21 Savage's Unusual Hip-Hop Immigrant Tale - OZY | A Modern Media Company

21 Savage's Unusual Hip-Hop Immigrant Tale

21 Savage's Unusual Hip-Hop Immigrant Tale

By Eugene S. Robinson


Because this rapper’s ICE heave-ho has First Amendment implications.

By Eugene S. Robinson

OZY Newsmakers: Deep dives on the names you need to know.

If hip-hop is not your thing, then you’ll probably read about it only in the cases of either extreme awfulness (the girlfriend-abusing XXXTentacion getting shot and killed) or generalized bad/strange behavior (Tekashi6ix9ine copping to nine counts of racketeering, firearms offenses and drug trafficking/anything Kanye West does). So when rapper 21 Savage’s name came up in newsfeeds this past weekend, as a result of his Feb. 3 arrest, it was a combination of “here we go again” backed with “wait … what?” Yes, the outspoken rapper was being picked up on an immigration beef. To wit: He had overstayed his visa.

Which means that not only was a man deeply identified with the regional interests of the economically challenged areas of Atlanta not actually from Atlanta but, in a substantive plot twist, he was from Great Britain. The London borough of Newham, to be exact.

The 26-year-old 21 Savage, real name She’yaa Bin Abraham-Joseph, moved to Atlanta with his mother and 10 siblings when he was 12 after his parents split. Then, between the creation of 21 Savage, a number drawn from a neighborhood gang he was repping and a personal attribute that marked his approach to reality, Abraham-Joseph proceeded to act out in a way that a teenager in dire socioeconomic circumstances might. 

An uncle of a murdered friend gave him some get-out money to be used for studio time. The year was 2013, and Abraham-Joseph had become 21 Savage.

Kicked out of a succession of schools, he ended up in a street gang, sold weed and eventually was arrested on a drug charge. Meanwhile, all around him, people were getting shot and killed, including a sibling, as well as close friends. An uncle of a murdered friend gave him some get-out money to be used for studio time. The year was 2013, and Abraham-Joseph had become 21 Savage. 

And two years later, on the basis of a single and a mixtape, 21 Savage was being lauded a “hero” by Interview magazine. Then in short order more releases, more press, entry on the Billboard charts, a signing to a major label and by 2017 a platinum record — Issa Album. December’s follow up, I Am > I Was, debuted at No. 1 on the charts. All for songs that are almost wearyingly downbeat.


While he could be accused of fetishizing his previously reduced circumstance for financial gain, 21 Savage can claim to be keeping it real and working through his trauma in a public forum, all while, suddenly, being woke AF. He created the 21 Savage Bank Account Campaign with a donation of $21,000 to help kids understand banks and banking while launching an anti-bullying campaign and back-to-school drives complete with free supplies, clothing and haircuts.

Then in the wee hours of Sunday, 21 Savage was riding in a car with fellow Atlanta rapper Young Nudy after a show when police pulled them over in an operation targeting Nudy, per local news reports. A record check revealed Abraham-Joseph’s immigration status, so he was turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

What followed was nothing short of a social media tsunami. Digging deep into the conspiraverse, some saw him being pegged for being critical of the government, a premise suggested by his immigration attorney, Charles H. Kuck, who claims that 21 Savage’s immigration status was never a secret. Kuck says he had refiled for a visa in 2017 and that 21 Savage is being detained on the basis of “incorrect information about prior criminal charges,” according to a statement. (ICE said he was convicted of a felony in 2014.)

Mr. Abraham-Joseph is clearly not a danger to the community. … His contributions to local communities and schools that he grew up in are examples of the type of immigrant we want in America.

Immigration attorney Charles H. Kuck

The timing is both fortuitous and suspicious, coming on the same day Atlanta hosted the Super Bowl and a week before the Grammys, in which a Post Malone song featuring 21 Savage is nominated for Record of the Year and Best Rap Performance … and years after his drug arrest. “I’m not really a fan,” says former hip-hop periodical Gurp City writer and pirate radio DJ Max Sidman. “But it does seem weird that ICE would go after him after so long, and not when he got busted originally.” It also just so happens that a new hit song, “A Lot,” includes a lyric criticizing Trump administration immigration policy: “Been through some things, so I can’t imagine my kids stuck at the border.” 21 Savage performed the song on The Tonight Show just days before his arrest.

After the arrest, Twitter exploded with memes and the usual ugliness, prompting blowback that caused singer Demi Lovato to delete her account after taking a dig at the rapper. Black Lives Matter is filing a protest petition. And hip-hop heads who’ve been around longer than a minute are recalling two decades earlier when rapper Slick Rick, also born in Britain, faced deportation after serving his sentence for running afoul of laws more serious than 21 Savage’s singular drug-related bust. Though Slick Rick was eventually pardoned and granted citizenship, it underscores America’s convoluted immigration laws, then as now, and maybe especially now.

ICE is refusing to release 21 Savage on any kind of bond, and according to his lawyer, the length of his detention and timeline for deportation proceedings remain unclear. “ICE can only continue to detain individuals who are a threat to the community or a flight risk,” says Kuck. “Obviously, our client is not a flight risk, as he is widely recognizable and a prominent member of the music industry. Likewise, Mr. Abraham-Joseph is clearly not a danger to the community, and in fact, his contributions to local communities and schools that he grew up in are examples of the type of immigrant we want in America.”

Not the usual hip-hop tale, indeed.

Read more: Meet the female rapper trading verses with Kendrick Lamar.

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