As the city of Atlanta was abuzz with celebrities and awash in lemon-pepper wings in the hours ahead of the Super Bowl, the news broke that the Atlanta-based rapper 21 Savage had been detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. The agency took him into custody on Sunday on claims that he is an “unlawfully present United Kingdom national.” The rapper, whose real name is Shayaa Bin Abraham-Joseph, now faces deportation.
On Monday, the rapper’s lawyer issued a statement, saying that Savage’s “family overstayed their work visas, and he, like almost two million other children, was left without legal status through no fault of his own.” He said that the rapper has applied for a U visa, which is reserved for crime victims, adding that he has not hidden his immigration status from authorities. The statement continued, “This is a civil law violation, and the continued detention of Mr. Abraham-Joseph serves no other purpose than to unnecessarily punish him and try to intimidate him into giving up his right to fight to remain in the United States.”
The response to 21 Savage’s detainment was swift. Across social media, people fumed at the injustice of the arrest—at how it seemed so random, and yet not random at all—and at the mere idea that it could have happened. For the conspiracy-minded, the timing was particularly suspect. The rapper had, just days before, criticized ICE during a sombre performance on “The Tonight Show.” Performing a version of his recent single “A Lot,” he rapped, “Been through some things but I can’t imagine my kids stuck at the border / Flint still need water / People was innocent, couldn’t get lawyers.” Against this backdrop, the detention appeared especially vindictive, part of a long history of the authorities using hip-hop lyrics to indict, profile, or otherwise harass artists. (The debacle already echoes the struggles of another U.K.-born rapper, Slick Rick, who, in 2016, finally gained citizenship, after a twenty-three-year legal battle that saw him detained for seventeen months and threatened with deportation multiple times.)
The very public detainment of 21 Savage, who, his manager claims, is now on lockdown twenty-three hours a day, also seemed to be an ominous warning—a message to black people and other people of color, saying that no amount of money, status, or good behavior (Savage’s philanthropic activities are well documented and extensive) will save you. Soon after the arrest, a CNN journalist reported that an ICE representative had stated that Savage’s “whole public persona is false. He actually came to the U.S. from the U.K. as a teen and overstayed his visa.” The first part of that statement is telling. ICE, after all, is a government agency concerned with immigration and customs, not what rappers say or who they purport to be—to say nothing of the fact that 21 has been living in Atlanta since he was seven, just less than twenty years. And what is untrue about claiming the place that raised you, whose values you share, and that made you who you are—even if it’s not where you were born?
The ICE official’s statement made it clear that Savage’s arrest was about humiliation more than it was about justice. And, unfortunately, the highlighting of his geographic roots—which, by implication, suggested that his depictions of growing up in Georgia’s poorest neighborhoods don’t have artistic credibility—did create a distraction. Commentary on the arbitrary nature of his arrest and, indeed, of ICE’s enforcement policies at large, became muted as social media lit up with jokes and memes about whether the rapper has somehow been hiding his British past all this time.
Nevertheless, 21 Savage has now brought into focus how little attention is given to black immigrants, who are largely erased from larger discussions about immigration and have little access to organizational resources, despite facing a disproportionately high risk of deportation. The U.S. deported more than twice as many Africans in 2017 as it had the year before, and some fifty thousand Haitians were put at risk that same year after the President announced that their temporary protected status would be revoked (a federal judge temporarily blocked the plan, in October, 2018). Racial bias all but guarantees that black immigrants are more likely to interact with law enforcement and the criminal justice system, and thus more likely to be forced to leave. A 2016 report from the New York University School of Law found that black immigrants make up six per cent of the unauthorized foreign-born population in the U.S., but they account for eleven per cent of deportation cases. Some, like 21 Savage, are victims of circumstances outside of their control, existing in an American reality in which being in the wrong place at the wrong time can have dire consequences.
The sudden imprisonment of 21 Savage is a big deal precisely because no one saw it coming. If we can act on our shock, ICE may have just put a celebrity face on a cause that was already worthy of everyone’s attention and concern, reminding us that the issues at the border are also unfolding all around us. Those children Savage mentioned in “A Lot” are largely anonymous and have scant legal or financial resources, but they have now found an unlikely champion in hip-hop. Let’s hope that Savage’s detainment is the unfortunate catalyst that brings more attention to the plight of black immigrants and to just how far the government’s racist, anti-immigrant agenda can reach.