In one of the most surprising recent stories in the ever-churning hip-hop news cycle, Atlanta-based rap star 21 Savage is facing deportation after being arrested Sunday morning by the Atlanta Police Department, then detained by ICE. According to Vice reporter Donovan Farley, Savage was arrested by APD while in a car with fellow artist Young Nudy and others who were “the subject of a local police bust.” 21 Savage, whose real name is Sha Yaa Bin Abraham-Joseph, had his name run through the system and his 2014 felony drug charge popped up. ICE claims he was not born in Atlanta, but Dominica, a British Commonwealth which gained its freedom in 1978. He immigrated from the Caribbean island to the United States in July 2005 at the age of 12 along with his mother. ICE contends that he overstayed his visa, which expired in 2008.
Currently, he’s being detained by ICE in Georgia and is awaiting removal proceedings. Savage’s attorney Dina LaPolt issued the following statement to TMZ yesterday: “We are working diligently to get Mr. Abraham-Joseph out of detention while we work with authorities to clear up any misunderstanding.” LaPolt also commended Savage as a “role model” who “is actively working in the community leading programs to help underprivileged youths in financial literacy.”
Indeed, the “Bank Account” rapper has spent the last year doing community outreach with his “21 Savage Bank Account” campaign and a Mic.com documentary which aimed to teach the youth how to manage their money. Though his music still often chronicles a remarkably grim experience that can exemplify his chosen name of “savage,” his personal growth is evident.
Evolution was a predominant theme of his recently released I Am > I Was album, with lyrics like, “I been through the storm and it turned me to a G / But the other side was sunny, I get paid to rap on beats,” from the confessional “A Lot” featuring J. Cole. It’s ironic that in a recently-performed, alternate version of “A Lot” he rhymes, “been through some things so I can’t imagine my kids stuck at the border.”
With this latest figurative flurry of storm clouds, he’s become the most prominent person who has been ensnared in ICE’s immigration operations, and an unlikely example that there are no bounds to America’s xenophobia. Savage has had the relative privilege of having his growth documented in public, earns a legal living, is an active parent to his three children, and is open about his Ifa spirituality. Despite whatever documentation gaffe occurred in 2005, he’s undoubtedly a productive member of society whose music generates a lot of money for corporations like Sony, the parent company of his Epic Records label. Even without his physical presence, there will be plenty of money made off his music. His formative years have been shaped by both the American dream and nightmare, and there was no reason for ICE to arrest him.
His incarceration further exemplifies that ICE has no legitimate reason to go after most of the people who they’ve detained this decade. President Trump, his conservatives allies and their media mouthpieces trumpet terrorism and the scourge of gang violence from organizations like MS-13 as a reason for their massive deportation agenda, and many of them will likely bring up Savage’s 2014 drug charge to justify his arrest. But those same politicians are negligent about the impoverished communities in their own states that breed domestic gangs. They’re also too scared of losing money from their pro-NRA lobbyists to make gun control a priority and disarm white domestic terrorists. Their hollow talking points don’t hold weight.
Even under former President Obama, who oversaw the deportation of over 5 million undocumented immigrants in his eight years in the oval office, ICE’s relentless detainments register as a concerted effort to remove Black and Brown people from America. There are stories about American-born people of color like Peter Sean Brown who have been detained and held for months until ICE deemed their citzenship valid. ICE told Donovan that they somehow missed 21 Savage’s 2014 arrest in Atlanta, but as ICE raids have persisted and President Trump’s rhetoric has become more flagrantly anti-Immigrant in recent years, every undocumented person is in more danger than ever.
There’s been a shortsighted theory floating among many African-American thought leaders that immigration isn’t a Black issue. Prominent online figures like Tariq Nasheed and Dr. Boyce Watkins preach that African-Americans shouldn’t identify with the immigration issue because other ethnicities and identities are considered “above” African-Americans when it comes to racial dynamics and employment opportunities. But their talking point ignores the reality that though only seven percent of America’s non-US citizens are Black, they make up 20 percent of those facing deportation on criminal grounds. Immigration is undoubtedly a Black issue because ICE is a wing of the same criminal justice system which preys on Black Americans and other minorities.
For the first time since Slick Rick in the ‘90s, the hip-hop world has a prominent face to personify this crisis. Born in southwest London, Slick Rick faced deportation after being convicted of attempted murder in 1991 for shooting his cousin (who he was in a dispute with) and an innocent bystander. He served six years of a three and a half to 10-year sentence, during which time a judge canceled his deportation. In 2016, he finally received citizenship, eight years after the attempted murder charge was pardoned because he was “a symbol of rehabilitation for many young people” according to then-governor of New York, David Paterson.
21 Savage is that same kind of symbol. He fell into trouble soon after arriving in Atlanta from Dominica in 2005. He was expelled from Dekalb County middle schools for gun possession. He was then placed in a youth detention center before dropping out of high school, joining a gang, and falling deeper into the streets. In 2013, he was shot six times by a rival gang member. In 2014, he was arrested on felony drug charges.
By pursuing a music career, he rehabilitated himself in spite of America’s neglect. An ICE spokesman told CNN’s Nick Valencia that 21 Savage’s public persona is “false,” but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Perhaps the spokesman was eager to discredit him in an attempt to divert the shame for how immigrants like him are treated upon arrival in America.
Despite touting itself as a land of opportunity, America has given 21 Savage nothing but obstacles since he’s been here. They did him no favors shuffling him through the school-to-prison pipeline, or letting him toil in left-behind, drug-ridden communities that are hazardous by design. Corporations like Sony have had no problem commodifying his story of coming of age in Atlanta. He may not have his documentation in terms of paperwork, but his musical catalog, past trauma, and bullet wounds document that he’s a survivor of the worst of the American experience for Black and Brown people. And now, after he overcame those hardships, he’s in danger of becoming a victim to one more lash from the xenophobic buzzsaw that is white supremacy.
There’s no documentation to protect Black people from being shot dead in the street with no accountability or to keep Brown children on the border from being indefinitely separated from their families or being dehydrated to death by ICE agents. For people of color especially, American citizenship isn’t a matter of cards, but a matter of scars. There’s no greater patriotism than celebrating the military, but the same must be demanded true of survivors of the domestic war in cities like Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago and elsewhere. There’s no litigation that can deport 21 Savage’s unforgiving American experience from his psyche, and the same is true of the millions of undocumented Black and Brown people living here and suffering under the weight of ICE’s fascism.
At the height of his career, in the prime of his youth, 21 Savage looks likely to become an unwitting emblem of America’s immigration problem in the same manner that Meek Mill embodies the criminal justice system’s failure. America has yet another instance of Black trauma to interrogate as a cause celebre. It’s a shame that so many people in America need martyrdom and or celebrity involvement before becoming collectively galvanized to fight a societal scourge, but that’s the nature of the cult of celebrity.
Immigration is, in fact, a Black issue. It hasn’t been as big of a hot-button topic for the hip-hop community as police reform and economic equality, but it always should have been, as ICE agents are targeting undocumented people of color for the same reason cops target documented people of color. 21 Savage’s industry and peers must amplify his plight, as well as that of millions of others facing deportation. His situation isn’t about trivial debates about who can rep where, this is about liberation, and time will tell who is intrepid enough for the task. Hopefully, 21 Savage can ultimately become the beacon of reform that Meek has. In the meantime though, no matter what ICE has to say, he can affirm that I am an American.