The Afrobeats genre has seen an explosion in popularity, with non-indigenous creatives attempting to create music in this style. The recent advancements in artificial intelligence, which allow people to clone the singing voices and styles of artistes, raise excitement and questions about what voice cloning means for Africa’s music industry and the rights of African creators.
Recently, a TikTok user known as Ghost Writer produced a song called Heart on My Sleeve, using an AI model to replace the vocals with the voices of Drake and The Weeknd. The song quickly went viral, amassing 15 million views on TikTok, 275,000 views on YouTube, and 600,000 streams on Spotify. While fans were impressed by the quality of the music, the music label Universal Music Group removed the song from all platforms, citing that the voice cloning infringed on the artists’ intellectual property. But will this really stop AI?
Barzini, a Nigerian musician, expressed concern about bad actors using this technology to profit off indigenous artists who have spent years honing their craft and navigating the intricacies of the genre. He notes that it may become difficult to differentiate what’s real and true from what’s not, drawing parallels to the days of “Alaba Piracy” when unofficial albums from artists were sold in the streets. He explained that before music streaming gained ground in Nigeria, Alaba DJs would string together a bunch of singles and maybe a few collaborations with other artists, design a cover artwork, and start selling a “brand-new album” on the streets” without the knowledge of said artiste. “However, unlike then, the world is connected on social media, and any African artiste can easily put out a disclaimer and call out the parties involved,” he concluded.
That said, Barzini who has also recently promoted his music with a video of him copying the voice and mannerisms of a popular Nigerian state governor, Nyesom Wike, acknowledges the marketing opportunity that his music could gain if he cloned a popular artiste’s voice and featured it in his songs. Beyond marketing, he is also excited about the creative possibilities, but he is resolute about not crossing legal boundaries. Despite his reservations, Barzini acknowledges the potential of the technology to reshape the landscape of Afrobeats collaboration, as it can also enable African artists to collaborate with foreign musicians or even AI-generated versions of them. “Imagine if I did a song with Michael Jackson’s backing vocals!”. In the end, he thinks that the pros outweigh the cons.
Joey Akan, a Nigerian music journalist, is excited about the possibilities of artificial technology in music. On a call with TechCabal, he said, “I don’t see anything negative to be concerned about. At best, that viral video of Drake and Kanye only showed us what is now possible with artificial technology.” He said that AI can learn songwriting techniques, can learn singing techniques, and with that technology, one can create an artist without having to deal with “the shortcomings of humanity.”He believes that African countries should shift their focus towards using technology to scale their markets. As an example, he cited how Nigeria, despite the popularity of its talents, and vast potential, is not topping the streaming market. “Nigeria is the [most populous] African country but does rank in the top 20 streaming markets. Namibia has more streamers than Nigeria,” he said.
On the flip side, Edwin Madu, musician and owner of record label St. Claire Records, expressed a sense of resignation towards the inevitability of generative technology. “I didn’t actively seek out ChatGPT, it found me. I use Notion [a productivity work tool], and one day ChatGPT was integrated. Now I use it almost every day. The same goes for music AI.” However, he is deeply concerned about the potential lack of originality in the work produced with AI. “It’s not like sampling. This technology replicates people’s distinct voices and styles. As an artist, I personally believe that there should be a cost associated with it. There is a need for proper laws and regulations to ensure artists can earn fair compensation,” he concluded.
Echoing Dwin’s concerns, Ifeyinwa Anyadiegwu, head of legal at Chocolate City, another music label, stated that voice impersonation in music could potentially lead to the infringement of intellectual property rights or result in a complex and lengthy process for licensing and clearance. “Master owners, publishers, artists, and other rights holders will all want a share of the pie, leading to a complicated legal landscape,” she told TechCabal.
On the other hand, she agrees that different versions of a song can bring attention to the original creators. It can also potentially increase revenue for African artistes when properly licensed and used. “Either way, the legal complexities of AI-generated music need to be further investigated before the world gives a co-sign so that no one is shortchanged.
Joey Akan, however, sees these legal challenges as opportunities for the space to evolve and create new laws that can favour artists and allow them to benefit more holistically from their work, especially legacy musicians, who are no longer alive. “If we can move past the creepiness of working with dead people, there is much to gain business-wise. I want to see a Portable and Fela collaboration. With AI and the right laws in place, this can be a possibility.”
However, when TechCabal contacted Portable, he seemed to have not seen the viral videos impersonating popular singers and remained unaware of the possibility. When he was asked how he feels about the possibility of someone else singing like him using AI voice clones, he answered, “It is not possible, there is nobody that can sing like me.”
The rise of Afrobeats and the advancements in AI technology are shaping the landscape of music creation in unprecedented ways. While there are valid concerns about appropriation and gatekeeping, there are also opportunities for greater collaboration and inclusivity.