Culminating a year of wild headlines, high profile beefs, and major album drops, 21 Savage christened the start of winter with his follow-up album I Am > I Was. It was the ideal project to close out the year and lead the culture into 2019. Savage had developed a career that was garnering respect and acceptance within overlapping circles. If his music wasn’t doing it for someone, his leadership outside of rap might do it.
In contrast to his debut release — Issa Album — his second effort was a proper shift in direction for Savage’s music. He recruited the likes of J. Cole and Childish Gambino for guest spots and provided more introspective examinations of his life and career. The net result was critical acclaim surfing on a wave of new fans.
Life was good for 21 Savage.
Until February 3, 2019 ICE zeroed in 21 Savage in the early morning and detained him. The hip-hop community would soon find out that 21 Savage, real name Shéyaa Bin Abraham-Joseph, was actually a citizen of the U.K. and came to the U.S. at the age of seven with his parents who were in the states on a work visa. The detainment stemmed when his parents work visas expired when he was 12-year old and they simply just never left.
But this is merely a tip of the iceberg moment. When examined with a more acute eye, there are aspects of this situation that need to be addressed. It has less to do with 21’s reason for being detained and more so with the timing of his arrest and the status of his celebrity. In order to understand the implications involved, it’s mandatory to go back to the inception of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
A Brief History of ICE
In 2003 the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement formed after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. However, ICE wasn’t necessarily a “new” leg of agency per se. The Department of Homeland Security combined multiple agencies to create ICE and it would focus on border security and anti-terrorist operations.
Early in its inception, the agency made its presence known with 1,900 arrests of illegal aliens, the capture of five “Most Wanted” criminals, and secured a removal order against Cuban Spy Juan Emilio. ICE would also utilize pre-established detention centers to keep detainees while their removal proceedings are awaiting processing. The agency to this day has established as many as 500 detention centers that house more than 30,000 illegal aliens a day.
The Obama administration would be responsible for the highest number of deportations through both terms. President Obama would earn the title of “Deporter In Chief” when his presidency ended with 2.4-million deportations. The start of Obama’s second term would also mark the 10-year anniversary of ICE’s existence. By this time, the agency had expanded its operations to pursue child predators and dismantling sex trafficking rings. ICE even began smartphone technology by developing apps to improve their effectiveness.
As ICE moved forward with their purpose and continued to evolve, criticism and controversy would follow them. Detention deaths were beginning to leak into the press. Detainees such as Sandra Kenley and Abdoulai Sali died as a result of severe negligence and lack of medical treatment for serious health issues. Between 2010 and 2017 there were more than 1,200 complaints filed for sexual abuse with only “about” 2% investigated.
Most recently, the backlash ICE has faced is its practice of separating children from their parents upon detainment. Despite the negative press, ICE shows no signs of slowing down and with the Trump administration’s focus on immigration, the agency is receiving a brighter spotlight in the media and press. Controversy aside, this has allowed for the agency to confront the scrutiny it faces with more caution and played a major role in the detainment of 21 Savage.
The Man & The Rapper
Shéyaa Bin Abraham was born in 1992 in London, England. His parents were of Dominican and Haitian origin and separated early in his childhood. He and his mother would immigrate legally to Atlanta in 1999 but by 2006 his H-4 Visa had expired. This wouldn’t influence them enough to return to London and ultimately they remained in the U.S.
Abraham would go through an endless cycle of trouble and setbacks. The first being his widespread expulsion from all schools in the county due to a gun possession before he was even a teen. Assimilating back into the school system would wear on him. Eventually, despite making it to high school, Abraham opted to drop out.
Shortly after, he joined the Bloods-affiliated street gang and embarked on a path of vice and violence. He lived a typical ghetto boy lifestyle of slinging dope, robbing rival gang members, and stealing cars. But as he aged from boyhood to manhood, so did the consequences. His younger brother was killed in a drug deal gone bad. Then, his close friend Larry was killed in a shootout. On his 21st birthday, Abraham and his best friend were shot multiple times by rival gang members. Johny didn’t survive.
It’s hard to ignore the grim poetics of Abraham’s near-death that birthed the rapper known as 21 Savage. The rapper who sports his signature crooked dagger tattoo between his eyes — a tribute to his younger brother Quantivayus — and raps with menacing calmness. His lyrics, like his dagger tattoo, pierce through haunting and heady beats cooked up by his new partner in crime Metro Boomin. The content is brutal, unwavering. A welcomed nightmare of sorts.
One mystery of the whole ordeal was 21 Savage’s previous drug charge conviction in 2014. His visa had been expired at that point but yet he was released without issues. A small minority of fans even started to entertain the possibility of a greater conspiracy afoot. But as information was slowly dispersed to the public, the facts were straightforward — 21 Savage was Shéyaa Bin Abraham. The kid born in London who moved to Atlanta with his mom at age 7 and never left after their visas expired.
Hip-Hop Vs. The Government
Hip-Hop’s relationship with the government has been far from harmonious and you don’t have to look far to find evidence to support that notion. Tekashi 6ix9ine’s RICO case is already reaching iconic levels of infamy and he was arrested in November of 2018. The major difference nowadays is that Hip-Hop is a major global force. It is both a cultural entity and a lucrative brand.
With 21 Savage’s arrest, he inadvertently became a social experiment of sorts. How much influence could Hip-Hop have in this situation? How will the media portray the entire ordeal?
Upon the news break, the Hip-Hop community was highly critical of ICE’s operation. Media reports were relatively objective of the situation and would make an effort to highlight Hip-Hop’s criticisms on the arrest. The two entities seemed to on the side of the narrative that presented 21 Savage as a victim more so than a criminal.
And it makes sense.
Many major media outlets rely heavily on Hip-Hop’s brand to generate viewership. Inclusively, many Hip-Hop stars have business relationships that crossover into several areas of entertainment. Lucrative deals in hospitality, sports, and clothing to name a few. In other words, advertising dollars that are at risk of being compromised if media outlets ruffle the feathers of the Hip-Hop stars attached to these ad agencies.
This is something to take into serious consideration when ICE’s response to the first wave of press was to tarnish 21 Savage’s image by stating “his whole public persona is false”. An examined look at how the press has villainized Hip-Hop for decades will make you believe this is the angle they would embrace. But money is power and unless ICE wants to purchase ad space in the gossip column of Cosmopolitan, not even they could bully the narrative.
Hip-Hop was able to utilize its global branding power to leverage the media to put pressure on ICE. In turn, ICE participated in seamless cooperation with 21 Savage’s legal team. A legal team organized by Jay Z and Roc Nation — two of the biggest entertainment brands in the world.
After nine days in custody, he was released and appointed a new judge to his case.
The Scary Truth
21 Savage was detained at Irwin County Detention Center in Georgia. According to the advocacy group Project South, Irwin is considered one of the worst centers in America. Per Rolling Stone, physical abuse by guards and sexual abuse is rampant and reports consistently go ignored. The center has a max capacity of 1,200 and when you consider America’s overcrowded prison industrial complex and that 34,000 immigrants are detained any given day, it’s safe to conclude conditions were less than ideal for 21 Savage and the other detainees.
And that’s the aspect of this situation that needs to be grasped. If Shéyaa Bin Abraham was detained instead of 21 Savage, the outcome may have been more doomed. 21 Savage’s status within the biggest culture and brand in the world was a critical factor in his situation. The fact it took major media influence and a multi-million dollar legal team for 21 Savage to navigate his exodus speaks volumes of the bleak battle immigrants face against this system.
It gets worse when you consider the majority of immigrants are held in private facilities that profit off of their custody. Where do those profits come from? Where else — us, the taxpayers.
In 2017, 649-million of taxpayer dollars was spent on detention centers. A third of that went to two facilities. For private facilities, it can cost upwards of 50% more for taxpayers to hold a detainee than a non-private facility. ICE has also done a poor job of maintaining adequate records on detainee demographics.
Length of detainment is also a crucial issue. Between 2015 and 2017, the length has almost doubled from an average of 21-days to 34-days. Currently, under Trump’s administration, it seems those numbers on average are higher than under Obama’s administration. Among the top 10 facilities, the detainment can average as high as 100-plus days. But prolonged detainment isn’t the most reported issue. Medical and health issues plague detention centers with legal issues and phone access in the mix. The latter two are most important to everyone caught up in the system, not just 21 Savage.
A Tale of Two Savages
21 Savage represents the conflicting perceptions of immigrants. The first is the fear-driven and criminal depiction preached by President Trump. The other is the immigrant who has contributed back to the community and embraced their American identity. The irony is that 21 Savage’s criminal background was nurtured by American gang culture. Then take into account the nature of his illegal status was not a result of his negligence. He was a minor when he migrated to the U.S.
Take away that context and leave only the image of Shéyaa Bin Abraham and it becomes easy to alter the narrative something more brutal. Instead of a well-liked MC who runs charities, we have a drug dealing and gun-toting Haitian immigrant who is here illegally. Oh yeah, and a gang member, let’s not forget that.
If 21 Savage had been detained a few years earlier, how different would the outcome be? After all, it was just over three years ago he released his first mixtape. It’s bigger than that though, it’s bigger than rap. The real question is how many Shéyaa Bin Abraham’s are there who deserve the same help 21 Savage got? A lot.