On Sunday, United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrested the rapper 21 Savage, stunning his fans by declaring that he is a British citizen and has overstayed his visa. The arrest comes just months after the 26-year-old musician’s latest album, “I Am > I Was,” debuted at the top of the Billboard 200 and just days after he sang on national television against President Trump’s policy on family separation. The rapper, who is also up for two Grammys this Sunday, now faces imminent deportation. Within minutes of the announcement of his detention, the internet was flooded with memes making light of the news, and fans who thought he was born in Atlanta seemed to believe that he had betrayed them.
Their reactions have demonstrated what I have come to see, in my own experiences as a black son of immigrants, as an ingrained American inability to think about both blackness and immigration simultaneously and through a complex lens.
According to ICE, 21 Savage, born She’yaa Bin Abraham-Joseph, entered the country legally with his parents in 2005 when he was about 12 years old but remained after his visa expired a year later; his lawyers have said that he came to the United States much earlier, when he was 7.
Rather than being appalled at the arrest, many responded with wisecracks. As the Washington Post pop music critic Chris Richards reported, “seemingly stunned by the strangeness of the breaking news,” some of the “citizens of rap-Twitter,” as he called them, “reflexively launched into joke torrents, superimposing 21’s face onto images of Buckingham Palace guards and translating his lyrics into Cockney slang.”
While some prominent musicians have come to his defense, many of the memes about 21 Savage imply that despite his having lived in Georgia since he was a young boy, his British origin somehow disqualifies him from claiming it as his home. They imply that he is somehow a lesser rapper — that his claim to hip-hop and black American culture is now illegitimate. “21 not a blood; he’s a redcoat,” a person commented on Twitter.
At first glance, these reactions could be viewed simply as harmless jokes. And maybe some just had a hard time conceiving that a rapper could be British. But their dismissiveness hit close to home with me, bringing up my own experiences in which similar attitudes have been all too prevalent. I remember the first time someone told me that I am not black. I was in middle school. A boy who had just found out that my parents were from Ethiopia turned to me and said, “Wait, I thought you were black?” I stared blankly, giving no response. “Nah, bro, you’re African.” I neither accepted nor denied this. A couple of months later, I was asked the same question. This time I replied, “What’s the difference?” Silence. A shrug. I was left not knowing who or what I was, feeling as though I was trying to fulfill a position I was unqualified for.
I faced this false distinction at home as well. The first time I heard the world “black” used like it meant something dirty, I was around 9 or 10 years old. This experience is common for children of the African diaspora. It was probably a holiday or someone’s birthday, and my family was gathered together. The men sat in the living room, their laughs bellowing through the walls, talking about politics (Ethiopian and American), each louder than the other.
Suddenly, the conversation shifted to race. Someone announced to a chorus of groans: “I am not black. I am African. I am Ethiopian. I know where I come from.” And then my mother’s swift rebuttal: “Here, our sons are black. Whether you like it or not, this country doesn’t care.” Yet again, I was left not knowing what to call myself or who I was. Years later, I remember this conversation when I am being followed in a store. Being Ethiopian does not exempt or shield me from American racism.
It seems that a narrow view of the word “black” in an American context is preventing blackness from being allowed to coexist with other identities and racism from being allowed to coexist in conversations with other issues — especially immigration.
In the case of 21 Savage, the mocking comments also show a lack of full recognition for how often ICE’s policies target black immigrants and how hurtful they can be. An ICE spokesman has reportedly said that 21 Savage’s “whole public persona is false.” Through such claims, ICE has tried to diminish 21 Savage’s career because of his immigration status and by implying that his experiences as a black man in America, chronicled by much of his music, are invalidated because of his birthplace.
21 Savage has overstayed his visa, but, as his lawyers have pointed out, this was “through no fault of his own.” One of his lawyers has said that ICE has known about his client’s immigration status and his whereabouts since he applied for the visa that would make him legal here, at least a couple of years ago. He also noted that his client “is clearly not a danger to the community, and in fact, his contributions to local communities and schools that he grew up in are examples of the type of immigrant we want in America.”
Some have questioned the timing of ICE’s move, given that the rapper had been convicted of felony drug charges in 2014 (the conviction was reportedly later expunged).
In the legal saga surrounding 21 Savage, I found unexpected validation. Here is a public figure who is very much black, and also an immigrant — an image that we don’t see enough and that I could have used when I was younger and grappling with my identity. It’s clear to me that 21 Savage is an immigrant and a black man, and neither invalidates the other. The foreign heritage of black immigrants like 21 Savage as well as first-generation children of African immigrants such as myself doesn’t counteract their blackness, and vice versa. It is not our responsibility to choose one identity. The inability to recognize both simultaneously has kept some from viewing his case as critically as they should. We as a society should not view race and immigration status as mutually exclusive.
Although it took the arrest of a prominent black man by one of the most feared government agencies in our nation to get us here, we are now finally starting to have a conversation about the intersection of blackness and immigration.