Rapper 21 Savage, whose musical persona revolves heavily around the drug and gang life he purportedly weathered coming up on the east side of Atlanta, is British and in the country illegally, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement told CNN.
An immigration lawyer counters that 21 is being held without bail based on “incorrect information about prior criminal charges” and ICE seeks only to “intimidate” him into leaving the country as he awaits the fate of a special visa application. He has not been charged with a crime, the lawyer said Monday.
The rapper, whose birth name is She’yaa Bin Abraham-Joseph, is a citizen of the United Kingdom who entered the United States legally in July 2005 and failed to depart under the terms of a nonimmigrant visa, ICE spokesman Bryan Cox said. His visa expired in July 2006, ICE says.
If his publicly reported birth date is correct, the 26-year-old rhymesmith would have been 12 when ICE says he came to the States.
“Mr. Abraham-Joseph is presently in ICE custody in Georgia and has been placed into removal proceedings before the federal immigration courts,” ICE said in a statement. “ICE will now await the outcome of his case before a federal immigration judge to determine future actions.”
Immigration attorney Charles Kuck added Tuesday that Abraham-Joseph was 7 years old when he arrived in the United States legally. He took a one-month trip to the the United Kingdom in 2005 and returned on an H-4 visa.
His legal status expired in 2006 through “no fault of his own,” the attorney said, following up on comments he made Monday.
Kuck has said his client has a U-visa application pending with the US Citizenship and Immigration Services and “has relief from removal available to him.” The visa application was filed in 2017, four years after the rapper reportedly was shot six times during an incident in which his friend died.
A U-visa is available to those who have been the victims of a crime in the United States, have suffered physical or mental injury as a result of a crime and who are “helpful to law enforcement or government officials in the investigation or prosecution of criminal activity,” according to ICE.
The rapper is neither a flight risk nor a danger to the community, Kuck has said.
He has three children who are US citizens, a mother who is a lawful permanent resident, and four siblings who are either US Citizens or lawful permanent residents, his lawyer said.
Lawyer says 21 ‘a role model to the young people’
In October 2014, Abraham-Joseph was convicted in Fulton County on counts of marijuana possession with intent to distribute, possession of a firearm or knife during the commission of certain felonies and manufacturing, delivery, distribution and/or possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute. The rapper’s representatives say the conviction was expunged.
Sunday’s arrest, made public hours before the Super Bowl, was the product of a targeted sting, Cox said.
Another attorney for Abraham-Joseph said his representatives were working to secure his release.
“We are working diligently to get Mr. Abraham-Joseph out of detention while we work with the authorities to clear up any misunderstandings,” Dina LaPolt said in a statement.
Her client, she said, “is a role model to the young people in this country” and works to help underprivileged youth with financial literacy.
The Grammy-nominated rapper announced his “21 Savage Bank Account” – named for the hit, “Bank Account,” off his debut studio album – on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” last year and said he was giving 21 kids $1,000 bank accounts.
“It’s ironic because growing up in Atlanta, I knew almost nothing about bank accounts,” 21 said in a March news release. “Now that I do have money in my bank account, I want to help kids with a background similar to mine to get smart about their money.”
It wasn’t the only time 21 referenced his Atlanta upbringing, and news of his arrest spawned a parade of Twitter memes, including one stating he wrote his rhymes with a feather quill. Another said when he rapped about having shooters, he wasn’t talking about fellow gangbangers, but rather, British redcoats.
He’s long claimed to hail from the A
The legend surrounding 21 – crafted through his seemingly autobiographical lyrics, numerous biographies and interviews with “The Breakfast Club,” Interview magazine, Fader magazine and others – has lent the rapper enormous street cred.
As the story goes, 21 grew up in Atlanta with his mother and 10 siblings. Various reports say he was born in Roseau, Dominica. Smart but a troublemaker, he was kicked out of the DeKalb County School District, which covers most of Atlanta’s east side, for gun possession before doing time at a youth detention facility.
After finishing a semester of ninth grade in an alternative program, he dropped out of school, joined a Bloods-affiliated gang and began a life of weed dealing and crime.
In a 2016 interview with DJ Booth, 21 recalled losing his younger brother in a botched drug deal and grew “cagey” when asked about being shot six times.
“When he’s out of earshot, one of his friends quickly shares with me the version of the story he’d always heard,” DJBooth reported. “That a deal turned into an attempted robbery. That there were two assailants. That (his best friend) Johnny got shot in the head. That Savage, wounded, tried to shoot back. That afterward he shut Johnny’s eyes, got out of the car, closed the door, lit a cigarette, and waited nearly 30 minutes for the ambulance to come.
In his music, 21 regularly references his time in Atlanta’s traps, the areas where drug deals are commonly conducted, and claims to hail from the city’s Zone 6 – home to Gucci Mane, Childish Gambino and 21’s Epic Records labelmate, Future. A painting of 21 Savage – partially made of foil blunt wrappers – hangs prominently in rapper T.I.’s Trap Music Museum in Atlanta.
In “Bank Account,” he raps that he is “straight up out the 6.” In “asmr,” he rhymes, “Drive-by? Naw, we the walkup gang/I come from the 6, where they chalk up lames” and later declares, “Gold grill mouth/I come from the South.”
Latest album topped charts
He began rapping in 2013 and was largely considered part of Atlanta’s robust underground hip-hop scene until 2017 when his studio debut “Issa” hit No. 2 on the rap charts and he collaborated with Post Malone on the award-winning track, “Rockstar.”
21’s latest album was released last month and spent the first two weeks of 2019 atop the Billboard 200.
The “Red Opps” rapper’s arrest highlights an underreported aspect to the immigration debate: People who overstay their visas account for a larger percentage of the undocumented population of the United States than do those who cross the border illegally.
According to the New York-based Center for Migration Studies, between 2008 and 2014, visa overstays represented two-thirds of people who joined the undocumented population.
In defending his client, Kuck said the rapper rose above difficult circumstances, “made contributions to our society that rival any of those by a natural born citizen” and has children who are US citizens.
“As a minor, his family overstayed their work visas, and he, like almost 2 million other children, was left without legal status through no fault of his own,” the statement said.
“This is a civil law violation, and the continued detention of Mr. Abraham-Joseph serves no other purpose than to unnecessarily punish him and try to intimidate him into giving up his right to fight to remain in the United States.”
CNN’s Nick Valencia, Eric Levenson, Lisa Respers France and Catherine E. Shoichet contributed to this report.