As masks cement their place in the future of live music, we look back on the history of face-covering. The mask’s trajectory is far and wide - these are some of its maestros.
When it became a legal requirement to wear a face covering in public on the 24th July 2020, this was met with support, criticism, even revolt. Demonstrators held a protest opposing the imposition of face coverings on the 19th July 2020 in London, whilst Trump supporters in the early stage of the pandemic refused to cover their faces.
The adoption of permanent mask-wearing at live events is something festival and nightclub attendees might have to consider in the post-lockdown era. The government’s roadmap to lifting lockdown restrictions in the UK proposes that 21st June – at the very earliest – will be when we will see all restrictions lifted, marking a potential return to nightclubs and large events. After then, government advice states that we should carry on with the good habits that reduce transmission of COVID-19, including wearing face coverings in enclosed spaces.
Imagining this future, Mike Kill CEO of the Night Time Industries Association states that, “The discussion around masks being worn within live music venues or club experiences has been a long-standing debate, with some very staunch views on the impact it will have on experience and also whether it will deter customers from engaging. The reality is that masks within venues are not logistically or economically viable, and whilst many are overburdened with debt and desperate to open their doors, this would be a difficult compromise”.
Meanwhile, some musicians, such as MF DOOM and M Huncho, have been performing masked way before COVID-19 was even a whisper. Masks have been utilised as an aspect of performance for centuries, across all corners of the world. We are used to seeing two masks side by side, representative of two of Greek theatre principle genres, whose muses, Thalia, goddess of comedy, and Melpomene, goddess of tragedy, are often depicted with masks in paintings and statues.
In Mali, Kanaga masks are one of many worn by the Dogan people during dances at funeral ceremonies, in which a ritual marks the crossover from life to death. Some of the more colourful masks aren’t dissimilar to the face coverings that electronic music producer SBTRKT performs behind. A mask transforms someone into their avatar. Whatever its purpose or meaning, the mask is always built on an exchange between its wearer and their surroundings.
Nevertheless, we’re a far cry away from faceless DJs. In the 21st century, crowds at festivals and clubs are perennially forward-facing. This is truly the ‘God is a DJ’ era, a phenomenon particularly prevalent at large scale EDM festivals like Tomorrowland. One of the mask-wearing DJs to play at Tomorrowland is Deadmau5, who has built a brand out of his mask. It is said that he initially donned his mask because he was shy and wanted to preserve his privacy. The mask, which looks like a slightly more terrifying version of Mickey Mouse, is often adorned in LED lights, the DJ’s sight only enabled via a camera and a tiny screen inside the helmet.
And of course, there is Daft Punk, who over the course of their 28-year stint as a duo, iconically transformed into robots. This type of mask-wearing and its visual aesthetic brings another dimension to the experience of listening to the artist’s music, as the character often builds an entire world with it. In Lady GaGa’s appearances at the 2020 VMAs, Gaga showed us what it could mean to wear a mask on stage – her face covering became just as integral in her look as any other item of clothing. Aside from the fact that Gaga is a positive influence and advocate of mask-wearing during the pandemic, as Gaga states herself, “I was wearing face shields before it was a thing”.
It’s not just pop, rap and electronic-leaning artists who don facial guises, however. Heavy metal band Slipknot also get in on the action, by swapping up their masks for each album (although they were reportedly accused of stealing this concept from Mushroomhead). The transient nature of Slipknot’s changing face doesn’t detract from giving them an overall ‘look’. It paints a flavour; adds to a feeling, always embracing the ability to shapeshift as artists and evolve. Slipknot are so committed to mask-wearing, that they even have a Wear the Mask App.
Recently, the MF DOOM estate announced that several exclusive AR Doom masks would be auctioned off. The masks would be completely exclusive, sold with a Non-Fungible Token, an embedded digital identity traded in the cryptocurrency of Ethereum, similar to Bitcoin but created by art/tech company Illust Space.
DOOM’s mask is emblematic of the legacy he left behind and his contribution to Hip-Hop. Ever elusive, the iconic rapper released records under a plethora of pseudonyms, and collaborated on albums with Danger Mouse and Madlib. DOOM is a character, often played by ‘actors’ (much to the dismay of audiences who noticed DOOM’s stand-in). Fun fact: his mask and persona, ‘the villain’, is based on Dr. Doom, the archenemy of the Fantastic Four. In the music video for Muggs and DOOM’s 2018 track “Death Wish” featuring Freddie Gibbs, Kanye West is shot down.
Kanye himself had his own brief stint wearing masks. Maison Margiela designed the wardrobe for his 2013/14 Yeezus tour, containing veiled masks that are said to be easy to see through because of the way they are embroidered.
Masking has been a central element to Margiela’s runway shows since Martin Margiela started his fashion house. His first models walked the runway with their faces covered, which was a decision based on finances – the designer couldn’t afford top models. To divert attention from the people that modelled his clothes, Margiela chose to cover their faces. His own absence as a designer resisted the elitism that surrounds fashion, an act that renowned him as a force that resisted fashion’s core. In fact, Margiela refrained from bowing at the end of his shows, evaded photos, and answered interviews in the plural, speaking as ‘The Maison’. His invisibility radiated anonymity, not necessarily a lack of identity. In fact, like MF DOOM, he showed that masks become a part of that identity.
As most of the world picked up face covering in 2020, Bristolian born DJ and producer L U C Y was unveiling herself for the first time, having worn a mask on set ever since she began DJing. The mask was shed and LCY was born. As a female DJ/producer in a male-dominated scene, there are equally as many reasons why L U C Y might have chosen to begin her career facelessly, and for that, I salute her.
The masks she wore were relatively inconspicuous, letting her talent as a selector, producer and label owner take centre stage. But there came a moment when people would have remembered her as the artist that wore the mask, rather than by her music, and that’s arguably to do with our consumption of, and response to female musicians, and our need to categorise, not because of anything L U C Y/LCY did to provoke it.
But just as this moment arrived, LCY chose to leave the mask behind, on Twitter stating, “The reason I started wearing a mask was for anonymity and for listeners’ focus to be on the music and the art. Sadly, in recent years I feel this reason has backfired and the mask has become focal point of what I do and not of my craft. The opposite of what I initially intended. Masks don’t belong to me or my culture. Research the masks’ roots and respect them, especially in a time when they are, disgustingly, being linked to racist attacks and abuse. Please respect anyone who chooses to cover their face and thank you for respecting my decision to cover mine over this time”.
The album artwork for many of the releases on LCY’s label SZNS7N is recognisable by the artists’ mouths covered with big, hand painted teeth across their faces.
And now, the baton must be passed to drill. Known for its bouncing basslines and stigmatised for its occasional violent lyrical content, drill is also known for its orators brandishing masks of various kinds, particularly vendetta masks. Drill music videos are some of the most recognisable music videos today, often filmed at waist height and featuring an entire crew. On social media, rappers’ names rarely appear without their affiliated crew or gang. Whichever term you choose to use, drill runs parallel to a sense of group mentality, a plural identity.
There are solid reasons for why drill rappers wear masks, and it isn’t just as concealment from other men on the road. Rapper and member of Moscow17, Siddique Kamara, even acquired an alias that references the notion of disguise. ‘Incognito’ died after a stabbing in Camberwell in 2018. Drill was pulled out of the underground and into the mainstream when the Metropolitan Police made attempts to crack down on music that incited violence between one gang and their opposition.
Scribz, who was handed an injunction and prevented from making content that cited oppositionary gangs, became LD and began wearing a mask, detracting from his true identity. By doing this, he subverted himself in the same way language is subverted in drill to detract from convention and communicate to its listeners, whilst avoiding the use of recognised terminology when referencing violence or weapons.
The most contemporary function of masking is health, but if masks are made mandatory in clubs and at festivals, we might very well see this collide with expression. The passing of MF DOOM, the splitting of Daft Punk and LCY’s unveiling, all foreshadow the future of music’s facelessness. There are various reasons that artists have used ‘masking’ in the past, such as obscurity, anonymity and transformation, but masks can also be worn on the basis of communicating something (or nothing). Whatever that may be, the mask is of instrumental value to live performance. Now more than ever.