SHAH: Detention of 21 Savage cannot be overlooked

Opinion Column: The Progressive's Hot Take

I want to start by saying that I am not really a fan of 21 Savage’s music. It is just not my thing. And yet, 21 Savage’s detainment by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is something that absolutely everyone should be paying attention to, regardless of whether we find “Bank Account” to be poetically appealing. Because of the incident's unexpected addition to our growingly ridiculous news cycles, it is quite easy to delegitimize it altogether. The musical artist has been misrepresenting himself as an Atlanta native. The memes about it are funny, even Demi Lovato said so. 

Societally, the best way we seem to deal with the incredibly serious yet incredibly ridiculous moments in our current socio-political climate is to ease the anxiety with a meme. Yes, it is fair that in order to make sense of an increasingly negative and cruel world, we need a sense of humor. But not when these jokes detract from an instance of serious political ramifications, and not when this unjust arrest could possibly happen right in front of our faces without careful consideration of what this says about our immigration policy. 

Early Sunday morning, ICE took She’yaa Bin Abraham-Joseph, better known as rapper 21 Savage, into custody for overstaying his visa. In 2005, he was brought to the United States from the United Kingdom on a temporary visa by his parents, who overstayed the visa when he was only a minor. "He, like almost two million other children, was left without legal status through no fault of his own," said Abraham-Joseph's lawyer Charles H. Kuck.

He is facing deportation from his home of 15 years, which is an extremely dangerous prospect as Abraham-Joseph is the provider for his three children. He is even being denied a bond hearing — a fairly standard procedure for those who are charged with overstaying their visa — despite having “relief from removal available to him," Kuck said.

When it comes down to it, the “targeted operation” that resulted in 21 Savage’s deportation was random and yet not random at all. Less than a week ago, 21 Savage performed a new immigration verse on "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon," criticizing ICE’s inhumane detention of children at the border. And now, he has been targeted by ICE. 

Being an immigrant in the United States is difficult enough as it is, but in a criminal justice system that disproportionately targets Black men, the pressure intensifies tenfold. The arrest of 21 Savage calls our attention to negligence of Black communities in conversations about immigration, even though they face a disproportionately high risk of deportation.

But, the way we publicly choose to see the detainment is largely determined by the way ICE spokesman Bryan Cox has framed the event. In the statement, the only other details given about the arrest are regarding Abraham-Joseph’s felony drug charges of October 2014. Cox even allegedly said to CNN anchor Nick Valencia that 21 Savage’s “whole public persona is false,” deliberately painting him as a liar and a criminal. 

Statements from the agency failed to mention that the 2014 drug convictions have reportedly been expunged since then, or that Abraham-Joseph has applied for a currently pending U visa, which was filed in 2017. Even while knowing of his origin and story since 2017, ICE strategically took action that particular morning as an orchestrated intimidation act against a Black man — trapped despite his wealth and influence — and there is absolutely nothing more profound or intricate about it. 

By using a now-irrelevant drug charge from 2014 against him, ICE seeks to slander a man who has dedicated his most recent years to giving back to his community. He launched a charity entitled the “21 Savage Bank Account Campaign,” which aims to teach students about financial literacy, and gifted 21 students $1,000 to launch their own bank accounts. He hosts an annual “Issa Back 2 School Drive” in his old neighborhood to give children school supplies, clothes and haircuts to keep them in school. Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) has actually written a letter to ICE in support of Abraham-Joseph, noting that he is a “remarkable young man ... who spends his time giving back to the community.” 

They are trying to divert our attention with stories that have nothing to do with the nature of the deportation. They are depending on our lack of diligence to further intimidate Black immigrants and perpetuate a criminal justice system that is designed to oppress Black people. We cannot let our lack of outrage be the reason that ICE gets away with this. The real story is that Abraham-Joseph, a rapper who has made an extensive effort to turn his life around, was unjustly targeted by ICE and deserves at least the justice of our attention. Do not let the jokes interfere with your understanding of the nefarious intent behind this deportation. 

Anjali Shah is a Rutgers Business School sophomore, contemplating  her primary major but minoring in political science and philosophy. Her  column, “The Progressive’s Hot Take,” runs on alternate Fridays.


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