We don’t know a whole lot right now, but here’s what we do know: On Sunday night, US Immigration And Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrested Sha Yaa Bin Abraham-Joseph, the 26-year-old Atlanta rapper known as 21 Savage. An ICE spokesman said the arrest was a “targeted operation.” ICE claims that Savage is a citizen of the UK, that he came into the US in 2005 and that his visa expired a year later. After his arrest, Savage has been put into “removal proceedings” that will presumably lead to his deportation.
Right now, there is so much we don’t know. We don’t, for instance, know where 21 Savage is from. ICE claims that he’s a “UK national,” but that could mean a lot of things. The Daily Mail, the UK tabloid that has never exactly been a reliable source of truth, claims that 21 Savage was born in London, and it’s published what the newspaper purports to be his birth certificate. But there have also been reports that Savage is a native of Dominica, a West Indian island nation that was once a British territory. Maybe Savage was born in London. Maybe he moved to Dominica, and then to Atlanta, as a kid. We don’t know.
ICE claims that 21 Savage has a felony conviction. His lawyer Jacoby Hudson disputes that claim, telling Complex, “He’s not a convicted felon, so they reported that wrong, from their 2014 arrest. That arrest should be expunged. He has no felony convictions.” So we don’t know what’s happening with that, either.
We don’t know the circumstances of 21 Savage’s arrest. ICE might call it a “targeted operation,” but the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that Savage was riding in a car with Atlanta rapper Young Nudy, Savage’s cousin and occasional collaborator, when he was arrested. It appears that Young Nudy, who was arrested on unrelated aggravated assault and gang charges, was the real target of the sting, and that Savage was swept up and sent to ICE in the wake of that arrest.
This raises even more questions. Like: If 21 Savage has been an illegal immigrant for all these years, why didn’t that come up when he was arrested in 2014? Why doesn’t it come up whenever he travels internationally to perform? Are we sure he’s not really American? (ICE has a sordid history of targeting and arresting Americans.) And why now?
After Savage’s arrest, ICE spokesperson Brian Cox told CNN’s Nick Valencia, “His whole public persona is false. He actually came to the US from the UK as a teen and overstayed his visa.” While 21 Savage has always claimed to be from Atlanta and never mentioned anything about foreign citizenship, since when is it up to ICE to adjudicate a rapper’s “public persona”? How could that possibly be any of their business? (Cox later claimed that his words had been twisted.)
But whether or not it was ICE’s intention to call 21 Savage’s realness into question, that’s effectively what happened. Immediately after Savage’s arrest was reported, my entire Twitter timeline filled up with memes and dumb jokes, images of Buckingham Palace guards or stuff about tea and crumpets. It seemingly took a little while for the implications of this arrest to sink in — the idea that this rapper could be kept out of the place where he’s lived since he was 12, that he could be kept away from his kids. The pop star Demi Lovato tweeted, “So far 21 savage memes have been my favorite part of the Super Bowl.” (After getting a whole lot of backlash over that, she deleted her Twitter account.)
There’s another wrinkle to this. Last week, 21 Savage was on The Tonight Show, performing his single “A Lot.” He added a new verse to the song, making reference to American political scandals, including ICE’s practice of separating and imprisoning children in camps: “Been through some things, but I couldn’t imagine my kids stuck at the border.”
Maybe it’s pure coincidence that, a few days after rapping a line like that, 21 Savage was swept up and deported. But immigrant activists have already spoken about being targeted by ICE. 21 Savage might not be an activist, but between that line and Cox’s quote about his public persona, this feels like a rogue and empowered federal authority sending a message, letting us know that anyone can get got. It looks like straight-up Gestapo tactics.
Assuming he wasn’t actually born here, 21 Savage has been in this country for 14 years, more than half of his life. He has three kids. And he’s also a force for public good. He may have found fame by developing a violent, cold-blooded rap style, but he’s been moving away from that, both on record and in his public persona. He’s donated school supplies to kids in DeKalb County, Georgia, and he’s also publicly urged kids away from guns and violence.
Ultimately, though, none of this matters. It doesn’t matter whether 21 Savage raps about drugs and murder, and it doesn’t matter whether he’s tried to become a positive voice. He doesn’t deserve to be deported from the country where he’s lived since he was a little kid. Even if 21 Savage’s presence in the US is technically illegal, it does us absolutely no good to send him away. It’s a pointlessly shitty and cruel thing for a federal agency to do.
In this respect, 21 Savage is not unique. For years — especially after Donald Trump’s election — ICE has been destroying people’s lives for reasons that have nothing to do with national security. It is a federal agency out of control, one that needs to be wiped out of existence completely. Most of the people whom ICE has destroyed are not famous. Most of them are poor. Most of their cases will never get the kind of public scrutiny that 21 Savage’s case is already getting. 21 Savage does not deserve the situation he’s currently facing, and neither do so many other people. 21 Savage should be free, and ICE should be abolished.