Bal­ly On Me: Why UK rap­pers cov­er their faces

Alter-egos, privacy and surveillance are just some of the reasons behind drill’s masks and balaclavas.

Last sum­mer, UK drill rap­per S1 decid­ed he’d had enough. There were all these Insta­gram pages say­ing they were going to expose my face,” he tells me over the phone. S1 is 20, from Shepherd’s Bush, in West Lon­don, and until then he’d worn a bal­a­cla­va in all of his music videos, along­side his 12 World rhyming part­ner Sav. They were threat­en­ing me and Sav say­ing they’ll expose our faces. So we were like, Fuck that!’ We can’t let peo­ple black­mail us like that. I went on my Ins­ta sto­ry and told peo­ple, I got a sur­prise for you at 9pm.’ At ten to 9, I’m not gonna lie, we were shak­ing, bro! But then I post­ed the pic­ture, and I got like 20K likes in ten minutes.”

In recent years, UK drill music has evolved from being a hid­den, guard­ed sub­cul­ture amongst London’s social hous­ing estates into one of the most excit­ing gen­res in con­tem­po­rary music. Since UK drill began to emerge around five years ago, fol­low­ing the explo­sion of drill music in Chica­go, cov­er­ing up with a bal­a­cla­va – or in more recent years, a cus­tomised mask – has been an inte­gral part of the UK scene’s visu­al aesthetic. 

A sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of the biggest names in drill — from SL, 67’s LD and AM at the more com­mer­cial end of the spec­trum to KO, C1 and mem­bers of the OFB crew at the more under­ground end — have always cov­ered their faces. Drill’s explo­sive, if inter­rupt­ed, for­ward momen­tum has reflect­ed and rein­forced the ten­den­cy of boys and young men to wear bal­a­clavas and masks. I’ve seen it devel­op as a trend in my youth work, whilst talk­ing to teenagers in com­mu­ni­ty spaces and schools, as boys increas­ing­ly refer to the need to pro­tect them­selves from being sur­veilled by police (AM, who, along­side rhyming part­ner Skeng­do, was recent­ly hand­ed a sus­pend­ed prison sen­tence for per­form­ing one of their songs, was too busy revis­ing for his uni­ver­si­ty exams to com­ment for this arti­cle) and from being spot­ted by rival groups, fam­i­ly mem­bers, uni­ver­si­ty admis­sions tutors, or even their church pastors 

Some peo­ple cov­er up because they might be doing stuff on the roads,” S1 tells me. Some peo­ple cov­er up their face because their fam­i­ly don’t know they’re rap­ping or in a gang. But also, I’ve been around a load of yutes who wear masks and bal­a­clavas, and they’ve got no par­tic­i­pa­tion in mad­ness. They’re good kids, but they’re try­ing to be like rap­pers, so they cov­er up. I used to wear mine strong. I was always cov­ered up. Nobody could see my eyes and face. That was main­ly because of the area I came from and my envi­ron­ment. I used to say to myself: I have two sides. There is Sanch, which is just me, and there is S1.’ When I didn’t have the mask I’d be Sanch, cool and hum­ble. S1 was the arro­gant, aggres­sive and vio­lent guy. It made me feel invin­ci­ble. I was stuck in that mind­set of want­i­ng to trap for­ev­er, then I decid­ed to bet­ter my life,” he continues.

On the one hand, such items of cloth­ing are sym­bols that reveal the social pres­sures faced by those who choose to wear them. That includes racialised over-polic­ing in poor inner-city com­mu­ni­ties, the claus­tro­pho­bic sense of fear and wari­ness that comes from liv­ing a life gov­erned by ter­ri­to­r­i­al pride and nor­malised vio­lence, and the sim­ple desire to avoid being recog­nised whilst spit­ting crud and pos­ing in front of a camera. 

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On the oth­er hand, gar­ments like bal­a­clavas and masks have become gen­uine arte­facts of mod­ern fash­ion for young peo­ple, as well as a way for artists to stand out and con­sol­i­date their own enter­tain­ment val­ue. Drill and rap music are become strength­en­ing vehi­cles of social mobil­i­ty for young artists who are able to earn legit­i­mate incomes from rack­ing up mil­lions of YouTube views and streams, get booked for reg­u­lar shows and fes­ti­vals, and in the case of MCs like Russ, Unknown T and Dig­ga D, make the offi­cial UK charts.

The mask is the brand,” said LD (for­mer­ly known as Scribz, with­out the mask) when I spoke to him last autumn. It’s the sym­bol. It’s how you know a man is still active.” As arguably the found­ing father of the UK drill move­ment, LD’s dis­tinc­tive mask has helped him cre­ate a per­for­ma­tive char­ac­ter, like hip-hop leg­end MF Doom or UK rap vet­er­an CasIs­Dead. It’s also func­tioned to help him evade the author­i­ties’ puni­tive actions against drill (as Scribz, the police imposed an injunc­tion ban­ning him from per­form­ing pub­licly) and sep­a­rate his music from the street life he was try­ing to leave behind. He told me the sto­ry behind the goth­ic, opera-esque shape of the mask. My mate lost my orig­i­nal mask and we turned up at SBTV to record a freestyle. We were doing a Warm Up Ses­sion, and my man­ag­er gave me a new mask, but there was no gap for my mouth. Peo­ple couldn’t hear me prop­er­ly when I was spit­ting. So real­ly, I’ve got­ta shout out Jamal Edwards, because luck­i­ly he was get­ting his office re-done at the time, and there was a saw lying around — a prop­er big one too! — so we the cut the mouth gap cut out. Then after, we took the same shape and got it made smooth, which stayed as the LD mask.”

Recent­ly I sat down with London’s Auto­Tune trap king M Hun­cho. He doesn’t make drill music, and instead sings over melod­ic trap beats, although songs like Coun­cil Flat sim­i­lar­ly engage with uni­ver­sal rap themes of urban strug­gle, social depri­va­tion and road life. In the past, he’s worn a bal­a­cla­va to cov­er up, and recent­ly, with his grow­ing suc­cess and indus­try star­dom, he’s start­ed to wear a brand­ed grey mask. This is com­pa­ra­ble to the way AM has tran­si­tioned from a full bal­a­cla­va to a styl­ish mask just cov­er­ing his mouth and nose. I asked M Hun­cho if, like LD, he sees him­self going into char­ac­ter when he puts it on. No, noth­ing like that. I’m the same per­son always. I’m still a clown, I still make jokes. It’s just about pri­va­cy. I don’t wan­na be walk­ing down the street and asked for a pic­ture, you get it?”

S1, who’s become known for his ener­getic danc­ing and has helped drill evolve into a more dance­floor-friend­ly move­ment, is not the only drill artist who stopped wear­ing a mask. Harlesden’s Q2T and Tottenham’s RV both used to cov­er up, but are now enjoy­ing wider expo­sure and suc­cess in the com­pet­i­tive Lon­don scene than ever before, with the lat­ter hav­ing recent­ly chart­ed with the Drillers x Trap­pers II mix­tape in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Head­ie One. Both S1 and Q2T have ben­e­fit­ted from the guid­ance of inde­pen­dent record label Finesse Fore­va, who spe­cialise in sup­port­ing artists as they tran­si­tion into being com­mer­cial­ly viable out­fits. S1 calls Finesse Fore­va fam­i­ly” and says his life has com­plete­ly changed since he decid­ed to remove his mask.

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Once you start mak­ing your­self look like an artist, and present your­self an artist, you can start going places,” S1 says, when I ask what he has learned since show­ing his face. I stand out too because I don’t look like a stan­dard driller. I look like a good yute! Peo­ple like my baby face, you get me?” he says, chuck­ling. He asks me to hold for a sec­ond, and I hear him open his front door to greet a woman who says she is col­lect­ing char­i­ty mon­ey for blind peo­ple. Have a great day,” I hear him say to her, before shut­ting the door, hav­ing donat­ed cash from his pock­ets. Sor­ry about that,” he con­tin­ues. Where was I? Oh, yeah, remov­ing my mask is prob­a­bly the best thing that could have hap­pened to me. My advice to peo­ple is not to wear a mask if you don’t have to. It’s point­less. Just be you, do what you have to do, and don’t watch no one else. If you rap about what you live, that’s a con­se­quence you’ve got to face. If you don’t, then just be yourself.”


Relat­ed

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