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

By Emma O'Regan-Reidy

Jun 5, 2022


Deepfake technology has been associated with a long list of dark, bizarre and slightly horrifying digital trends over recent years. Nonconsensual celebrity porn, dystopian political disinformation, and more have all been linked to the technology, giving it a controversial air. The emerging AI tool has even been used, in some cases, as a scapegoat—such as in that strange cheerleader vaping scandal we saw gain traction in 2021. The predominant worry that the general public has about deepfakes is that many are unable to detect whether something they encounter online is real or not. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has even created an ongoing research project which lets you know how well you can spot the difference. The difficulty of identifying what’s real as opposed to fabricated testifies to how believable and lifelike these computer-generated simulations can seem.

Another significant concern about deepfakes is their problematic nature when it comes to subverting truth without the consent of those in the images being transformed. The Guardian’s science editor, Ian Sample, defined deepfakes in January 2020 as being “the 21st century’s answer to Photoshopping.” Leveraging deep learning, a form of artificial intelligence, the technology is able to create fake events, primarily in the form of videos—though it can be applied to photos and audio as well.

Sample noted that many deepfakes found online are linked to porn. At the time of writing his article two years ago, up to 96 per cent of deepfakes found by AI firm 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 deepfakes related to women are primarily explicit content, DeepTrace’s report also revealed that men targeted by the technology are largely found on YouTube and the content they’re featured in tends to be commentary-based.

Though deepfakes seem to have only grown more controversial over the years, top-tier musicians have recently employed the technology in a different way—in the form of music videos. On 9 May 2022, days before the release of his album Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers, Kendrick Lamar dropped a music video for his single ‘The Heart Part 5’ on YouTube.

In the six-minute-long video, the award-winning rapper is seen from the chest up, wearing a simple white tee and bandana against a red backdrop. Over the course of the song, his face morphs into an array of famous black men, from OJ Simpson and Kanye West to Will Smith and Kobe Bryant. The most significant moment of the music video is perhaps when Lamar transforms into the late Nipsey Hussle and then raps from his perspective about his own murder from beyond the grave. Though uncanny at times, the film pushes the envelope in terms of artistic expression, allowing Lamar to vividly complement his lyrics with realistic depictions of other renowned black men.

Pitchfork senior staff writer Marc Hogan noted that “while the prospect of fake videos that seem legit has plenty of disturbing implications, it’s also a perfect tool for an artist who has long delighted in employing a range of voices in his work and destabilizing listeners’ concepts of identity.” By using emerging technology in a ‘wrong’—or rather innovative—way, Lamar was able to create groundbreaking visuals that further express his truth by using the visual language of the 21st century. Pitchfork writer, Dylan Green, observed that deepfakes, in this instance, “a​​mplify Lamar’s words and serve to visualize a complicated lineage through Blackness and the pressures of celebrity.”

In the same week, Kanye “Ye” West shared the music video for his track ‘Life of the Party’, which employed similar deepfake-styled clips. The music video featured an array of photos from the rapper’s childhood, each of which received new life—thanks to AI automation. Though the animation seems almost cartoon-like in comparison to the seamless verisimilitude of ‘The Heart Part 5’, both the videos demonstrate the wide range of artistic expression that deepfake technology can achieve, be it reinvigorating past voices and images à la Kanye, or drawing sharp comparisons between contemporaries à la Kendrick.

Deepfake technology, though synonymous with videos, can also closely imitate voices, fostering uneasy implications for its usage in the music industry. When the AI is employed in this way, it’s referred to as voice skins. Those whose voices are widely documented online—think podcasters, YouTubers, politicians and musicians—are more likely to be seamlessly replicated by the technology, as there’s more data (here, thousands of minutes of them speaking) to draw from.

Back in April 2020, audio files of Jay-Z rapping soliloquies from ‘Hamlet’ and Billy Joel’s ‘We Didn’t Start The Fire’ that nobody had ever heard before, surfaced online. A comment on the latter video succinctly described the realistic but fake audio clips as “entirely computer-generated using a text-to-speech model trained on the speech patterns of Jay-Z.” The videos were taken down at the request of Roc Nation, the entertainment agency founded by the American rapper, but then were put back up on the YouTube channel Voice Synthesis which features an array of high-profile voice skins, from past presidents to famous comedians. While the audio clips unmistakably sound like Jay-Z—though they aren’t a perfect replica—legal experts involved in the case don’t think any existing copyright law is being violated by deepfakes like these. In fact, many within the industry view this technology as a new form of sampling.

Deepfakes have had a fraught relationship with the music industry—rappers, in particular—over the recent years, as many navigate how to grapple with the possibilities of the technology. By reclaiming deepfakes in a creative fashion, Lamar and West have potentially pivoted their role in the music industry, giving new light to the otherwise malicious technology. Though the AI simulations still have disturbing implications in many ways, it will be interesting to witness the journey as it becomes yet another tool for artistic and musical expression. And, as deepfake technology continues to become more accessible to the average internet user, this synthetic music video style has even more potential to grow, for better or for worse.