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Rapper 21 was taken into custody by US immigration agents in the state of Georgia, on Sunday. Photo: AFP

21 Savage fans’ outcry over US threat to deport the Atlanta rapper with English origins

  • Rapper’s music is deeply associated with the US city of Atlanta, so the announcement he is an immigrant from the UK came as a shock to fans
  • He is accused of being in the US illegally and was arrested by immigration officers on Sunday
It was a shock for fans when 21 Savage was taken into custody by US immigration agents in the state of Georgia. It was an even bigger shock to learn he had been an immigrant in the first place.

The Grammy-nominated rapper and his music are so deeply associated with the city of Atlanta that the notion he was born in England and brought to the United States as a child felt downright bizarre.

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Scores of surprised tweets came after his Sunday arrest. Memes bloomed that some called cruel under the circumstances, including one of him dressed as a Buckingham Palace guard, along with an old video of him talking in a mock English accent about tea and crumpets.

“It seems so outlandish that the prototypical Atlanta rapper is not from Atlanta,” says Samuel Hine, a writer and editor at GQ who researched 21 Savage and spent a day with him for a profile in the magazine last year. “I think that’s why so many people were sort of making fun of him, and making memes.”

By all accounts, few knew his real birthplace, and it certainly wasn’t publicly known.

His accent gave no indication, and his birth name, She’yaa Bin Abraham-Joseph, could come from any number of birthplaces.

“I certainly heard no whispers challenging his accepted backstory,” Hine says.

Abraham-Joseph was detained in a targeted operation in the Atlanta area and put in deportation proceedings, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) spokesman Bryan Cox said.

Abraham-Joseph’s lawyers say US immigration officials have known his status at least since 2017, when he applied for a new visa. That application is pending, and his lawyers say he should be freed while it’s pending.

21 Savage spent his teenage years in the city of Atlanta, also home to hip-hop group OutKast (pictured).

Both sides agree that Abraham-Joseph has not had legal status since his family’s visas expired in 2006.

ICE alleges that Abraham-Joseph came to the US in 2005 at age 12, while Abraham-Joseph’s lawyers say he began living in the country when he was seven, and the 2005 arrival followed a month-long visit to England.

“Mr Abraham-Joseph has been continuously physically present in the United States for almost 20 years, except for a brief visit abroad,” said Kuck Baxter Immigration, the law firm representing Abraham-Joseph. “Unfortunately, in 2006 Mr Abraham-Joseph lost his legal status through no fault of his own.”

Abraham-Joseph spent his teenage years in Atlanta – the city that also gave birth to rap gods OutKast – and his image and later his music became defined by the city’s distinctive and rich hip-hop culture. Even the “21” in his name is a reference to the block where he lived there.

“Him growing up in Atlanta is a pretty fundamental part of his story,” Hine says. “His identity is so rooted in his Atlanta sound, his Atlanta crew.”

Abraham-Joseph was truthful when he rapped about his youthful exploits in Atlanta, including run-ins with the law over guns and drugs, Hine says. He just left out the stuff that came before that.

A pair of mixtapes in 2015 made his star rise quickly in the Atlanta underground. Collaborations with Atlanta artists including Metro Boomin and Offset, of rap group Migos, raised his profile.

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He signed with Epic Records and made a pair of successful albums. His latest, “I Am > I Was”, debuted at the top of the US Billboard top 200 album charts this past December.

He has collaborated with Drake, Cardi B, and Post Malone, whose song with 21 Savage, Rockstar, is nominated for two Grammys at Sunday’s awards ceremony in Los Angeles.

For many who love 21 Savage, surprise about his arrest quickly gave way to outrage. Rapper Vince Staples joined many others in tweeting, “Free 21!” Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors established an online petition to stop his deportation that was fast gaining signatories.

Singer Demi Lovato felt some of the anger when she tweeted Sunday that “21 savage memes have been my favourite part of the Super Bowl.” She later clarified that she wasn’t laughing “at anyone getting deported”, but subsequently deleted her Twitter account.

While it’s not clear if it had anything to do with his own status, Abraham-Joseph did just recently address the subject of immigration and detention.

Last week on The Tonight Show, he added a verse to his song A Lot that included the line, “been through some things, but I couldn’t imagine my kids stuck at the border”.