The arrest of 21 Savage:

Much more than a meme


On Sunday, Feb. 3, Grammy-nominated rapper She’yaa Bin Abraham-Joseph, better known by his stage name 21 Savage, was taken into custody by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in Atlanta, Ga. and awaits deportation.

Normally known for avoiding informational requests from the press, ICE reached out to CNN correspondent Nick Valencia to declare that Savage’s “whole public persona is false. He actually came to the U.S. from the U.K. as a teen and overstayed his visa.” This statement marked the launch of what was essentially a PR campaign on behalf of ICE to turn public opinion against the rapper, portraying him as a fraud and discounting his lived experience as a black man growing up in Atlanta as a lie.

Throughout Superbowl Sunday, Savage’s arrest polarized Twitter; half using it as fodder for meme material, the other half to generate support for the father of three. After the initial shock passed, social media users and celebrities alike began to question the timing of the rapper’s arrest.

ICE had plenty of opportunities to apprehend 21 Savage from the time of his visa expiration in 2006, so what motivated them to target him in 2019? Some speculate his recent performance of his Billboard Hot 100 hit “A Lot” on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon on Jan. 28 attracted the attention of immigration officials when he added new bars to the song: “been through some things so I can’t imagine my kids stuck at the border / Flint still need water / People was innocent, couldn’t get lawyers.”

ICE spokesman Bryan Cox justified the arrest in a statement to The Washington Post, claiming that Savage entered the U.S. in 2005 but became “unlawfully present” when his visa expired the following year. Only a minor at the time (Savage’s team says he was seven years old, ICE claims he was fourteen), Savage joined the ranks of approximately two million children without clear legal status. Savage’s lawyer, hired for him by rap mogul Jay-Z, insisted that the rapper “has never hid his immigration status from the U.S. government,” and has in fact been waiting for approval of his U visa since 2017. Moreover, as journalist and activist George M Johnson pointed out, there is “no way” that the Department of Homeland Security was unaware of the rapper’s immigration status; he was arrested on felony drug charges back in 2014.

No matter ICE’s justification for the arrest, the message they’re sending is clear: nothing, not even celebrity status, protects immigrants (legal or otherwise) from deportation.

As we’ve seen in the news, especially over the past two years, ICE indiscriminately ejects law-abiding residents from the country at whim: mothers, fathers, business owners, construction workers, celebrities; it doesn’t matter. It’s not just Mexicans that are being targeted either, US residents of all nationalities have become targets of the organization.

As a black immigrant, 21 Savage’s case is complicated even further, as many members of the African diaspora may not know their family’s “true” country of origin due to the ongoing history of colonization and exploitation of Africa. How can the West colonize an entire continent, completely isolate individuals from their families, threaten them into assimilation, and then have the audacity to ask for “papers”? Not to mention that a large percentage of the refugees seeking asylum in America are forced to do so as a direct consequence of America’s meddling in their home countries, starting wars and staging coups for profit.

You’re probably thinking “What am I supposed to do? None of that is my fault.” You are not as powerless as you think. Don’t succumb to fruitless political finger pointing and address the true issue: the abolition of ICE.

The idea is not as radical as you might think. ICE hasn’t even reached its sixteenth birthday; it was birthed only after the 9/11 terrorist attacks under the noble premise of “fighting terrorism.” Sixteen years of egregious human rights violations and family separations have rendered ICE nothing more a domestic terrorism organization. Justice will never be served until every family is reunited and compensated for the trauma ICE has inflicted on our country. As of Tuesday, Feb.12, 21 Savage has been released on bail thanks to the hard work of activists like Clarissa M. Brooks and organizations UndocuBlack, Black Lives Matter, Define American, BAJI, UWD and others. But the fight against ICE won’t end until everyone puts in work, the burden cannot continue to fall on the shoulders of black activists alone. Start conversations with your peers. Donate to any of the above campaigns. Volunteer your time to organizations like the ACLU or DSA. If you take nothing else away from this editorial, remember this: inaction is violence.


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