As the sun and clouds play hide-and-seek on a brisk March morning, three black SUVs pull up to Camp Jewell House Academy, a private school located in the Atlanta suburb of Decatur, Ga. A handful of school officials rush out to meet today’s guest of honor: rapper 21 Savage, who’s about to give students the surprise of their lives — or at least the most riveting lecture they’ll ever get about saving money.
21 Savage, dressed in all black, enters the school with his hood pulled up and his head bent down, trailed by a bodyguard and members of his legal and management teams. It’s the first of two stops they’re making today on behalf of the 21 Savage Bank Account Campaign, the 26-year-old rapper’s financial-literacy program that he launched in 2018 and named after his hit 2017 single, “Bank Account.” He started the program by giving 21 teens $1,000 each to start savings accounts; now he’s teaming up with nonprofits Juma and Get Schooled for the next phase, which aims to pair 150 at-risk Atlanta youth with jobs by June.
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.
21 Savage had brushes with the law before. In 2014, he was arrested on drug charges, though his lawyers say they were later cleared from his record. (Still, following his arrest, an ICE representative cited a 2014 felony drug conviction in a written statement about 21 Savage.) Yet he says that his ICE detention, which lasted for 10 days, was unlike anything he had ever experienced. “The worst thing was sitting in there not knowing what was going to happen, or when it’s going to happen,” he recalls. “Whenever I went to jail before, it was, ‘You’re being charged with this and going to court on this date.’ But immigration ain’t like that. You’re just being held.”
The father of three describes himself as a “low-key person who just likes to stay out of the way.” But 21 Savage may now have an imperative to reconsider how much of himself he shares. The rapper’s team says that photo-ops like the school visits are not part of a deliberate attempt to soften his image for the benefit of immigration authorities and potential supporters; they’re about growing his long-standing philanthropic endeavors and bringing to life the themes of social consciousness that he explored on I Am > I Was. Yet there is a clear awareness on their end that 21 Savage’s bleak and sinister lyrics could influence how he’s treated in the eyes of the law. Members of his team and the activists rallying around his case make a point of referring to him as She’yaa and not 21 Savage, suggesting there’s a benefit to letting the world get to know the human behind the hits — something the artist himself has been hesitant to do in the past.
“He understands that people are intrigued by him and his story,” says Kei Henderson, who co-manages 21 Savage with Justin “Meezy” Williams. “But his goal is to support the music and do things like sponsor sports camps. We’re finding ways to show people what he’s about without him doing a bunch of interviews, because that’s not his style.”
At a time when hip-hop is more engaged with activism than ever — Cardi B and Rihanna, to cite one example, reportedly declined to participate in the 2019 Super Bowl halftime show in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick — 21 Savage is now being thrust into the role of immigration spokesman. He potentially has a lot to gain from leaning into it: Consider the groundswell of support for Meek Mill that followed his 2017 sentencing for a probation violation, which inspired the #FreeMeek hashtag and prompted A-listers such as Jay-Z to speak out on the ways probation laws unfairly tether young black people to the criminal justice system.
The taciturn 21 Savage, though, is having a hard time adjusting. “I went from just being regular to my life being in the lens 24-7,” he says. “That’s the difficult part.”
21 Savage has known since he was a teen that his unresolved visa issues meant he could one day face deportation. In fact, he took steps to address the issue long before his ICE arrest. In 2017, his legal team filed an application for a U visa — which grants U.S. residency to crime victims or their families if they cooperate with the investigation — in relation to a 2013 shooting on the rapper’s 21st birthday, during which he was shot six times and his friend was killed.
Last summer, he also expanded his inner circle. Henderson and the rapper’s agent, United Talent Agency’s Cheryl Paglierani, brought fiery attorney Dina LaPolt onto his legal team. LaPolt is best known for helping the members of Fifth Harmony take control of their careers by renegotiating their Epic Records contract in 2016, and was one of the driving forces behind the passage of the Music Modernization Act last year. In 21 Savage she found a new kind of challenge. “His immigration issues were very complicated, and not a lot of people on the team understand [how to fix] that,” says LaPolt. “And I love to fix complicated things. I also liked all the social-impact projects he was doing, which is one of my passions.”
Following 21 Savage’s arrest, LaPolt quickly called upon a handful of politicians she had met through her work on the MMA as well her own industry contacts. In addition to Rep. Johnson, Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif.; Georgia House Democrat Rep. Erica Thomas; and the Congressional Black Caucus all issued statements supporting the artist.
Johnson met 21 Savage in 2018, when LaPolt invited the politician to attend the rapper’s third annual Issa Back to School Drive, which took place in Johnson’s district. “21 and I sat in his car and talked,” recalls Johnson. “We shared similarities in terms of his growing up in that area and me having been a criminal defense lawyer representing people from that neighborhood. So I was well aware of the conditions that 21 Savage dealt with growing up there. He’s regarded here as a hero to many people for having stood up to the forces that tried to take him down.”
LaPolt has also brought onboard Kuck, the immigration lawyer; Danielle Price, an associate at her law firm, LaPolt Law; and crisis-management expert Holly Baird, who says, “I think [21 Savage’s experience] is eye-opening for the music industry.” (Multiple sources also say that Irving Azoff is helping manage the rapper now, though a representative for Full Stop Management declined to comment.)
Meanwhile, Tammy Brook — a publicist and branding strategist who’s also present for the interview and had worked with 21 Savage prior to his arrest — flew into action on Super Bowl Sunday, reaching out to leaders of immigration and social-justice organizations, securing support even before the game had ended. The #Free21Savage coalition, led by Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Khan-Cullors, now includes backing from seven different organizations. During the nearly two weeks that 21 Savage spent in detention, the coalition produced T-shirts, rallied other celebrities and organized a petition demanding ICE halt its deportation proceedings. It has garnered nearly half a million signatures.
Khan-Cullors says she hopes the coalition’s work will shed light on the struggles other black immigrants face. “Much of how we are trained to think about immigration issues in this country is that it’s a Latinx issue,” she says. “Black immigrants are more likely to be detained and deported than any other immigrant group solely because of their blackness. We are living in a country where it becomes a double whammy to be both black and undocumented.”
The photo shoot for this story was the first time many of these activists had met 21 Savage in person. “There were definitely tears and a lot of laughter in what was a familial conversation, not an activists-and-artists conversation,” says Nana Gyamfi, executive director of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration. Noelle Lindsay-Stewart, entertainment media manager for Define American, says 21 Savage “is still processing a lot but is excited to learn more about how else he can help.”
When it comes to the rapper’s recording career, managers Henderson and Williams say the ICE ordeal has brought 21 Savage closer to his label, Epic Records, which is taking a behind-the-scenes role in helping him. “I’ve been talking to [Epic president] Sylvia Rhone, and everyone at Sony Music has been so supportive,” says Henderson. “Just because it hasn’t been broadcast publicly doesn’t mean it’s not happening.” (In a statement, Rhone calls 21 Savage “one of the true futurists of hip-hop” and says she had “great respect for him as an artist, but even more for him as a human being and a philanthropist.”)
Says LaPolt: “We’re all working together to secure his citizenship, to keep building his brand as a business and to keep expanding his efforts in giving back, which is very important to him. He wants to change people’s lives.” 21 Savage was taking part in philanthropy work long before his arrest, though he says the past few weeks have reaffirmed what he sees as his purpose outside of music. Four years ago, he says, “I was just trying to make it out. Now I’m trying to pull other people out.”
At the moment, 21 Savage’s future is uncertain. His hearing, originally scheduled for April 9, has been postponed. Because he is no longer in detention, his case will go to a different group of judges, but Kuck says it won’t happen soon: “They don’t have enough nondetained judges, so his case is waiting to be assigned. I can’t give anybody, even him, a date as to when that might be.”
Still, his team is optimistic about securing permanent residence for him. In addition to his pending U visa, 21 Savage has a few factors working in his favor: He has lived in the United States for over 10 years and has children — two sons and a daughter — who are U.S. citizens. His mother and several siblings also live stateside, either as citizens or lawful residents. “He has a lot of options,” says Kuck.
In the meantime, 21 Savage is trying to get back to some semblance of normalcy. He’s allowed to travel within the United States and will soon perform at the Lollapalooza and Rolling Loud festivals. Paglierani, his agent, says his own summer tour is in the works as well. He’s spending a lot of time with his children. (He declines to talk about them, but Henderson calls him a “real-ass” dad with a hands-on parenting style.) He plays video games — NBA 2K and Call of Duty are his favorites — and has found peace playing around with a flight simulator. “You don’t even think about anything else,” he says. “You’re just in the air and in control.”
21 Savage is also sitting on unreleased songs — two albums’ worth, he estimates — though he’s in no hurry to put them out. His managers think there are more potential singles to release from I Am > I Was first. And the rapper is still weighing how much of his immigration experience he wants to put in his music. On the one hand, he feels a responsibility to use his platform to advocate for those like him. But he has also suggested that touching on immigration in his lyrics may have been what brought him to ICE’s attention in the first place. “He’s not really a big talker; he lets his music speak for itself,” says Williams. “As his manager, I would love for him to speak [in his lyrics] about being detained. I think eventually it will be in the music, because he’s becoming such a big voice.“
For now, 21 Savage is asking fans to do the only thing he himself can do: “Just stay down with me and wait.”