21 Savage: Rich, Black, and Foreign

So, rapper 21 Savage is actually a British national. Who knew? I’m betting its news to a lot of people now that he’s in an ICE detention center. He was arrested on Sunday.

I don’t know much about immigration except that it’s complicated, and it seems extremely unfair – on both sides of the issue. But I’ve always thought it strange, racist and biased how we treat immigrants in this country that many of them helped to build.

In macro, Savage – born She’yaa Bin Abraham-Joseph – is no better, worse or different from thousands of other immigrants who are currently caught up and struggling in a broken system. He’s certainly not being treated any different, despite being quite wealthy and having some high-profile friends. Georgia Congressman Hank Johnson wrote a letter to ICE asking that he be released, and Jay-Z has stepped in with the hardcore legal talent, a la Alex Spiro of Quinn Emanuel Urquhart and Sullivan.

While I refuse to wholesale discount rap music as misogynistic, simplistic and damaging – I refuse to listen to most of it for those reasons – Savage is not a rapper I follow. Media blitz or not, I wouldn’t have given him or his current situation a lick of attention had it not been posited that he was targeted because he’s turned his life around and is now more of a positive influence on the black community than a negative one.

It was only after he was detained that I learned of his background – rough, poor, violent – and I became aware of some of the positive things he’s doing to turn himself around and give back to help people of color.

In March 2018, he went on the Ellen show to announce his 21 Savage Bank Account Campaign, created in an effort to improve financial literacy in lower-income neighborhoods. A month before that his manager tweeted, “21 Savage no longer wears jewelry …. buying houses .. investing in businesses …. crypto & youth start ups is what he wanna make cool for young rappers to do.”

That’s major. Money is a precursor to power and influence, and minorities need it to help secure our freedom and comfort. Savage seemed to understand that. More importantly, he understood that him being wealthy is not nearly as important as helping to seed a generation of black men and women’s efforts to be financially stable.

Who knows what might have come next? Sure, Savage might have lost interest and returned to his old ways, but I doubt it. His behavior is part of a pattern that I’ve noticed amid the more senior rappers like Meek Mill, Jay-Z, Nas. These days they’re better known for their business acumen than for scandals, popping bands and other stereotypical nonsense.

But technically, Savage did break the law. He’s not American. He was born in England in 1992. By all accounts, he’s been in the country illegally for almost two decades, and some reports say he only filed the paperwork to secure his legal stay in this country in 2017.

The unfortunate kicker is, a lot of institutional organizations in government, from immigration to public aid to healthcare, can be so broken, even if you try to get your paperwork in order, you may be stymied, screwed around, or otherwise denied the option to do what’s right. Jay-Z posted on Facebook that Savage’s U Visa has been pending for four years. If that’s true, that’s ridiculous.

When I read that it brought to mind an Indian friend’s journey to citizenship. Despite the fact that she married an American – and is still happily married to him – graduated from an American university, and has worked and otherwise been an upstanding person, my girl went through the wringer to stay in this country legally. As did one of my former direct reports. It was one nonsensical inconvenience after another, and the process dragged on for years. I’m not saying it should be easy to become an American citizen, but damn.

It’s no secret that being a person of color is not easy. Even being a rich person of color is not easy. I can’t help but wonder, is it the current administration’s extra tough crackdown on immigration that has prevented Savage’s lawyers from freeing him from detention? Or, is it because he’s a black man? Or, is it because he’s a black man with a troubled past who’s now trying to set a different, better example?

I wish things were more black and white – pun intended – and that issues of racial bias did not automatically come to my mind. But we don’t live in that kind of world, do we? Color matters. The Irwin County Detention Center where Savage is currently being held has a horrible reputation full of allegations about criminal abuse, extreme negligence, horrendous conditions and treatment. It wouldn’t be that way if most of its detainees were white. Period.

Savage has been in the country since he was seven years old. He was raised in Atlanta. He’s paid taxes, run a business, donated to charity, hired and paid employees to work for him. He’s had some issues – felony drug charges, which were later legally expunged – but last year he made a very public shift. I don’t think it’s too conspiracy theory to say that it seems like that’s when his troubles with ICE began. For instance, is it a coincidence that he released music five days prior to his arrest featuring lyrics that condemn immigration officials detaining children at the border? Messy, messy, messy.

Savage, at least, has money. He has powerful friends. I hate to think how hopeless his fellow detainees who don’t have those things must feel.

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