It’s In The Eyes, Chico: Masked Men and Their Many Faces

The entertainment industry’s constant demand of hypervisibility from its participants has made putting a face to the name an easy, almost flippant reflex for most listeners. But when the face disappears altogether only to be replaced by the lifeless cast of a mask, the jig gets shaken up. More and more artists are choosing to conceal parts of themselves from audiences and the symbolic line of demarcation clearly works to separate the artist and the individual, although not always for reasons that are clear or legitimate.

MF Doom’s legendary status was fronted by his facelessness, his use of the mask as a front for the constructed Supervillain persona. The dark tones of Madvillainy cast him in shadow, his timeless 20th century popularity is representative of a time when masks were utilised as theatrical props. The element of the unknown was taken to be an exciting enigma, something to gradually peel back in the hopes of uncovering the real man underneath. Distance between the stage and fans was great enough to aid in this separation, allowing Supervillain to grow larger than the man Daniel Dumile himself. MF himself confesses to exiting “stage left”, tearing off the mask “like a khufi” on Dangerdoom featuring Ghostface Killah. Outside of rap, facelessness became adopted into the mainstream by the Gorillaz as well as consistent chart-topper Sia, all of whose faces remain a mystery to this day. The act of rendering oneself unknown is one that requires much craft and dedication as anyone will do anything to peek behind the curtain and fans participate in the game just as much as the creators.

However, fusion of the artist and the individual has lent itself to realism so much that the two now actively ride off the back each other. When the microcosm of UK drill music is examined, it is revealed to be a tenet of hyper-fixation on faceless men. Transitioning from a theatrical prop to a tool granting its owner anonymity, masks meet their true match in wearers who not only project an alter ego – but embody it altogether. The popularisation of Brixton drill group 67’s ‘no face no case’ declaration is tantamount in exploring its use and reaction. Deployment of ski masks and balaclavas tend to draw police attention, specifically that of Operation Trident. Their overbearing crackdowns on urban events was temporarily halted in 2018 by the abolition of Form 696, yet their ability to revive the censorship of the genre yielded 2019’s performance ban on Thornton Heath duo AM x Skengdo. When the word ‘urban’ is examined more closely along with exactly who is policed, it reveals itself to be a shallow term often used by an establishment and law enforcement unsure on how to define black music past that of crime and belligerence.

For artists making the conscious decision to reach for an item that can so quickly take them from a being nobody to a somebody, the freedom of slipping and sliding between the two shows that the transition from hood star to fully self-made rapper is a precarious one. Depending on whether authorities permit their daily movement with Stop and Search, to how many YouTube views they can bag to support their music career. Enough numbers to send them viral is never enough to remove them from the critical eyes of the authorities, hence the mid-blow sentencing of many including Homerton’s Unknown T and Harlem Spartans’ Loski. Going ‘clear’ in reality can depend on much beyond an artist’s immediate control and in that ambiguous stage of near-fame, their old lives merge with their potential new ones and the trajectory could go either way.

Ultimately, the presentation of a human face serves to humanise its wearer. Yet, the choice of so many, is to do the exact opposite; defacement – used by 67’s LD and his chrome disguise, to M Huncho’s infamous balaclava, to Casisdead’s ghostly facelessness, as well as K-Trap’s own refusal to show his face at live performances until very recently. The decision to be a nobody is one made in response to a person living two lives. Ensuing moral panics following spates of youth crime across the capital is always lead by criticisms of the so-called glorification of criminality by drill. Masks protect those who employ it’s use smartly, concealing their wearers from the intrusivity of any external gaze – whether these are fans or the force of the law.

Although it plays a lessened role in these more pressing scenarios, creative ideation is constantly at work when an artist selects the image they project. For this reason, masks will always have a place in music as a cover. As long as individuals reserve the right to disappear from the limelight as much as they star in it, faces will always be matched by facelessness.