The headlines about 21 Savage’s arrest and deportation proceedings last month seemed straight out of an Onion article. The whole thing has been surreal for fans: One of Atlanta’s poster-boy rappers, alongside artists like Gucci Mane, Future, Young Thug and 2 Chainz … was born in London?
On the morning of Feb. 3rd, rapper 21 Savage was arrested and detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. ICE released a statement that day saying 21 Savage, real name She’yaa Bin Abraham-Joseph, is an “unlawfully present United Kingdom national” who came to the U.S. in 2005 and overstayed his visa that expired a year later. A CNN reporter quoted an ICE spokesman who claimed “His whole public persona is false. He actually came to the U.S. from the U.K. as a teen and overstayed his visa.”
The most bizarre part? According to ICE, 21 Savage first came in 2005 — when he was already twelve years old. That’s too old to get rid of an accent, right? (I happen to know someone personally who also came to the U.S. from London at twelve and can testify to his thick British accent.) Combined with zero public knowledge of 21 Savage’s birthplace, it reeks of an intentional coverup. A plot twist, if you will.
In the next few days, his lawyers followed up with a statement that countered ICE’s accusations. According to his legal team, 21 Savage came to the United States at seven years old (which would much better explain him losing his accent), went to the UK for one month in 2005, then returned on a visa that expired in 2006, leaving him without citizenship. They also alleged that his immigration status was not hidden from officials as he applied for a special type of visa in 2017 granted to crime victims and could help with ongoing investigations.
Like a coping mechanism to deal with the unexpected, the hip-hop community began chugging out memes the moment Twitter got word of his arrest. In an interview with The New York Times, 21 Savage said of the memes: “I been shot — what is a meme? A meme is nothing … I look at bullet scars every day, so it’s like, a meme, bro?” Something I unironically find highly eloquent.
21 Savage was granted an expedited hearing on Feb. 12 and released on $100,000 bond the next day. The 21 Savage saga is still ongoing — an immigration court hearing is set for April 11th, and it looks like it might come to an uneventful close. He has since opened up to many media outlets about his ten-day detainment and experience growing up without legal status. But there’s one thing that’s stayed on my mind after the whole ordeal.
21 Savage went lyrically conscious about immigration politics prior to his arrest. Most notably, during his performance of “A Lot” at the Tonight Show days before his arrest, he added new lyrics: “I can’t imagine my kids stuck at the border / Flint still need water / People was innocent, couldn’t get lawyers.”
It’s not like 21 Savage has been dropping conscious lyrics for years. Even just a couple years ago on Issa Album, his raps were chiefly about trap music’s lyrical holy trinity: sex, drugs and money. So when he was arrested days after he criticized ICE for their (mis)handling of children at the U.S./Mexican border on national television, an alarm should’ve gone off in everybody’s head.
By all measures aside from citizenship, 21 Savage is an American. That much is clear. He may have a felony drug charge under his belt, but that was expunged and sealed, and he’s been a positive influence on his community since then. So why would ICE suddenly pursue him, when the Trump administration’s priorities are on criminal illegal immigrants?
It’s funny and surprising to learn that he’s from the UK. But there is more to 21 Savage’s arrest than meets the eye.