“Pain and The Hunger Made a Savage:" The Rebirth of 21 Savage and Why It Matters in 2020
Written by Festus Ojo
Growing up in Atlanta, my introduction to Shéyaa Bin Abraham-Joseph was his debut mixtape, 2015’s The Slaughter Tape, but he had been releasing work since 2013. He began rapping as 21 Savage after beginning to take music more seriously after his 21st birthday. However, he made waves worldwide after the famous 2016 XXL Freshman Cypher with Lil Uzi Vert, Lil Yachty, Denzel Curry, and Kodak Black. That year, he went on to release Savage Mode with Metro Boomin’ followed by a ferocious output of work including “Sneakin’” with Drake, Issa Album (named after a meme about the tattoo on his forehead... “issa knife”), and eventually a collab with Metro and Offset titled Without Warning in 2017. At this point, 21 Savage was an established star in hip-hop.
But outside of music, 21 Savage was making headlines for creating several initiatives to directly impact his local community. This included starting several education, voter protection, and community awareness programs in Atlanta, including the “Bank Account” financial literacy program named after a single on the Issa Album, investing in startups in Atlanta’s growing tech scene such as Chime and purchasing laptops for students, as well as his annual “Issa Back to School Drive” where for 3 consecutive years, he’s given free haircuts, food, school supplies, and clothes to over 2,500 students. Also of interest, at this time, 21 began aligning himself with artists outside of the Atlanta scene including J. Cole, Meek Mill (who had also been doing a lot of work around prison reform since his release around the same time), Jay-Z during the Roc-Nation brunch, and even scoring his first #1 hit with Post Malone’s “rockstar”. In late 2018 came “i am > i was”, an album with a title hinting to a lot of 21’s personal development as a leader in the community.
The album itself was lauded for his willingness to make music with artists like Childish Gambino and J. Cole who may seem outside of his usual domain of collaborators as well as 21 Savage’s growth in terms of both flows and lyrics. However, this was cut short after a performance of his collab with J. Cole, “A lot” on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon in late January 2019. During his performance, 21 added a verse to speak against ICE’s harsh treatment and detainment of immigrants, with quotables including “Been through some things so I can’t imagine my kids stuck at the border / Flint still need water / People was innocent, couldn’t get lawyers.” Most videos of the performance have since been removed, but the audio can be listened to here.
Almost the next week, on Feb 3rd, it was reported that 21 Savage himself was actually a British immigrant and was arrested by ICE. While he had never directly mentioned it to the public, he later revealed that he was born in Plaistow, London to two British-born parents of Dominican and Haitian descent and he actually moved to Atlanta with his mother at age 7. ICE alleged that he entered the U.S. in 2005 and then unlawfully overstayed his visa when it expired in July 2006. While the reported cause for investigation into his immigrant status was an arrest of his cousin and collaborator Young Nudy, it seems likely that his criticisms of ICE also attracted their attention. When recounting his experience and treatment, 21 said, “So it's like, even if I'm sitting in a cell on 23-hour lockdown, in my mind, I know what's going to come after that … So I'm not happy about it. But I'm accepting of it.” While he and his team have noted the role his status as an entertainer undoubtedly played in him being able to pay bail and lawyers to leave after 9 days, his bond was granted conditionally on a deportation hearing which has been indefinitely suspended since early 2019. Despite this, he is well aware that this fortune is not the case for many other people detained by ICE, with 44% currently being Haitian, not to mention other Black immigrants and 21 has continued to use his platform to speak to the injustices ICE perpetrates.
Since then, 21 Savage has used his freedom and privilege to remain active in the community, stand against police brutality, and even release a sequel to Savage Mode which may even be better than the original mixtape with Metro that brought him a lot of his fame. 21 has continued to grow and his growth not just as an artist but as a community figure is inspiring. Especially now in the wake of unease around a presidential election that feels more tightly contested than it should be and with many being unhappy with both candidates, his willingness to be vocal against injustice and bring tangible change by giving back to the community directly around him are a model for things we can all do to try to make the world around us a bigger place. We too can continue to grow and be able to claim that “we are > we were”, regardless of the outcome of November 3rd.