21 Savage, who is based in Atlanta, looks happy to be here. His eyes light up as he meets a spirited 8-year-old girl who tells him she’s already running her own business selling soap and other bath products. (“So can you give me some free stuff?” he asks her. Without missing a beat, she replies, “I’ll have to see what I can do.”) Later, a smile breaks across his face as he pulls two crying middle-schoolers into his embrace to take a picture. But he doesn’t appear entirely comfortable with all the students’ eyes on him. He fidgets quietly, seemingly unsure of where to look or what to say; at one point, Rep. Henry “Hank” Johnson, D-Ga., whose office helped set up the visits, tells him in a half-whisper to say something about staying in school and avoiding guns. A few seconds later, 21 Savage does just that: “Y’all stay in school, and stay away from bad people and guns and stuff, aight?”
The U.K.-born, U.S.-bred rapper prefers not to be the center of attention -- outside of performing onstage, at least. But that’s exactly where he found himself on Feb. 3. Just hours before Super Bowl LIII kicked off, DEA agents in Atlanta pulled over a car he was riding in, then handed him over to U.S. Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) officials, who detained him and began deportation proceedings for overstaying a visa that expired in 2006.
The news shocked many of his fans, who didn’t know that 21 Savage -- whose real name is She’yaa Bin Abraham-Joseph -- was born in the United Kingdom and legally arrived stateside at age 7, speaking with a British accent that has since faded. His gangsta-rap mystique seemed so at odds with English stereotypes that in the first few hours after the news broke, many fans responded with blithe (though often hilarious) memes that suggested the rapper had been living a double life and secretly palling around with Queen Elizabeth II.
Since breaking out with his 2015 mixtape, The Slaughter Tape, 21 Savage has become one of hip-hop’s most promising new stars with his blunt tales of poverty, gang violence and the trauma they inflict. His most recent album, last December’s I Am > I Was, topped the Billboard 200 for two consecutive weeks, and his catalog of songs -- including hits like “A Lot” and his Grammy Award-nominated turn on Post Malone’s Billboard Hot 100-topping “rockstar” -- has earned over 3.3 billion on-demand streams in the United States, according to Nielsen Music.
Even in his most confessional tracks, 21 Savage was holding back parts of his life story. In “A Lot,” he raps candidly about the murder of a close friend, who was shot during a drug deal. But nowhere in his catalog had he ever discussed his immigration experience. “That was the deepest thing” about the “A Lot” video, says the soft-spoken 21 Savage. “People will be going through a lot of stuff, but you’ll never know what they’re hiding behind their smiles. Like, nobody would ever know that I wasn’t born here.”
He’s sitting in a conference room at the Atlanta office of immigration lawyer Charles Kuck with Kuck and other members of the team that quickly mobilized the #Free21Savage campaign, as fans grasped the gravity of his situation and how it reflected on immigration issues more generally in the era of President Donald Trump. The rapper himself waded into the issue shortly before his arrest in January. During an appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, he performed a new version of “A Lot” with a verse that included a critique of the U.S. border crisis: “Went through some things, but I couldn’t imagine my kids stuck at the border.” Many, including prominent figures like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., have suggested that the lyric made him a target for ICE.