Existing as a Black person in America has always been complicated. The pain and triumph of history can feel as if they are imprinted into the very bones that are our substructure. Perhaps that is why when we gather in close quarters we theorize about these histories. Whether conspiratorial or evidence-supported, the act of conversation is a balm, a way to unpack terrifying realities and to make sense of the senseless, the brutal or the unjust. Hip-hop artist 21 Savage isn’t known for being particularly verbose, but has become central to increasing dialogues about Black immigrant experiences. Yet as he perches on a wire-frame chair in a downtown LA studio awaiting the arrival of his barber, it would appear the entire world exists solely on his phone.
Two hours later, not much has changed. He’s still putting the iPhone’s endless scroll function to exemplary use, but the arrival of food seems to perk him up a bit — that, and a long-awaited haircut.
In front of the camera, he displays the same quiet intensity present in lyrics that vacillate between tales of paranoia and redemption. His features are schooled into an expression that could be apathetic, or perhaps merely guarded, depending on who is looking and what they want to see. In light of his February 3 detainment by ICE, the who that is looking and what they want to see have become central to the rapper’s still-unfolding story.
For some, he has become a beacon of hope and an example of how violently and suddenly life can change for the estimated 11.4 million undocumented immigrants in America. For another subset of the country, he is the “bad hombre,” the criminal ghoul lurking uninvited in Trump’s America. Following 21’s arrest, ICE spokesperson Bryan Cox claimed that in addition to violating federal immigration law, the rapper was a convicted felon who had faced federal drug charges. Shortly after, 21’s legal team contested his felony status in a public statement. “Mr. Abraham-Joseph has no criminal convictions or charges under state or federal law and is free to seek relief from removal in immigration court. ICE provided incorrect information to the press when it claimed he had a criminal conviction,” they said.