ALPHARETTA, Ga. — For the last four years, 21 Savage has been one of the stalwarts of Atlanta rap, a rising star who has collaborated with Drake and Cardi B, among many others, and become one of the signature voices in the city. His December album “I Am > I Was” spent two weeks at the top of the Billboard chart, and his collaboration with Post Malone, “Rockstar,” was nominated for two Grammys.
With that success has come more visibility. In late January, he performed his single “A Lot” on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” adding a new verse in which he rapped about children being separated from their parents at the border.
A few days later, early in the morning on Super Bowl Sunday, Feb. 3, 21 Savage (born She’yaa Bin Abraham-Joseph) was arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, who said he was an “unlawfully present United Kingdom national” who had overstayed his visa.
He remained in ICE custody at the Irwin County Detention Center in South Georgia until Feb. 13, when he was released on $100,000 bond. The next day, he was in a hotel room in a suburb north of Atlanta, surrounded by several members of his legal team. Dressed in somber all-black, he spoke at length about his childhood, his time in detention, the Grammy Awards ceremony he missed and how growing up without legal status shaped the person he became. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Do you remember first arriving here when you were young?
Yeah, everything was like, bigger. I come from the poor side of London. My grandma house is real skinny. So when we first moved here, we was living in the hood still, but it was, like, way bigger. The toilet size, the bathroom size, it was just different. But I fell in love with it. It’s all I know.
Did you have a British accent?
Yeah, I had a accent, ’cause my first day of school they was making fun of me so I beat somebody up, and they was calling me “taekwondo kid.” My mama whupped me, she made me stay in the house. So I know I had a accent, but I been here 20 years — I don’t know what happened to it.
Do you remember when you became aware that your status wasn’t settled?
Probably like the age when you start to get your driver’s license. I couldn’t never take driver’s ed, I couldn’t never go get a job. About that age.
Was it something you wanted to get taken care of?
It felt impossible. It got to the point where I just learned to live without it. ’Cause I still ain’t got it, I’m 26, and I’m rich. So, just learned to live without it.
Like a lot of other immigrants.
We struggled but we couldn’t get food stamps, we couldn’t get government assistance. I learned how to live without. You know in school, when you get to a certain age, your clothes make you popular? I learned how to be popular without that. People respected me just for me.
Do you think the situation taught you to carry yourself a certain way?
It made me who I am. I wouldn’t write it no other way if I had the choice. If they said, “Hey, you could start your life over and make yourself a citizen,” I wouldn’t have never did it. I still want to go through this right here ’cause it made me who I am, it made me strong.
Were you aware that there was a possibility that at some point you might not be able to stay in the country?
Yeah, for sure. It’s like my worst nightmare. That’s why it’s always been trying to get corrected. Even if you got money, it ain’t easy. It ain’t no favoritism, and I respect it, I honestly respect it. It would be kind of messed up if they treated rich immigrants better than poor immigrants, I think.
How draining was it being in detention, especially with the uncertainty of how long it was going to last?
It really wasn’t jail, it was the possibility of me not being able to live in this country no more that I’ve been living in my whole life. All that just going through your head, like, “Damn, I love my house, I ain’t gonna be able to go in my house no more? I ain’t gonna be able to go to my favorite restaurant that I been going to for 20 years straight?” That’s the most important thing. If you tell me, “I’ll give you 20 million to go stay somewhere you ain’t never stayed,” I’d rather be broke. I’ll sit in jail to fight to live where I’ve been living my whole life.
I’m sure you were spending a lot of time in your head.
I could have made myself go crazy. I think they really try to break you. It’s like we gonna put you in jail and we gonna make you fight your case the slowest you can fight it so that you just want to go home. Nobody want to sit in jail, especially if they don’t have the money to fight it and they ain’t been to court in three months.
What do you think has happened in your life that gave you a different perspective?
It was what was at stake. It’s like, I got three kids, my mama, everything that I know is here in Atlanta. I’m not leaving Atlanta without a fight. We gon’ fight all the way till the last day even if that mean I sit in jail for 10 years.
Were you upset about missing the Grammys?
Nah, I was stressed about getting out. The Grammys is the Grammys, but when you in jail, the Grammys is nothing. I got to watch it. By that time they had put a TV in my room.
Was the original plan that you’d be part of the Post Malone performance?
Yeah I was supposed to perform. He wore the 21 Savage shirt, so I felt like I was there. I don’t care what nobody say — everybody in that building who’s connected to this culture, I was on their mind in some type of way. That’s all that mattered. They didn’t have to say it ’cause everybody knew it. It was in the air. All the people that was there, they said the words in other places and that matter just as much. All the big artists was vocal about the situation, so I was appreciative. Even the memes.
They didn’t stress you out?
Some of them was funny — I ain’t gonna lie. I was appreciative of that. I coulda been another person who just, “He locked up? Damn,” and nobody said nothing. Some people, I see why they was mad. It ain’t about the meme, it’s about the bigger picture. But I done been through way worse things in my life than somebody putting me on a meme. I been shot — what is a meme? A meme is nothing. That’s something on the internet that I can do like this [turns over phone] and never see again. I look at bullet scars every day, so it’s like, a meme, bro?
Do you feel a responsibility to speak up about your circumstances?
Yeah, I feel a responsibility. My situation is important ’cause I represent poor black Americans and I represent poor immigrant Americans. You gotta think about all the millions of people that ain’t 21 Savage that’s in 21 Savage shoes.
Do you feel an urge to put some of this experience into music?
Not right now, ’cause I feel like me putting it into music got me in this situation, kind of.
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