Face masks as freedom and belonging

By Quirina Geijsen

Face masks, you can see them everywhere now. They come in different shapes and sizes and are offered in multiple choices of the most beautiful and fashionable patterns. Wearing non-medical face masks is not something new. They were ahead of COVID-19, gaining popularity in hip-hop culture. Especially, at local hip-hop festival Woo Hah!, they represent a sense of fashion, of togetherness and a feeling of ultimate freedom. There, participants of the festival wore face masks for both fashionable as practical reasons.

Wearing Face masks in a fashionable sense at hip-hop events probably started with two American rappers wearing them in reaction to criticism on how they move their mouths in a crumbling, uncomfortable way whilst dancing. In Asia, face masks are part of ‘smog couture’ helping them become part of a style and influencing local and global hip-hop cultures. One way or another, fashion icons in hip-hop like Travis Scott started wearing them, which led to his fans getting inspired to do the same. Wearing facemasks shows a sense of fashion and involvement with hip-hop culture.

The practical reason for wearing a face mask in hip-hop culture is that it protects one against dust. During concerts at Woo Hah! festival, crowds of at least 500 people engage in moshpits on sandy terrain inducing drifting clouds of sand floating above the area. Fashionable-looking participants engage in this collective form of ‘dancing’, located at a spot in the audience known as the ‘moshpit’. One that wears a face mask has either been in a moshpit or is planning to. It symbolizes being part of the temporal moshpit community that exists at Woo Hah!. When participants notice each other wearing one outside of the moshpit they greet because they have become buddies for the duration of the rest of the festival, so to speak. The moshpit is a collective experience. You give the moshpit something of yourself but you also get something out of it that is amongst others this feeling of belonging to a (temporal) community because, we are ‘in it together’. Knowing each other’s name is not necessary; having gone through the same experience is enough. So, what is this experience exactly?

Face masks at Wooha, 2019
Face masks at Wooha! 2019 (allthingsloud.com/people-woo-hah)

Imagine, you being at such a festival. You and your best friends have been working hard to get enough money to buy a ticket and since then you have been looking forward to this event, to meet like-minded people and see your favorite artists. Now, the moment is finally there.  You are at your favorite artist’s concert. Your favorite song starts, the one that you have been listening to on repeat throughout the summer! The whole crowd knows it as well; they sing along and know exactly when the beat ‘drop’ in the music comes. Right before that, the artist and ‘pit lieutenants’ collaborate in creating an empty circle in front of the stage. You are taking a spot at the edge of that circle. Everyone is facing the emptiness in the middle, knowing exactly what emotional energy to expect when the circle closes whilst waiting for the artist, our master of ceremony, to count down. 3…2…1…, that is your sign to let go. Participants that were waiting on the edges of the circle collide into each other in the middle of the pit. This clash evolves into an interaction of synchronized jumping up and down and bumping into one another whilst rapping along with the lyrics of the artist, creating clouds of dust. You can let go of all your build-up enthusiasm and get some extra shots of adrenaline back. Emotional energy rises and together with your fellow moshpit participants, you are moshing. This is a feeling of ultimate freedom, a feeling of togetherness and a feeling of belonging to the community. It can’t get better than this!

A face mask, therefore, is not only fashionable and in that way representative of being part of hip-hop culture but it symbolizes that feeling of freedom, that feeling of togetherness and belonging to a community that people need to have once in a while, as well. Seeing people wearing face masks nowadays sometimes reminds me of the ways the face mask is meaningful to hip-hop moshpit participants. It reminds me of a time without social distancing. A time with dancing, hugging, and jumping around in moshpits. A fashionable face mask here becomes a totem of collectivity and a totem of experiencing a feeling of freedom — it gives me emotional support. Every time I see someone wearing a beautifully — and sometimes questionably — patterned face mask, I smile.

Quirina Geijsen is a Master’s graduate of Social and Cultural Anthropology (VU), inspired by ritual theory and having studied participant experiences of moshpits at hip-hop concerts.

(Featured image by Jessie Kamp: Moshing crowd at Ares’ concert at Melkweg, 2020)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *