When RMR - pronounced "rumour" - briefly captured the internet's attention with his country-infused ballad Rascal, he did so anonymously. Behind a snuggly fit balaclava embroidered with lashings of gold thread spelling out his name, RMR flaunted his falsetto, singing about his rise to the top to the tune of Rascal Flatts' 1994 hit, Bless The Broken Road. The viral hit garnered mass media attention and the enigmatic star balked at revealing any tangible details about himself.
Masks, whether they come in the form of balaclavas, ski masks or robot helmets, have always been emblematic of anonymity and rebellion. Hip-hop has always been defiant, so it's no surprise that many rappers rally against the constitution of fame by protecting their privacy.
UK drill music has long been a "guarded subculture," Ciaran Thapar wrote for The Face, pointing out that masks have become an integral part of these rappers uniforms. Here, it is done in order to avoid police surveillance, rival gangs, violent attacks, or even church pastors.
Then there's hip-hop legend MF DOOM, who dons his mask to separate the art from the artist. People began caring about "what things looked like as opposed to what things sound like," he explained in an interview with Red Bull Music Academy. "Before videos, you were going off the sound of the records, straight skills. Once hip-hop became more of a money-making thing, then you get these corporate ideas where you wanna put what it looks like to sell what it sounds like - but we're dealing with music."
In a genre where recognition and individualism are critical to an artist's success, no two masks are ever made the same.
In 1997, MF DOOM arrived onto the hip-hop scene wearing a mask inspired by Marvel villain, Doctor Doom. Born in London and raised in Long Beach, New York Doom (fka Daniel Dumile) set the bar for anonymity in the music industry long before Daft Punk arrived with their shiny helmets. The full magnitude of his influence is hard to muster when you consider his deep discography, classic debut album or his aesthetic flair.
It's no secret that Kanye is a fan of Martin Margiela and his eponymous fashion house, MAISON MARTIN MARGIELA. Both are outliers in their respective industries, known for breaking the rules and creating new trends. While Kanye has never been one to obscure his identity, he did don this incredible couture crystal-embellished facemask designed by Margiela during his Yeezus tour in 2012. He isn't the only rapper to have a brief flirtation with cover-ups. Everyone from Tech N9ne, Ghostface Killah and Eminem to Jay-Z, Young Buck and 50 Cent have worn masks.
Few other artists have adopted a mask as part of their identity that has committed to the role quite like MF Doom. However, one artist that shows him up is Brooklyn's Leikeli47, who since arriving on the scene in 2017 has no discernable paper trail revealing her real identity. There aren't even any old photos of her face. The rapper's unique mix of Detroit house, Jersey bounce and straight-up trap music is boisterous and energetic. She's adopted bandannas and ski masks to hide her identity, and unlike Doom whose cover is underscored by the darkness of villain, Doctor Doom, Leikeli is inspired by superheroes. "I feel like the Dark Knight, or one of those superheroes, or Superman," she told Vibe in an interview. "The mask, it represents freedom. I'm free with it on."
Drill artist SL uses his ski mask to protect himself. The 19-year-old who rarely does interviews arrived on the scene in 2018 and is notably reserved, cautious, always plotting his next move. The mask is a symptom of these traits. Fame and notoriety aren't things he values and a brief brush with the law, in which he was arrested, saw him double down on ensuring his anonymity. He doesn't want to be targeted and as a prominent player in the UK drill scene, that would be unavoidable if it weren't for his ski mask.
In 2019, Lord Felix made a splash with his music and got people talking with his reflective visor — which he's always wearing. The Boston rapper has never revealed his age, although he might be somewhere in his 20s and his real name might be Felix Van Buren, but he insists that clue is him trolling us. Besides the scarce details about who Lord Felix is, one thing for sure is his electronic-infused, guitar-heavy hip-hop is the kind of thing summery daydreams are made of.
Yet there's one rapper that prefers his mask off...