By Phil Gillen
“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.”
Atlanta-based rapper 21 Savage added this verse to his performance of hit song “a lot” for the Jan. 29th episode of The Tonight Show, expressing solidarity with immigrants and the residents of Flint, MI. Five days after the performance aired, the agency responsible for the detention of children that the verse dealt with, ICE, arrested the rapper in a targeted operation in Atlanta on Feb. 3rd. 21 Savage, whose given name is She’yaa Bin Abraham-Joseph, has been held in ICE custody in Georgia ever since, with the agency pursuing deportation. As of this writing, Abraham-Joseph has been refused release on bond.
ICE released a statement saying that the arrest was based on an expired visa, and that the rapper was a UK national. Curiously, ICE spokesman Bryan Cox went out of his way to attack Abraham-Joseph’s popular musical act and street cred, claiming that “his whole public persona is false.” The initial reaction to the news that 21 Savage, known for dark lyrics dealing with gang violence, lives of poverty, and the street culture of Atlanta, was a UK national, was largely one of humor. The readers of this magazine will know, however, that ICE is not to be trusted, and the reaction of mockery and parody to the arrest and detention of an immigrant perhaps plays directly into their hands.
If the ICE timeline is to be believed, Abraham-Joseph arrived in the US in 2005, and his visa expired in 2006. The rapper would’ve been 12 years old when he arrived stateside with his mother, and only 13 when his visa expired, leaving him without legal standing. We’re being asked to judge a 13-year-old boy on not correctly navigating the immigration legal system, and further, an official ICE spokesman is trying to convince us that 21 Savage immigrating to the country at 12 discredits him.
In fact, Abraham-Joseph was either born in the Caribbean island of Dominica, or was raised there. As the island is a former British Colony and current Commonwealth nation, there are several ways for Dominiquais to claim British nationality, which may have been a factor behind his UK national status. He also applied for a new visa in 2017, meaning that ICE has been aware of his immigration status, as well as his address, for at least two years. In addition, while ICE cited the rapper as a “convicted felon” in their statement, his lawyer claims that his felony was expunged in September 2018.
The fact that the agency chose to go after the rapper at this time, while having been fully aware of his status and pending visa application for at least two years, inaccurately calling him a “felon” in their statement, and directly attempting to undermine his public persona in further statements, all a matter of days after the rapper’s verse about immigration aired on national TV, seems a bit more than a coincidence. It’s not the most egregious thing ICE has done, but the targeted harassment of a popular, successful black man who happened to speak out against their practices, fits into their history as a violent, illegitimate, racist organization.
21 Savage rapped about children separated at the border, and now he’s separated from his own, detained indefinitely in an ICE facility with no bail. His three children are US-born and citizens, and their father is being overtly threatened with detention. Yet, in the initial wake of the news, which was dominated by the ICE statements, many found only humor in the situation.
Some, like rappers Wale and Offset, stood against the tide. “Why is somebody freedom funny…I don’t get the joke,” Wale tweeted. Offset, Migos member and fellow Atlanta rapper who collaborated with 21 Savage on the well-regarded album Without Warning in 2017, also tweeted his support: “ALL THE MEMES AND SHIT AINT FUNNY WHEN SOMEBODY GOING THROUGH SOME … AINT SHIT FUNNY HIS [FAMILY] DEPENDING ON HIM.”
Other rappers, like Meek Mill and Vince Staples, simply posted “Free 21,” with 21’s signature knife emoji.
We can’t allow the organization responsible for so much pain, anguish, and even death at the border to cynically use the situation of another immigrant, even a successful one, to control the narrative about immigration and the role of ICE in general. We should follow Meek Mill and Vince Staples’ example and demand the liberation of 21 Savage and all other immigrants menaced by ICE.
Free 21 Savage, and free every immigrant who faces detainment and mistreatment by that criminal organization.