Last week, while performing his latest single “A Lot” on the Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, rapper 21 Savage altered the ending of his final verse to reflect the ongoing water crisis in Flint, Michigan and inhumane conditions for families detained at the border. He rapped, “Started from the bottom, straight from the gutter, so I had to go a lil’ harder / The lights was off, the gas was off, so we had to boil up the water / 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.”
Five days later, on Saturday, Savage, whose real name is Sha Yaa Bin Abraham-Joseph, was taken into custody during a targeted operation in Atlanta by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents, who claimed he is from the United Kingdom and was in the United States illegitimately. An ICE spokesperson told CNN reporter Nick Valencia about the arrest in oddly specific rhetoric: “His whole public persona is false. He actually came to the U.S. from the U.K. as a teen and overstayed his visa... he failed to depart under the terms of his nonimmigrant visa and he became unlawfully present in the U.S. when his visa expired in July 2006.” ICE also cited a 2014 felony drug charge against, but according to his attorney Jacoby Hudson, 21 Savage was never convicted, and that same year the charge was expunged and the record sealed.
21 Savage faces deportation proceedings and, according to the New York Times, “is expected to appear before a federal immigration judge.”
Most, if not all, of 21 Savage’s music directly reflects his experiences and identity as an Atlanta rapper—his lyrics, as Amos Barshad wrote in a 2016 Fader cover story, are “nearly exclusively about guns, drugs, and loveless sex, and he is insular to the point of claustrophobia.” ICE’s statement on his arrest intentionally calls into question the authenticity of that music, and by extension, Savage himself, as if the government agency has learned to weaponize the way rappers like to skewer each other for being fake. If the barrage of British 21 Savage memes over the last few days are to be considered, the grounds for his arrest has successfully distracted from ICE’s act of detainment and potential deportation.
Fame did not protect 21 Savage from ICE, or from being arrested less than a week after he publicly protested our country’s heinous anti-immigration policies. As 21 Savage’s attorney Charles H. Kuck said in a statement, “The Department of Homeland Security has known his address and his history since his filing for the U Visa in 2017, yet they took no action against him until this past weekend.”
Kuck believes 21 Savage is “eligible for relief from deportation,” because, after his family overstayed their work visas, “he, like almost two million other children, was left without legal status through no fault of his own,” and that his arrest is “a civil law violation... and serves no other purpose than to unnecessarily punish him and try to intimidate him into giving up his right to fight to remain in the United States.”
21 Savage’s wealth and fame did nothing to protect him from the same government agency that targets courthouses; withholds prosthetics from amputees awaiting deportation; and, this week, acknowledged losing track of thousands of children after forcibly separating them their families. 21 Savage is unique in that his name is known, unlike the roughly 42,000 people being held in ICE detention on a given day. But his celebrity did not protect him from an immigration process that denies human dignity, thrives on surveillance, racial profiling, and harassment.
That was likely ICE’s point. Contrary to speculation, there is no confirmed link between 21 Savage’s detention and his new “A Lot” verse—according to TMZ, ICE knew about his visa application since 2017 but took no action until Sunday. It’s clear 21 Savage is being used as a high-profile example, his arrest meant as a scare tactic and a tabloid-ready assertion of ICE’s authority.