By Alex Durham
When I heard that 21 Savage was arrested last Sunday, Feb. 3, for allegedly overstaying his visa, I was both shocked and confused. The shock came as I realized that one of the most famous Zone 6 rappers of our time was being accused of not actually being born in Atlanta, and the confusion came when I read about the circumstances of his arrest and saw the memes being posted at his expense.
The timing of his arrest clearly corroborated the idea that it was a planned operation, as U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrested him during the Super Bowl, one of the busiest days Atlanta will have this year. As people learned about his arrest, the reactions were a strange mix of support and sympathy from some and memes and jokes from others. Unfortunately memes dominated the response, with some people believing it was actually a joke because the idea of 21 Savage being from England seemed ludicrous. However, others responded in that way because they saw a chance to go viral and seized it.
When the details finally became clear, things were easier to understand. ICE stated that its reason for detaining him was a long-overstayed visa that he had failed to renew, and its case for deporting him rests on an alleged drug conviction that is on his record that would make him ineligible to stay under the visa through which he originally arrived to the United States. A question that still lingers on my mind, though, is why ICE decided to detain 21 Savage now given the other problems the department is facing?
By problems, I mean the infamous name ICE has gained in the past year. This has been partly because of the adamant backing of its actions by President Trump and partly because of its treatment of families detained for trying to cross the border. News and pictures of the department tearing families apart have garnered national attention, drawing criticism from Democratic politicians, celebrities and members of the general public.
ICE’s treatment of immigration families in detention has also recently been spotlighted by the deaths of three immigrant children and the fact that 22 immigrants have died in US custody in the last two years alone. On top of those numbers, the department is now also juggling a $60 million lawsuit by Yazmin Juarez, whose 19-month-year-old daughter died weeks after the two were released from a detention facility. Here is what I find the most problematic with 21 Savage’s detention: despite all of these failures on behalf of ICE to lawfully carry out its job with immigrants arriving at the border, it found the time and resources to plan the arrest of 21 Savage.
My criticism of ICE has less to do with the legality of its arrest and more with the nature of it and what targeting 21 Savage means in the greater scheme of the department. After he was arrested, an ICE spokesperson said that 21 Savage’s whole persona was fake because he actually came from England and not Atlanta. This unsettled me because it sounded like they were trying to convince the public to turn against 21 Savage because he was actually born outside the U.S., as if his accomplishments here should be completely dismissed because of his status as a U.S. citizen.
Throughout this whole ordeal, social media has exploded with memes poking fun at the idea of an English 21 Savage, and some celebrities laughed along with them, including Chris Brown and Demi Lovato, who have since deleted tweets mocking him. Initially I laughed along with them, thinking that the idea of 21 Savage being from England and not Atlanta was ridiculous, but as the situation has developed I find myself leaning more towards the responses Migos and Lil Yachty had, which wished him luck and called out people who were making jokes at his expense. This sort of situation is quite difficult and the idea of making fun of 21 while he is going through this shows some insensitivity.
On the whole I believe this whole debacle is another mark against ICE. Its targeted detention of 21 Savage and subsequent character attack is a clear attempt to smear his name and turn his fans and the public against him. It seems as if they are trying to foster a culture that turns the U.S. against anyone born outside the U.S. by trying to tear 21 down, which seems to be having mixed results, as part of the public has risen to his defense and the other part has resorted to creating memes out of his situation. One thing that is clear out of this, though, is that ICE has found itself in deeper water than it was in before by detaining 21 Savage.
Contact Alex Durham at alex ‘at’ stanford.edu.