By Isabelle Morrison
Since his mixtape debut in 2015, Atlanta-based rapper 21 Savage has become one of the hottest names in hip-hop today, churning out hit after hit, and establishing himself on the Billboard hip-hop charts with tracks like “No Heart” in 2016, “Bank Account” in 2017, and most recently, “A Lot” featuring J. Cole, in 2018. His second studio album, I Am > I Was, released at the end of 2018, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart. Needless to say, he’s a formidable presence in the music industry.
On February 3, Savage was arrested in his Atlanta hometown by U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement, better known as ICE. Born Shéyaa Bin Abraham-Joseph in the U.K. in 1992, Savage has lived in the U.S. for nearly 20 years after immigrating here legally as a 7-year-old, his team later confirmed. Though his visa expired in 2006, the government has known about his immigration status since he filed for a U visa in 2017.
ICE Spokesman Bryan Cox provided the agency’s side of the story: “U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrested unlawfully present United Kingdom national Sha Yaa Bin Abraham-Joseph AKA ’21 Savage’ during a targeted operation with federal and local law enforcement partners early Sunday in metro Atlanta. Mr. Abraham-Joseph was taken into ICE custody as he is unlawfully present in the U.S. and also a convicted felon.” Despite ICE’s claims, Savage’s legal team insists he currently has no criminal convictions.
Indeed, throughout the years, Savage has given back to his community, establishing the “Bank Account” initiative in 2018, a financial literacy campaign which educates teens in Atlanta about smart money management, and hosting his yearly “Issa Back to School Drive” event to aid the Atlanta school system’s childhood education, resources on anti-bullying and mental health, and school supplies.
Nevertheless, Savage, the father of three American-citizen children, was detained in one of the most brutal immigration detention centers in the United States, on “lockdown” for 23 hours a day with no access to any form of media or communication, besides 10-minute phone calls. Prior to his Tuesday (February 12) release from detainment on bond, he was denied bail of any amount, and faced possible deportation.
Savage’s arrest drew an outpouring of outrage and support for Savage from the music community on social media over the course of the past week. But at the 61st annual Grammys held this past Sunday — where Savage was nominated for two awards for his feature on the multi-platinum record “Rockstar” by Post Malone, and was set to perform alongside Malone at the ceremony — he received little acknowledgement, leaving many viewers disappointed. Prior to the ceremony, Savage’s co-manager Justin Williams took to Twitter to also announce that the Grammys would not be giving Savage’s mother tickets to attend the ceremony on her son’s behalf.
Though Malone was photographed wearing a shirt that read “21 Savage” backstage, any tribute to Savage onstage during his performance of their collaboration was noticeably absent. In fact, Savage’s part in the song was completely cut from the performance. Fellow rappers Drake (who collaborated with Savage on his 2016 hit “Sneakin”) and Cardi B (who collaborated with Savage in 2018 on another hit, “Bartier Cardi”), were also silent about the issue during their moments in the spotlight. The only mention of Savage’s name came from a brief shoutout by Swedish composer Ludwig Göransson during his acceptance speech for Childish Gambino’s “This is America,” which Savage is credited on.
After the show, Savage’s management tweeted that they had reached out to several artists to stand in solidarity with him and perform his verse during the performance of “Rockstar,” but those artists declined.
On Sunday — the same night as the awards ceremony — a heartbreaking video began to spread on Twitter. In it, a young woman with the display name Yulisa pleaded with the internet to help find her mother who was discreetly taken by ICE. Through sniffles, Yulisa explains that her mother had just been released from Harris County Jail in Houston, Texas, when she disappeared. Authorities told the girl they’d seen her mother get on public transportation, but that night, her mother never came home. Instead, she received a brief phone call from her, saying she was with ICE. According to her tweets, ICE had taken her mother into custody under a completely different name and nationality, falsely labeling her as Mexican when she is in fact from El Salvador. The girl says she has sought help from the ICE immigration centers in her area, but they could not provide her with any information regarding the whereabouts of her mother.
Based on Yulisa’s account, ICE has the capacity to flat-out lie and fabricate information about individuals — a claim that is dangerous for all POC in America, regardless of immigrant status. Black immigrants, a rapidly growing population in the U.S., are even more vulnerable as ICE has increasingly worked with federal and local law enforcement under the Trump administration, and Black people are likely to face racial profiling and be targeted by law enforcement — Savage’s highly-publicized arrest, and his supposed criminal conviction that ICE cited as pretext for it, is a reminder of this.
The exclusion of Savage from the Grammys comes as a shock, as artists have used the awards show as a platform to speak up about political issues in recent years — whether to critique our current president, or to show support for survivors of sexual harassment and assault. 21 Savage’s arrest should’ve been no different, as it underlines a stark and undeniable reality: Because of the Trump administration’s corrupt immigration enforcement, Black and brown immigrants are truly that easy to discredit and erase.