I may or may not update this piece given the reactionary nature of this news + subsequent dialogue, but the initial reactions to this bizarre story about 21 Savage, the Atlanta rapper coming off of his first #1 album on the Billboard 200 with I Am > I Was, being arrested by ICE needed some addressing.
(Update 2/5/2019: new info on the case and my thoughts on it can be found at the end of this article)
21’s British origin (assuming ICE’s claims are true) does not erase the last half of his life
Historically, Americans are awful at grasping multidimensional identities. Whether it’s an LGBTQ identity that isn’t simply “gay” or “lesbian,” multiracial folks, or in this case, multinational folks, we’re very quick to bully public figures into one box so our narrative of them can exist without challenge.
The current information provided by ICE regarding 21’s immigration history is that he arrived in the United States in 2005 and his visa expired in 2006. That means he’s lived in Atlanta for half of his life (currently 26 years old), including very crucial formative years as a teenager. His British background does not negate the fact he also grew up in Atlanta’s Zone 6. His British background does not negate the poverty and gang violence that marked his teenage years. It also does not mean he can’t learn Atlanta lingo and speak it like a local because he is a local.
Taiye Selasi, a Ghanaian-Nigerian-British author, might know a thing or two about our current crisis in trying to understand 21 Savage. Her TED Talk “Don’t ask where I’m from, ask where I’m a local” addresses this conundrum in a way that makes the flaws of seeing people as “multinational” so painfully obvious, you’ll shed a tear over how trash your 7th grade social studies class was.
In discussing her friend Layla, a woman born and raised in Ghana by parents descended from Lebanon, Selasi herself first thought, “She’s not from Ghana.” She goes on to say this about her non-Ghanaian Ghanaian friend Layla (starting at 3:55):
In my mind, she came from Lebanon, despite the patent fact that all her formative experience took place in suburban accra. I, like my critics, was imagining some ghana where all ghanaians had brown skin or none held UK passports. I’d fallen into the limiting trap…the privileging of a fiction, the singular country, over reality, human experience.
Look, I get it, the jokes are too easy to make. But there’s a serious overtone of doubt regarding 21 Savage’s cultural identity. His story isn’t exactly like Layla’s, but the fact that people think 21’s childhood immigrant status puts the truth of his music and Atlantan identity in doubt is absurd and says a lot about how dangerously bad we are at understanding this complicated world we live in. To use Selasi’s term, 21 Savage is as much of a local of Atlanta as he is a local of wherever the fuck in the United Kingdom he’s from. Don’t jump into the circus because it’s cool for a hot second.
Also, why is he just NOW getting arrested?
Considering the number of times 21 has run into the law growing up in Atlanta, I don’t understand why he wasn’t gobbled up by ICE as a teen. Latin-American families in the States get ripped apart daily, so I wonder why a young Shayaa (21’s legal first name) with a whole expired visa wasn’t swiftly sent back to the UK as a threat to American society. According to an ICE spokesperson via the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 21’s arrest was the result of a “targeted operation.” But again, why now? Did he just slip through the cracks? Are certain immigrants lower priority? Questions.
TL;DR 21 Savage can be from both the UK and Atlanta without us having an identity crisis on his behalf. Don’t be stupid. Also, the nature of ICE’s “targeted operation” is really strange considering the number of times 21 has been snatched up by the law growing up. Wherever he ends up, I hope his career isn’t set back too harshly and he can continue to affect positive change.
UPDATE (2/5/2019): A statement from 21 Savage’s reps reported by The Blast counters the immigration timeline of 21 initially proposed by ICE. While he did come back to the United States in 2005 with a one-year visa, it was after a one month visit. According to his reps, 21 Savage’s initial move to the United States happened when 21 Savage was just 7 years old (late 1999). It has also come to light that 21 and his team have been battling to get his immigration status taken care of for years, including a recent U-Visa application in 2017.
With this new information, all the points originally made in the article have been strengthened: 21 Savage is an Atlanta local, and ICE is a messed-up organization. And even if he was already a 12-year-old upon arrival in Atlanta, those two statements would still be true.