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Why it matters that 21 Savage is ICE's latest victim

A few days prior to the arrest, 21 Savage released a music video for his new song that directly called out ICE’s policies, and then performed the track on the Tonight Show

Kim Kelly
New York
Monday 04 February 2019 23:39
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Rapper 21 Savage arrested in US due to being UK citizen

The latest development in ICE’s (US Immigration and Customs Enforcement) apparent single-minded quest to become the most hated arm of a deeply unpopular government came to a head in Atlanta, Georgia during the early hours of Sunday 3 February. That’s when Grammy-nominated rapper 21 Savage (born Sha Yaa Bin Abraham-Joseph) was arrested in what ICE spokesman Bryan Cox called a “targeted operation” involving local and federal law enforcement, and placed into deportation proceedings in federal immigration court.

ICE alleges that the 26-year-old known as 21 Savage is a British citizen who entered the US legally in July 2005, when he was 12 years old, and then overstayed his visa. It essentially places him on the same level as the DREAMERs who arrived in the US as children, are being punished by this administration for circumstances they could not control, and are still fighting for the right to stay.

The rapper’s actual birthplace remains unconfirmed, with an unverified birth certificate citing the UK but fans online insisting that he hails from Dominica, an island in the Caribbean (he has mentioned in interviews that his mother, Heather, is of Dominica descent). If he was born in Dominica — a former British colony — then this entire episode is all the more shameful, given the UK’s current plans to forcibly repatriate dozens of Jamaican immigrants, which will include people who came to the UK as children and those who have British children. This cruel, needless deportation scheme echoes the 2017 Windrush scandal, which saw dozens of British citizens wrongly detained, denied legal rights, and deported to various Caribbean nations, and underlines the existential threat that faces so many immigrants of colour, especially those who are part of a greater diaspora.

In 21 Savage’s case, ICE spokespeople have fanned the flames of controversy already by saying that “his whole public persona is false.” Whatever else it says, this statement shamefully implies that 21’s geographical place of birth—wherever it actually may be— negates his right to claim Atlanta as his home. This is the city he’s lived in for more than half of his life, where he launched a highly successful career and made his mark on modern hip-hop, and into which he’s poured a significant amount of time and resources via philanthropic efforts.

With his Leading by Example foundation and in partnership with the local nonprofit Get Schooled, 21 Savage has spent years working to promote literacy, and to help underprivileged schoolchildren and their families. It’s also where he was arrested (for a felony that was expunged from his record in September 2018), survived a brutal shooting, started a family, and saw his best friend die. If that doesn’t give him the right to call Atlanta home, what does?

So why did ICE decide to go after him now? According to his lawyer, 21 actually has a pending U-Visa application (as the victim of crime) with USCIS that was filed in 2017, and as such, should be eligible to remain in the US. A few days prior to the arrest, 21 Savage released a music video for his new song with J. Cole, ‘A Lot’, that directly called out ICE’s inhuman border policies, and then performed the track on the Tonight Show. Did the authorities truly believe that this man was a threat to the security of this country? Or did they see a rich, famous, successful black man calling their bluff on a national stage, and decide to take him down a peg?

It shouldn’t matter either way, because there is no logical reason for 21 Savage—or anyone—to be deported. In a world of often nebulous and always oppressive borders, what should matter more in terms of decreeing where a person “should” be—a piece of paper dashed off by an overworked doctor, or the life and legacy that they have built?

There is now (and never really was) any rational way to argue that the tactics employed by ICE against vulnerable people of colour are anything besides a national disgrace. In fact, hit by boycott campaigns and brutal evidence of their own misdeeds, it’s no surprise that even ICE doesn’t want to deal with ICE anymore.

Of course there are laws that govern our borders—but as Dr King wrote in his iconic letter, “one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws”. Nothing could be more unjust than the way Donald Trump’s current government treats those people who it decides “don’t belong”. And nothing could underline more severely how much people of colour are at risk today than the arrest of someone whose fame, fortune and philanthropy suddenly meant nothing to the country he’d built a life in, days after he stood up on TV and expressed solidarity with “innocent” refugees on the border “who can’t afford a lawyer”.

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