ISSA Injustice: Plight of British-born Rapper Representative of Contradictions of American Immigration System

Julie Dostal ‘19
Staff Editor

On January 29, 2019, rapper 21 Savage (Shéyaa Bin Abraham-Joseph) performed his single “A Lot” on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. In place of J. Cole’s feature, 21 Savage inserted a new verse. The verse included the following lyric: “been through some things, but I couldn’t imagine my kids stuck at the border. People was innocent couldn’t get lawyers.”[1] On February 4, 2019, U.S. Immigration Customs and Enforcement arrested Mr. Abraham-Joseph after a “targeted operation with federal and local law enforcement.”[2] ICE spokesperson, Bryan Cox, delivered a statement identifying Abraham-Joseph as an unlawfully present United Kingdom national.[3] Mr. Abraham-Joseph legally arrived with his mother on an H-4 Visa in 2005. His visa expired in 2006. At age 12, through no fault of his own, Mr. Abraham-Joseph’s presence in the United States became illegal.[4]


Photo courtesy of Photo 11: Roy Rochlin, Getty Images

Photo courtesy of Photo 11: Roy Rochlin, Getty Images

In addition to the identification of Mr. Abraham-Joseph as an illegal United Kingdom national, ICE also effectively labeled the rapper a fraud, discrediting his public persona as an Atlanta rapper and portraying him as a nefarious felon. An ICE spokesperson commented the following to CNN: “his entire public persona is false.”[5] Prior to his arrest by ICE, 21 Savage’s Wikipedia page stated he was born in Atlanta, Georgia. In an interview with XXL Magazine in 2016, the rapper stated he was “from Decatur, Georgia,” located in the Atlanta Metropolitan Area.[6] The public also interpreted the rapper’s reverent loyalty and common mention of the city of Atlanta as indicative of his birthplace.


Fans may not have been aware of where 21 Savage was born, but the U.S. government most definitely was. The ICE statement is clear. Mr. Abraham-Joseph's “public persona is false.” The intention is also clear. ICE intended to capitalize on the rapper’s alleged deception with regards to his citizenship to manipulate the public into disclaiming 21 Savage. The agency attempted to sever the rapper’s fourteen-year ties to the city where his brother died, where his three children now live, and where he started charity programs to help children in his neighborhood with financial literacy and school supplies.[7] ICE then labeled Mr. Abraham-Joseph a felon. Mr. Abraham-Joseph was convicted of felony drug charges in 2014.[8] The penalty was later expunged. The agency failed to mention the expungement in its official statement. Instead, ICE identified Mr. Abraham-Savage as a felon and a foreigner. The agency’s garnered its intended response from the American public.


“Immediately following news of the detainment, narratives echoing ICE’s language proliferated online. These quips relied on the dangerous logic of ICE’s statement: the implication that Abraham Joseph’s newly revealed immigration status renders him a fraudulent cultural interloper.”[9]


Public commentary demonstrated a marked lack of engagement with the life of 21 Savage. Further, the public’s embrace of ICE’s depiction of 21 Savage as a fraud and a felon demonstrates a “an unfamiliarity with the agency’s wide-ranging tactics to discredit its detainees, and the broader systems that contribute to that targeting.”[10] In May of 2018, a U.S. District Court held that ICE falsely claimed that detainees were affiliated with street gangs in order to successfully deport the individuals.[11] ICE failed to include relevant information regarding Mr. Abraham-Joseph’s arrest record. The agency also actively worked to discredit an individual who has tirelessly represented Atlanta and actively serves the community through philanthropy and taxes. It is essential that the public sensibly engage with the facts surrounding the arrest and deportation proceedings of
21 Savage.


On February 13, 2019, 21 Savage was released from ICE custody.[12] He paid $100,000 to be released on bond. A statement by the rapper’s lawyers revealed the U.S. government was already aware of 21 Savage’s immigration status. The rapper’s U visa application has been pending for over a year. A U visa is available to those who have been victims of a crime in the United States, have suffered physical or mental injury as a result of that crime, and who are helpful to law enforcement or government officials in an investigation or criminal prosecution.[13] 21 Savage’s U visa application likely relates to injuries he suffered after being shot six times by rival gang members. The rapper’s lawyers noted his visa application. The statement read in part:


“Mr. Abraham-Joseph has never hid his immigration status from the US government. The Department of Homeland Security has known his address and his history since his filing for the U visa in 2017, yet they took no action against him until this past weekend.”[14]


Despite the government’s previous awareness of the rapper’s residence, 21 Savage was arrested while driving with his cousins in Atlanta. Mr. Abraham-Joseph recalls he looked up from his steering wheel to see flashing blue lights and guns. A helicopter was also present during his arrest.[15] He was then put into the back of a car without further explanation. He told reporters that his only understanding of his arrest came from overhearing an officer state, “we got Savage.”[16] The rapper now sees himself as an important advocate for poor black Americans and poor black immigrants whose interactions with immigration authorities and law enforcement may not receive mainstream media attention.


21 Savage remains determined to stay in the United States. Fellow rapper and mogul Jay-Z is helping to pay for 21 Savage’s legal representation during his deportation proceedings. The arrest of 21 Savage and the subsequent media efforts by ICE to manipulate the public’s opinion of the artist should concern Americans. The pointed attempts to de-othorize 21 Savage are troubling, if not explicitly racist in their attempts to preserve an image of what it means to be American. Mr. Abraham-Joseph’s story is not unique. His presence in this country, like many DREAMers, was not the result of his own actions. His constant fear of deportation shaped his everyday life and public persona. His heavy-handed treatment by ICE is representative of similar experiences of other detainees. But other detainees rarely have access to the resources and representation which he has. Hopefully, his case serves to inspire empathy and further thought on how our government treats detainees.










[7] See the ISSA Bank Account and ISSA School Drive programs in East Atlanta.



[10] Id.



[13] Id.



[16] Id.