When someone going about their life in America is apprehended by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, the appropriate response is generally concern and support. When 21 Savage was arrested by ICE this weekend, though, a lot of people’s wires got crossed. A collection of fans, celebrities and journalists were all too ready to joke at the rapper’s expense. Savage’s name immediately began trending on Twitter, with a crowd eager to find humor — and retweets — in the situation.
The memes about 21 Savage’s arrest are a low form of comedy, and the same journalists, critics and creatives who are otherwise quick to post “Abolish ICE” launched lukewarm punchlines for a chance at going viral. At best, these jokes are glib; at worst, they carry water for the public statements of an agency that splits up families and lets children die in its custody.
It’s telling which celebrities chose to add to the circus. DJ/sentient appropriation Diplo posted a dumb meme to his Instagram story. Predictably, Tomi Lahren added her racist perspective to the discourse. Demi Lovato wrote, “So far 21 Savage memes have been my favorite part of the Super Bowl,” in a since-deleted tweet. Those tone-deaf examples weren’t just a problem — they illustrate the problem when wealthy celebrities of a certain skin tone get too comfortable after years of profiting off culture they never owned. Multiple other stars, including Wale and Lil Yachty, called Lovato out. She continued to miss the point in her subsequent defense, simultaneously asking for a level of understanding and forgiveness she didn’t bother giving anyone hurt by 21’s detainment.
“Wasn’t laughing at anyone getting deported. I know that’s not a joke..not have I EVER laughed at that. The meme I posted/was talking about was of him being writing with a feather pen. Sorry if I offended anyone. But it’s no excuse to laugh at someone’s addiction let alone their OD,” she wrote on Instagram stories. “I was laughing at who the fuck knew 21 was British? Literally no one.”
21 Savage isn’t a meme, despite years of the public trying to flatten his entire identity into “Issa knife” jokes. Whether he was born in Atlanta or not, Savage has spent the majority of his life devoted to the city. He has documented cycles of poverty, glorified the violence he saw and later enacted, revealed the ways he remains haunted by his upbringing and reinvested in his community. His music has connected with an audience, regardless of his birthplace.
According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, ICE spokesman Bryan Cox said that Sha Yaa Bin Abraham-Joseph — 21’s offstage name — is from the United Kingdom and entered the U.S. on a temporary visa in 2005. “His whole public persona is false. He actually came to the U.S. from the U.K. as a teen and overstayed his Visa,” Cox told CNN. The statement is devious, and a misdirect.
21 Savage’s “public persona” isn’t false; it’s art. Rappers are more than their alter-egos. From its inception, rap was built on split personalities, colorful exaggerations and character arcs. This is why suburban house moms understand that Eminem, Marshall Mathers and Slim Shady are the same person, and why Wu-Tang Clan name generators exist. At a certain point, that genre quirk crossed into reality, and listeners began to believe that rappers were devoid of lives outside of their rap careers.
A few weeks before the release of 21 Savage’s i am > i was last month, I sat in a car with him. He was terse and seemed aggravated with the daily trappings of keeping a successful rap career afloat — like sitting down for an interview with a journalist he didn’t know — but his explanation of why people might be surprised to find that he has a sense of humor seems prescient now. “The internet’s dumb as hell, that’s why,” he said, matter-of-factly. Later, he talked about his quest to receive his pilot’s license.
“It’s the freedom,” he said of why he got into aviation. “Not a lot of people experience that. It’s like you just defeating — we ain’t meant to fly. So it’s like you build some shit that you can fly. So you going against, I can’t really think of the word for it. It’s like you going against what’s supposed to be. You going against gravity. You going against a lot of shit.”
His moniker, 21 Savage, doesn’t stop Sha Yaa Bin Abraham-Joseph from being a human. He’s entered a ruthless and unfeeling system, under a racist administration. He’s going against a lot of shit; there’s no need to make light of it.