Graphic: Teneille Craig for Okayplayer.com
How Rap Is Profiting Off The Hand Sanitizer & Mask Game
With COVID-19 not going anywhere, rappers have gotten into the business of selling hand sanitizer and masks. We spoke to the artists and, in some cases, teams behind these protective pandemic gear initiatives.
The global COVID-19 pandemic has spread around the entire world and uprooted the lifestyle that we previously believed to be normal. More than seven million global citizens have contracted the virus, economies are dangerously volatile, and people everywhere desperately wonder when things will return to the way that they were. In the midst of these uncertain times, musicians — especially rappers — have been helping out their communities and catering to their fanbase by providing hand sanitizer and masks at a time where such items continue to be scarce.
From Slim Thug and E-40 donating hand sanitizer to Houston bus drivers and local prisons to Royce 5’9, Wu-Tang Clan, and Future spearheading their own initiatives, rappers are exploring new monetary avenues while helping out, too.
Okayplayer spoke to the artists and, in some cases, teams behind Royce 5’9, Wu-Tang Clan, and Future’s protective pandemic gear initiatives. Here are their stories.
Royce 5’9’s Plugged In Collection x Heaven Detroit Cloth Mask
“I was actually supposed to be on tour right now,” he said.
After realizing the extent of how serious the pandemic was, Royce immediately got involved.
“I donated to the front line of a few different hospitals all over the Metro Detroit area,” he said. “I donated food to the front line workers. I donated masks and tests.”
“Every day I was brainstorming, trying to figure out different ways to help out,” he continued. “Initially, I was going to launch my merch store, but I felt like it wouldn’t have been the best time. Instead, I partnered up with my man, Will, who owns the Plugged In brand and, of course, Heaven StudiosEntertainment is my company.”
A month after their April release, Royce has been able to see how fans are responding to the masks — disclaimer: they aren’t medical grade — and they’re treating them like souvenirs.
“They’re like pieces to hold onto that are representative of everything that’s going on right now — a moment in hip-hop, a moment in the world,” he said. “A lot of people are collecting it like it’s a collector’s item.”
Being that they’ve become touted as such, Royce said that the masks are making their ways onto the faces of stubborn people that don’t normally wear them.
“There are people that got a couple of them to wear; people running around Detroit who refused to wear a mask previously," he said. "So this was a good way to get masks on those people too.”
“I think that wearing masks is going to become a way of life,” he added. “It’s going to be a long time before anything bets back to normal and, in my humble opinion, it will never be all the way back to normal. There’s never going to be another day where I’m walking through an airport without a mask on.”
Wu-Tang Clan’s All-Natural, Vegan Hand Sanitizer (via 36 Chambers)
In May, Wu-Tang Clan’s vegan fashion and accessory line, 36 Chambers, released the “A Better Tomorrow” collection to benefit the Ottawa Food Bank, Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, and the Ottawa Mission Foundation. The collection featured an all-natural, plant-based hand sanitizer that was created with skincare company JUSU.
“The Ottawa Food Bank had a food truck running on April 2 and a friend of ours in Ottawa reached out to see if we knew of any Canadian personalities that could help promote it and push it forward," Mustafa Shaikh, 36 Chambers' co-founder, said. "We didn’t have anyone on deck. However, we decided that 36 Chambers would make a donation and we pushed it out to Wu-Tang Clan.”
After tweeting that they made a donation, Shaikh described an awesomely “bizarre” reaction.
“It ended up trending on Twitter in Canada, and inspired thousands of other people to donate,” Shaikh said. “In 48 hours, the Food Bank raised $280,000 Canadian dollars. We realized that there's a power to use our brand to do some real good."
"Initially, I just wanted to basically only run that one T-shirt with the Wu-Tang symbol, with the profits going to the food bank,” Shaikh continued. “Then, RZA wanted to make it a bit of a larger collection. He specifically wanted to do a vegan item, so we connected with our guy at Shopify who connected us with JUSU because it was a Candian company that was fully vegan."
For the initiative, Shaikh wanted to focus on helping homeless shelters because of the high COVID-19 transpiration rates in the facilities.
“Just the ability for us to create donations to the homeless shelters, both in the form of hand sanitizer and in the form of money as well, was powerful and exciting for us," he said. "It wasn’t about creating something protective. It was more about how we can do our part to help raise money for a great cause during an unprecedented pandemic?”
Their philanthropic efforts didn’t stop after its release: Shaikh said that they've also donated 64 one-gallon jugs of hand sanitizer — the equivalent of 1,000 hand sanitizer bottles — in one week.
Considering there’s a Wu-Tang mask out for people to buy on the group's official store (there's also a Wu Tang Forever Face Mask at the OkayShop), Shaikh didn’t want to push out another one for the pandemic, and chose to do the sanitizer instead. But that came with its own set of difficulties that he didn’t anticipate.
“It’s much more complicated than just printing a shirt or mask. Getting things through customs right now takes more time," he said. This manufacturing facility is based up in Canada and things are moving through customs a little bit slower. Some of our containers were held and it backed things up. In the future, if we’re going to do a hand sanitizer again, we would have to have a little bit more lead time.”
36 Chambers' “A Better Tomorrow” campaign ended on June 17, but it's possible that it'll manufacture more of its hand sanitizer in the future.
“We are considering creating a new one that might be released in August or sometime soon to keep doing good and keep resting much-needed donations for homeless shelters,” Shaikh said.
Future’s “Mask Off” Campaign (via FreeWishes Foundation) and High Off Life Cloth Masks
“When we first initiated the project, we wanted to answer the healthcare workers' needs,” Abesi Manyando, Freewishes' Communications and Brand Strategist, said over email. “We saw that doctors in Italy and China were dying from COVID-19 and we wanted to prevent as much of that as possible.”
The mask development process began swiftly, with Freda Rogers, the organization's project manager, reaching out to Nikki Griffin of Atlanta Sewing Style. Griffin, along with some other volunteers, make up a group called Sewing Masks for Atlanta Area Hospitals. With a team of 500 sewists, the group made more than 100,000 masks that were distributed at hospitals and other in-need facilities. Additionally, it’s also connected with Project H.E.L.P US and the Medical Reserve Corps to help with various efforts for medical relief.
Continuing with his COVID-19 efforts, Future released some protective masks (disclaimer: they are not medical grade) as merch for the release of his eighth studio album, High Off Life. Fred Foster, the Creative Director for Freebandz merchandise, wanted to bring some joy to fans in the midst of these dark times.
“I wanted to convey what I thought it should feel like to be ‘high off life,’” he said. “Although everyone’s definition may differ, I assume that most people will associate the feeling with joy. What better way to express and spread joy, especially within such trying times, than a simple smiley face? I believe such small gestures and symbols of humanity have a lasting effect.”
Trey Alston is a Virginia-based writer for Pitchfork, Complex, and MTV News.