smith and Kobe Bryant. Perhaps the most significant moment in the music video is when Lamar turns into fire Nipsey Hussle then raps from his perspective on his own murder from beyond the grave. While eerie at times, the film pushes the boundaries in terms of artistic expression, allowing Lamar to vividly complement his lyrics with realistic depictions of other renowned black men.

Pitchfork Senior Editor Marc Hogan Noted that “while the prospect of fake videos that seem legitimate has many disturbing implications, it is also a perfect tool for an artist who has long taken pleasure in using a range of voices in his work and destabilizing the concepts of identity of listeners”. By using emerging technology in a “wrong” – or rather innovative – way, Lamar was able to create groundbreaking visuals that further speak his truth using the visual language of the 21st century. Pitchfork Writer, Dylan Green, observed that the deepfakes, in this case, “amplify Lamar’s words and serve to visualize a complicated lineage through the darkness and pressures of fame”.

The same week, Kanye “Ye” West shared the music video for his track ‘Party life‘, which used similar deepfake-style clips. The music video featured a series of photos from the rapper’s childhood, each given new life through AI automation. Although the animation looks almost cartoonish compared to the flawless verisimilitude of “The Heart Part 5”, the two videos demonstrate the wide range of artistic expressions that deepfake technology can achieve, whether it’s to reinvigorate past voices and images à la Kanye, or drawing sharp comparisons between contemporaries à la Kendrick.

Deepfake technology, while synonymous with videos, can also closely mimic voices, which has difficult implications for its use in the music industry. When AI is employed in this way, it is called voice skins. Those whose voices are widely documented online – think podcasters, YouTubers, politicians and musicians – are more likely to be seamlessly reproduced by technology because there is more data (here, thousands of conversation minutes) from which to draw.

In April 2020, audio files from Jay Z rap ‘Hamlet’ soliloquies and Billy Joel’s’We didn’t light the fire‘ that no one had ever heard before surfaced online. A comment on this latest video succinctly describes the realistic-yet-fake audio clips as “entirely computer-generated using a text-to-speech model trained on Jay-Z’s speech patterns.” The videos have been removed at the request of Roc Nationthe entertainment agency founded by the American rapper, but which was later put back on the YouTube channel Vocal synthesis which features a range of high profile voice skins, from former presidents to famous comedians. Although the audio clips undoubtedly sound like Jay-Z, although they are not a perfect replica-legal experts involved in the case do not believe that any existing copyright laws are violated by deepfakes like these. In fact, many industry players see this technology as a new form of sampling.

Deepfakes have had a strained relationship with the music industry — rappers, in particular — over the past few years, as many navigate how to seize the possibilities of technology. By creatively retrieving deepfakes, Lamar and West have potentially pivoted their role in the music industry, shedding new light on the otherwise malicious technology. While AI simulations still have unsettling implications in many ways, it will be interesting to witness the journey as it becomes another tool for artistic and musical expression. And, as deepfake technology continues to become more accessible to the average internet user, this style of synthetic music video has even more potential for growth, for better or for worse.

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