Future’s “Mask Off” is about freedom. Freedom from the figurative masks we wear to conceal what lies beneath. The feeling of freedom that drugs provide. Metro Boomin’s stoned flute lick rides as smooth as the chromed-out luxury whip Future steers through the song’s music video, Amber Rose riding shotgun. But masks can also mean freedom as Future looks over rioting and looting, face coverings used to conceal identities, empowering people to embrace anarchy.
Released in 2017, “Mask Off” was Future’s greatest chart success at the time. Comfortably fitting into his distinctly cosmic brand of hip-hop, it’s not a gimmick track, yet popularity immediately made it extremely meme-friendly. Fans performed the famous flute lick with whatever they could: violins, electric guitars, saxophones, trumpets, trombones, and vocal chords skewered to breaking point. The song even has its own dance. “Mask Off” was definitively a pop culture phenomenon.
Future could never have envisioned that by 2020 the title of the song would double as a chilling command. Masks and face-coverings are one of the most important tools in the fight against Covid-19 because they are one of the simplest. Taking them off in public is a bad idea. Future knew this to be true and so he inverted the message. The “Mask On” initiative saw the Atlanta star partnering with a local sewing organization to provide facemasks to hospital workers and patients. This was March, when masks were in short supply. A March 9 New York Times report, which featured Atlanta’s Grady Memorial Hospital in its reporting, stated: “With global supplies already depleted from the outbreak in China and manufacturers facing an explosion of new orders as the virus spreads, some hospitals in the United States have been unable to get new shipments of N95 masks or even an estimate of when they might become available.”
Future’s initiative was implemented via the FreeWishes Foundation, founded by the rapper (real name: Nayvadius Wilburn), his mother Stephanie Jester, and his sister Tia Wilburn-Anderson. It came about when the foundation started seeing the news reports of doctors forced to reuse masks, with some getting infected with Covid-19 because of the lack of adequate equipment. At first they considered simply ordering the masks the healthcare workers required but quickly found this would be impossible. So instead, FreeWishes partnered with Atlanta Sewing Style, which organized 500 people to make and deliver the masks.
“As most people adapt to the new normal of staying quarantined to protect themselves from the coronavirus, healthcare professionals do not have this privilege,” the foundation said at the time. “In addition, they do not even have enough supplies to protect themselves from contracting the coronavirus.”
A month later, members of the organization set the number of masks made at more than six figures. The organization set out to make a difference and provide those masks, and they believe that they’ve easily reached more than 100,000 people. “Some orders that we have, we provided 5,000 masks and then 3,000 here, another 500 there,” Abesi Manyando, FreeWishes’s Communications and Brand Strategist told Complex in April. “We’ve certainly reached hundreds of thousands of people.”
Future himself has not spoken publicly about the initiative. I suspect the lack of involvement in the communications side of things is to ensure that his philanthropy can’t be framed as being in the interest of his career. Or perhaps as a wealthy person in the bracket of most protected and with the least to lose from the pandemic, he’s self-aware enough to stay in the background on this. Still, it’s powerful that a man with Future’s reach and influence has backed the use of face coverings for all to see. And it’s worth saying that Nayvadius practices what he preaches — albeit with his own ostentatious (perhaps overly so) spin. In June he showed up to the BET Awards with his daughter, the pair wearing flashy face coverings made with brass frames and Swarovski crystals said to have cost between $2,500 and $3,000 each.
Additionally, July saw the announcement of FreeWishes’s new scholarship scheme for students affected by the pandemic. High school graduates who were due to be enrolled on a college course in the second half of 2020 were asked to submit a video about how the Covid-19 negatively affected their education. The maximum award was $2,500. And in September, FreeWishes announced a delivery service that gives senior citizens in Atlanta packages containing first aid kits, masks, snacks, books on health and wellness, and various essentials, as well as providing health services.
When it comes to rappers helping out in their local communities, Future is no outlier. There are endless stories of artists’ community work so, of course, many have stepped up during this strangest of years. Chance The Rapper’s charity, SocialWorks, sent 45,000 masks to the Chicago Park District for the kids and staff of its specially organised, socially distanced day camp program. Ja Rule partnered with homeless charity Knock, Knock, Give A Sock to provide masks to people experiencing homelessness. Lil Durk is said to live in Atlanta these days but he’s a Chicago hero and in April showed up at Rush University Medical Centre to help deliver meals to frontline workers. These are just a few examples.
In a world where some remain skeptical of celebrity’s advocating for political or social causes, it’s impossible not to see the benefit of rappers using their resources and influence to place masks in the hands of people who need them and, in doing so, endorsing a practice that requires mass compliance to be highly effective. Especially as the politicizing of that practice has become a needlessly divisive issue in the United States. When the country and the planet hopefully sees the other side of this thing, Future is one of the millions of citizens who can say he did his part.