by Brooklyn White
In 2017, hedonistic rap star Future released “Mask Off” - his flute-heavy ballad about molly, percocets, and fearless robbery. Out of all of the singles shared over the course of his decade-long career, it is the highest charting one, peaking at #5 on the Billboard Hot 100. Why were fans especially drawn to the elaborate celebration of drug use and theft? Maybe it has to do with Future’s theme, masks. The subject is two fold, as one Genius user points out. Not only is the Atlanta rapper undeterred by the possible consequences of his crimes, he is completely open about his habits and thought processes. This has been a recurring theme in Future’s career - the notion that no matter the depth of your perceived sin or world views, as long as you are able to confess and show the people the person behind the mask, then all is well. When Future showed up to the 2017 BET awards with his young daughter, he wore a $3000 mask (as did she), and performed in one as well. The implications were still present, but this outing was more of a fashion statement, as masks are sometimes, especially within the Hip-Hop community.
Masks have been around since ancient times, and there is proof of their existence in the Stone Age. According to the History of African Masks, the role of a mask maker (and wearer) was a sacred one, as people viewed this being as someone who had contact with the spirit realm. These masks, made from wood, copper and other materials, were used as part of a ritual, often in preparation for an important occurrence like “war preparation, crop harvesting, marriage, fertility, and burials.”
Roots aside, masks may also represent the parts of ourselves that we hide, either to benefit others, or because we are afraid to face ourselves. But it’s not a standalone psychological issue, instead resting under a larger problem. “Masking is not a term used in a professional mental health setting,” according to mental health specialist Hazel Smith. The concept is filed under defense mechanisms. When asked about defense mechanisms, Smith said, “Defense mechanisms are learned behavior that we use to deal with uncomfortable situations to get us to a point of comfort in any given situation.” That is exactly what wearing a mask is, trying to cope with some type of discomfort by putting on a front. But, it doesn’t have to be this way. Smith wrote, “[it] can be transcended when one decides to be their..authentic self without fear of judgment.”
Masks in rap sit at the intersection of style and anonymity, which is ironic given the boastful and self-centric tendencies present in rap. Masks remind us of our humanity and collective consciousness, even though we are all individuals, when you take away our name and status, we are the same. Mask on, mask off.
Below are some rap stars who have either been spotted in masks, or wear them full time.
Leikeli 47 wears a ski mask to keep the attention it on her content. In a 2015 interview with Highsnobiety, the rapper said,“this mask is my cape. I tell people that all the time. I also just wanted to keep it fun and fresh. It’s just like you said though, the mask keeps the focus on my music. It helps me with performing, too. I was definitely a very shy kid growing up in New York.”. Leikeli doesn’t overindulge in social media either, so her keeping a low profile isn’t a stunt, it’s her life.
While a part of a rap duo with his brother, MF DOOM showed his face without care. But after tragically losing his brother, and being dropped from Elektra records/falling out with the politics of the business, he began covering his face. An article for The Hip-Hop Foundation shared, “drawing similarities between his own life and the story of the fictional Doctor Doom, who’s face was deformed after a laboratory accident and donned a mask while seeking revenge against the world, Dumile himself began wearing a metal mask and re-titled himself MF Doom. Swearing revenge against the industry that badly deformed him (his own words).” He has taken the game of hidden identity even further by sending out masked fake DOOMS to perform in his stead.
I first began noticing Schoolboy Q as a standout artist in 2013, as he prepped to release his third studio album, Oxymoron. The cover art featured Q wearing a mask, while his following album featured a man with a concealed face on the cover as well. His most recent work, Crash Talk shows the artist wearing a paper bag over his head, a common reference to unattractiveness.
Nicki Minaj has worn a number of masks over the years. Perhaps her most famous one is the colorful surgical mask (designed by Shojono Tomo) that she wore at the 2011 MTV Video Music Awards. Tomo and Minaj worked together a number of times during the Pink Friday era, putting together some of Nicki’s most elaborate looks yet. She also wore glitzy masks in her videos for “Only,” and more recently, “Chun Li.”
Tyler, The Creator
You may argue that Tyler, The Creator is in the running for one of the best rap masks of all time, given his intense rebrand over the past 5 years. The California native went from detailing murders, to singing about the softer, flowery aspects of young, rich life. His mask was metaphorical as well as physical, and it seems as if he’s traded in his ski mask for something greater - love.