On Sunday, fans of rapper 21 Savage received baffling news: the up-and-coming recording artist had been detained by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency and threatened with deportation.
Up until that moment, most assumed that the artist — whose real name is She’yaa Bin Abraham-Joseph — was a born and bred Georgian, considering the extent to which he’d been embedded in the Atlanta, Georgia rap scene. However, according to his legal representatives, Abraham-Joseph immigrated to the United States on his parents’ work visa when he was just seven years old. While he was born in the United Kingdom, making him a British national, his family is from Dominica.
Details surrounding the rapper’s arrest are still emerging, but according to TMZ’s reporting, which cited three separate police reports, Abraham-Joseph was driving on a sidewalk in order to reach another roadway when police pulled him over. Those reports allege that a fully-loaded gun was found in the glove compartment of the vehicle in question, a red Dodge Challenger. However, attorneys for Abraham-Joseph’s dispute these reports, saying that neither the car nor the gun belong to their client. A lack of transparency and the regular emergence of murky details around his arrest have been an ongoing issue with this case and its coverage.
Initial reports from ICE left the impression that Abraham-Joseph had essentially fraudulently posed as a black American. Within Atlanta’s tight-knit hip-hop community, where things like birthright and the city you claim as your own carry a special weight, the implication that Abraham-Joseph had not represented himself authentically might have been doubly harmful, leaving him isolated and discredited among his peers.
But in truth, Abraham-Joseph never hid his immigration status from fans. He’s spoken frequently about his family’s roots in Dominica, he’s an adherent of the West African religion Ifa which is commonly practiced throughout the Caribbean, and — his lawyers insist — he applied for a U Visa in 2017.
His life, before this detainment, was essentially a success story common to the DREAMers, that subset of undocumented immigrants who having been brought to the United States as minors, would qualify for resident status under the proposed DREAM Act. Like so many of that cohort, Abraham-Joseph, despite his immigrant roots, was well on his was to making a productive life for himself.
Abraham-Joseph has certainly long been immersed in the typical life and culture of black Americans, including the less fortunate aspects of that world. He’s lost one brother to gun violence, another to prison, and in music, found a way to cope with these losses. He rose to prominence quickly, parlaying the success of his early mixtapes into tastemaker recognition. In the summer of 2016, he released a joint EP with well-known Atlanta producer Metro Boomin after being named to XXL magazine’s “Freshman Class.” He’s currently nominated for two Grammy awards and was scheduled to perform during this Sunday’s broadcast of those awards. (And one would be remiss to fail to mention his accidental contribution to the cultural zeitgeist with the viral joke, “issa knife.”)
But as is often the case with the children of immigrants to come to the United States, Abraham-Joseph’s legal immigration status lapsed. To stay in compliance, he attempted to apply for a U Visa in 2017, which are reserved for immigrants who are victims of crime and are willing to cooperate with authorities — a status for which he qualifies due to a 2013 altercation that left him with a gun wound.
In 2014, Abraham-Joseph was convicted on a felony drug charge that was, in 2018, expunged from his record through Georgia’s first-offender program, the files in the matter sealed.
Abraham-Joseph’s legal troubles come amid speculation that he was targeted by immigration authorities acting out of vindictiveness. In a statement, his representatives allege that there were “possible ulterior motives for his arrest and detention, including that he released music five days prior to his arrest by ICE, which included new lyrics condemning the behavior of immigration officials for their detention of children at the border.” His legal team has, in addition, gone out of their way to note that his U Visa application is still under review, and that all of the relevant enforcement agencies were fully aware of his efforts to remain in the good graces of immigration authorities.
In this way, 21 Savage is more than just a Grammy nominated musician. He is one of millions of young adults and children trapped between their parents’ immigration status and their own efforts to remain legally in the only country they’ve ever known as home. Black immigrants, despite making up six percent of the unauthorized foreign-born population in the U.S., account for eleven percent of those deported.
Whether or not ICE meant to humiliate and silence the rapper, they have only succeeded in amplifying the voices of children caught betwixt and between immigration politics. Abraham-Joseph played by the rules, stuck to the book, and was going through the proper legal channels in an effort to resolve the dispute of his citizenship. But for all his status, wealth, and access to legal resources, ICE still has him in detention. For those who lack his social capital — the news today is that Jay-Z has hired a lawyer to intervene in the case — it’s a scary prospect to live each day with the idea that authorities, driven more by fanaticism than the rule of law, could exert their outsize power over their lives.