Fans were shocked when “Atlanta-known” rapper 21 Savage was taken into custody by ICE during Super Bowl weekend and now faces possible deportation back to the UK.
ATLANTA – To many in this city’s large and influential hip-hop scene, 21 Savage is a hometown hero.
The 26-year-old rapper, whose second album debuted atop the Billboard 200 in December, has used his burgeoning fame to help his community – hosting back-to-school drives in East Atlanta, for example, and teaming up with PUMA for a Halloween party for kids at South Dekalb Mall.
Now fellow Atlanta artists, activists and fans say it’s their turn to help him.
The rapper, who was born in London as She’yaa Bin Abraham-Joseph and brought to the United States as a child, was arrested by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement on Feb. 3 and now faces deportation. ICE says he is living in the United States illegally.
Now some of Atlanta’s biggest hip-hop artists – including T.I., Offset and Killer Mike – are posting photos with the rapper on Instagram and pressing the government to allow him to stay. Fans and activists have rallied on his behalf.
Killer Mike, born Michael Santiago Render, called Abraham-Joseph an “economic plus” to the local community.
“21 Savage is a fine young man, and he is an excellent example for young people in Atlanta and beyond,” he told USA TODAY. “I support him and want to see him stay in a country that he has long called home.”
ICE spokesman Bryan Cox said Abraham-Joseph entered the United States legally in July 2005, but his visa expired in July 2006. Cox said the rapper was convicted on felony drug charges in October 2014 in Fulton County, Georgia.
Abraham-Joseph’s attorney says that conviction was vacated and sealed in 2018.
Attorney Charles Kuck said the rapper never hid his immigration status from the U.S. government, and applied for a U-Visa in 2017 as the victim of a crime.
Kuck declined to release details of the crime. But he said Abraham-Joseph grew up poor in a rough neighborhood amid violence and gangs.
“He is truly one of those guys that had his heart in the right place but came from a very difficult background,” Kuck said. “We think that the support has had a massive impact on moving his hearing forward and showing ICE that immigrants are supported by the hip-hop community.”
21 Savage had been scheduled to perform this month at the Grammys before he was arrested. He had just released an extended version of his song “A Lot,” which included a line about the Trump administration’s family separation policy for undocumented immigrants: “Went through some things, but I couldn’t imagine my kids stuck at the border.”
Some 50 protesters gathered outside Atlanta Immigration Court last week at a #Free21Savage rally hosted by Black Lives Matter and Color Of Change. Fans wearing black and white #Free21Savage T-shirts stood in the rain holding up ‘Black Lives Matter’ signs with images of Abraham-Joseph.
Demonstrators tried to deliver a petition they said had 450,000 signatures supporting the rapper, but said they were turned away by court officials.
“Folks look at him like a bad guy but he does so much good that folks don’t even know,” said Mike Smith, 24, of Atlanta. “He’s been here too long … and he’s not out here terrorizing the city.”
Abraham-Joseph has spoken publicly about his troubled childhood. He was expelled from school in 7th grade for carrying a gun. He sold drugs and was shot.
Patrisse Khan-Cullors, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter, said she hoped the rally would also raise awareness of the plight of black undocumented immigrants.
Nearly 619,000 undocumented immigrants in the United States are black, according to Black Lives Matter. Khan-Cullors said black immigrants are more vulnerable than others, and more likely to be labeled as criminals.
Abraham-Joseph is among some 2 million “Dreamers,” immigrants brought to the United States as children and who now consider it there home.
“It’s important that people know that he is a human being,” Khan-Cullors said. “Him and his family have been through a lot of things. And it’s our job as a black community to support each other.”
Celebrities from beyond Atlanta are also expressing support. The hip-hop mogul Jay-Z has enlisted an attorney to help Abraham-Joseph in his legal battle.
“The arrest and detention of 21 Savage is an absolute travesty, his U visa petition has been pending for 4 years,” Jay-Z said on his Roc Nation Twitter account. “In addition to being a successful recording artist, 21 deserves to be reunited with his children immediately. #Free21Savage.”
Metro Boomin’, who co-produced the rapper’s 2016 extended play “Savage Mode,” wore a #Free21Savage jacket this week while performing on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.”
Abraham-Joseph has long been considered one of Atlanta’s own, collaborating with local performers Gucci Mane and Zaytoven on “East Atlanta Day” and referencing the city’s Zone 6 neighborhood in his Billboard Top 20 song “Bank Account.”
The local hip-hop writer Jewel Wicker said many in the hip-hop community were blindsided not only by his arrest, but by the news that he was an immigrant.
But the community quickly came to his defense.
“I think that speaks to the legacy that he’s building here in Atlanta,” Wicker said. “Him and his team have been working so hard to change his reputation and reform his image to make him someone who is part of the community.”
Despite his immigration status, some say Abraham-Joseph will always be associated with Atlanta.
“He’s definitely made so many strides and put Atlanta on his back while doing it,” said Jasmine Grant, a Brooklyn-based hip-hop writer. “His approval is deserved as far as the support from the community.”
T.I. said he’d watched Abraham-Joseph “grow into a king.”
“I watched him build an empire with very few instructions,” the rapper wrote on Instagram. “I witnessed his growth personally from his very first video ever until now. His commitment to change should be acknowledged and supported. I can’t just sit back and watch unnecessary punishment be cast down to one of our treasures.”
Contributing: Cydney Henderson, USA TODAY
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