With the Super Bowl taking place in Atlanta over the weekend, just about anything could have happened. As the cultural epicenter of contemporary hip-hop, the city’s assemblage of rappers, producers, and industry insiders would no doubt be present, either at the game or otherwise at any number of official or unofficial events surrounding it. Still, nobody anticipated that the most consequential occurrence of the weekend would essentially have nothing to do with the season-ending contest between the Los Angeles Rams and the New England Patriots. Instead, all eyes were on newsfeeds about 21 Savage.
By now, you’ve no doubt heard about the detention of the Atlanta rapper, taken into custody by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for allegedly overstaying his visa by more than a decade. Arrested on Super Bowl Sunday as part of a reportedly targeted operation that also ensnared rapper Young Nudy, the incident revealed that the trap star born Sha Yaa Bin Abraham-Joseph is apparently a U.K. national who came here as a minor (first arriving at the age of 7) and not the lifelong Zone 6 native many believed him to be. While this disclosure led to a predictable series of social media jokes and memes that played up some British stereotypes, the rather serious matter puts Savage at risk of deportation from the U.S.
While Savage’s legal representation fights publicly and privately for his release, citing among other things that a 2017 visa application and his standing in the community prove that he’s not a flight risk, his continued internment echoes a lengthy and harrowing history of hip-hop’s deportation woes and, by extension, those of countless black immigrants to—and residents of—America.
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One of the earliest and most prominent examples came via Slick Rick, one of the genre’s Golden Age pioneers. His 1988 full-length Def Jam debut The Great Adventures of Slick Rick reached No. 31 on the Billboard 200 album charts the following summer largely due to the success of its second single and narrative rap classic “Children’s Story.” Two years later, he was convicted of the attempted murder of his cousin and one-time bodyguard in New York City. Despite claiming the act was in self-defense, he plead guilty and served time behind bars.
Although Rick’s sentence ended in 1997, his problems weren’t over. Like Savage, he was born in the U.K. and had come to the U.S. as a minor. His felony conviction put him at odds with a federal statute that mandated his deportation, prompting repeated attempts to do so by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the federal agency that preceded ICE. In one infamous incident, authorities arrested Rick following a concert cruise that docked in Miami and spent roughly a year and a half in custody while fighting his removal. After his 2003 release, they tried once again in 2006 via the Department of Homeland Security, the sprawling governmental arm founded in the post-9/11 era three years earlier. Even after a full pardon from then-New York Governor David Paterson in 2008 in attempt to mercifully end the ordeal, Slick Rick wasn’t able to take the oath to become a U.S. citizen until April 2016.
Less fortunate than Rick is MF Doom, another U.K. national by birth and New York resident. Having first come up via the Third Bass-affiliated and Long Island-based crew KMD, he reinvented himself in the image of a Marvel Comics supervillain and soon found a cult audience with his unique flow, inventive rhymes, and crafty beats. A few years after his critically acclaimed collaborations with producers Danger Mouse and Madlib, he attempted to return to the U.S. after a 2010 European tour and was denied reentry. Doom had no choice but to relocate to London, where he continued to make music away from his American wife and family. By 2012, he seemed resigned to his fate, telling an interviewer that he was “done with the United States.”
For many involuntarily removed migrants lacking the resources or leverage to contest their deportation from the U.S., Doom’s case highlights the unsettling status quo in the age of ICE. Founded as a subdivision of the Department of Homeland Security in 2003 during the Bush administration, the immigration law enforcement agency has become a chilling symbol of American xenophobia for many. Though ICE touts itself as a force for good, citing its efforts against human trafficking and transnational criminal organizations like MS-13, it rightfully faces mounting criticism for its actions and facilities.
In the first three-and-a-half years of the agency’s existence, 107 people died in ICE detention, information that the New York Times and the American Civil Liberties Union obtained in part through Freedom Of Information Act filings. The circumstances behind these deaths are almost as varied as the nationalities represented by the departed, people from Ghana, Guinea, and El Salvador, to name a few. Predominantly black and brown, migrants held in centers across the country then and now have been arrested by ICE at their homes, places of employment, and even during meetings with immigration officials. Once detained, they’re reportedly subjected to cruel and inhumane conditions, some sleeping on floors in kennel-style cages and indefinitely separated from their young children. According to the ACLU, most of those held in these places don’t even have legal representation, a harsh reality about how lacking the material means for an immigration defense can have grave consequences.
It’s a terrifying time for the millions of black and brown people living in this country, no matter what stage of the immigration process they’re in.
While 21 Savage’s may be the most recent high-profile case, his comes close after that of another urban music figure. In 2009, authorities arrested dancehall reggae icon Buju Banton, with corresponding charges of conspiracy to possess and distribute cocaine. Held in federal custody in Miami, the Grammy-winning artist not only faced incarceration for his alleged crimes but, as a Jamaican national, deportation as well. Following a mistrial the following year, a new jury subsequently found guilty at similarly high-profile 2011 retrial in Tampa and, despite appeals efforts, he served some seven years at McRae Correctional Institution in Georgia. Upon his release this past December, Banton returned to Jamaica, unlikely to reappear on U.S. shores ever again.
While his publicist claims it was a voluntary deportation, the likelihood of Banton being permitted to stay in the states afterward seems slim. Indeed, Jamaicans like him face considerable opposition at the hands of immigration authorities. Oswald Dawkins of Jamaican non-profit National Organization for Deported Migrants states about 1,500 people are in fact involuntarily returned to Jamaica yearly from the U.S., Canada, and the U.K., with many of those affected being over the age of 40. Stories like this recent one at the Huffington Post, in which a Jamaican family has been living under sanctuary in a church since last August, demonstrate the lengths that some families have had to go to protect themselves from an emboldened ICE. Given ongoing concerns and reporting that family separations sanctioned by the Trump administration have kept an alarming number of children from their detained parents, which Health and Human Services recently stated may likely be forever in many cases, they have every reason to resort to such desperate measures.
Of course, Trump certainly isn’t the first president to inflict the wrath of ICE and that of its frequent partner the Department of Health and Human Services upon the immigrant population. Still, his invective and fear-mongering narrative, particularly around the border, has coincided with increased efforts to further weaponize these agencies and their related counterparts. Between highly publicized aggressive actions by ICE on the ground across the country and the tactical conflation by partisan policymakers of asylum seekers and DREAMers with violent criminals and terrorists, it’s a terrifying time for the millions of black and brown people living in this country no matter what stage of the immigration process they’re in.
Though 21 Savage may be a well-known man of means, if his lyrics about the spoils of trapping are to be believed, celebrity and money simply may not be enough to keep him from remaining in a country he’s called home for the vast majority of his life. As his legal team points out, he came to America through no fault of his own and built a career in music despite hardships and circumstances where he’s been very much a victim. Nonetheless, given where things stand in this ugly and ongoing history of hip-hop and deportation, Savage certainly won’t be the last rapper to experience this.