As A UK-Residing Immigrant, I Feel It For 21 Savage

Words: Danielle Dash
Photography: Chip Litherland

I was an illegal immigrant. Following a lengthy and costly legal journey, I secured indefinite leave to remain in 2003. Indefinite leave to remain is an immigration status that recognises someone’s right to education and employment in Britain. I was naturalised in 2009, and became a British Citizen when I was 20 years old.

There is a trauma attached to immigration issues that only those who’ve experienced them can attest to. Watching 21 Savage’s plight at the hands of ICE (America’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency), I feel echoes of a fear I experienced as a young adult. Despite being born in London, I was raised in Zimbabwe and returned when I was seven years old. Shéyaa Bin Abraham-Joseph, the rapper’s real name, and I were the same age when we settled in America and Britain respectively. As clapped as Britain is as a country, it’s all I know. Similarly, I can imagine that—despite being a British citizen—Atlanta is all 21 Savage knows. He is as British as I am Zimbabwean; that is to say not at all. Thus I can only imagine the fear he must feel to not only be detained in federal custody but also how that fear is compounded by the very real threat that without intervention he will be deported.

Both British and American immigration laws have a way of disproportionately targeting black and brown people. Regardless of how famous or not the target of the policies are, they are increasingly applied with impunity. Last year, a Florida man, Peter Sean Brown, was almost deported when the sheriff’s office worked with ICE officials to begin proceedings because they mistook Brown for an undocumented Jamaican immigrant who had the same name. This week, the British government’s Home Office chartered a flight to Jamaica to deport 29 people, which the Home Secretary Sajid Javid claims were “serious criminals”. However, one of those due to be deported was a former soldier suffering from PTSD and had his deportation stopped by an injunction. So, really and truly, how can either government be trusted when they’ve been proven to fail the innocent and those with extenuating circumstances?

The truth is, when it comes to black and brown people, the government’s execution of the law cannot be trusted. When news of the rapper’s detainment hit social media, ICE embarked on a campaign to villainise him that was both personal and misrepresented facts. “His whole public persona is false,” an ICE agent told a reporter before Twitter became a sea of memes that eventually descended into a diaspora war between Black Britons and African-Americans.


The safety and wellbeing of 21 Savage was of little concern as Twitter users raced to outdo one another. In the ensuing social media melee, the morality of the government’s actions weren’t questioned thoroughly enough, neither were the veracity of their assertions that 21 was illegal scrutinised. And make no mistake, the conditions under which 21 Savage is being held are cruel. According to his lawyers, he is on lockdown for 23 hours and only has access to a 10-minute phone call a day. In fact, 21 is being held in one of the country’s worst detention facilities, where three detainees have died in the last two years and the United Nations have lobbied for its closure. Riddle me this: if the government will do this to a highly visible Grammy-nominated artist, what on earth are they doing to everyday people?

21 Savage isn’t the first black musician to fall foul of draconian immigration enforcement. Before 21, Brit-born rappers Slick Rick and MF Doom both had their struggles with US immigration. Slick Rick was able to overcome those challenges, while MF Doom was less successful and, despite not having any criminal violations, was denied re-entry to the US after a 2010 European tour. He gave up his legal battle in 2012. Here in Britain, rapper and UMG artist Cashtastic was abruptly detained and deported to Jamaica in 2014 without explanation.

In many cases, it is argued that immigration officials are simply upholding the law and if individuals wanted to remain in the countries they called home, they should simply follow the law. Only problem is, these laws are enforced selectively and specifically target black and brown people. When the Canadian artist Justin Bieber was running amuck in those Hollywood streets, and Americans started a petition to get him deported after he was arrested for driving under the influence, the Obama White House told the quarter of a million people seeking his repatriation to Canada they had “no comment.” Could Bieber’s whiteness have played a part in why he is currently gracing the cover of American Vogue and 21 Savage is languishing in an ICE detention facility?

Jay-Z is currently advocating for 21 Savage’s release and I hope Hov’s considerable influence will make a difference. This said, I can’t help but think about the immigrants who aren’t friends with Beyoncé’s husband and who weren’t as fortunate as I was to have access to the financial means to make my immigration issues a thing of the past. When your name isn’t recognisable and you’re black or brown and poor, what do you do when the British or American immigration agencies put their full weight behind evicting you from the only home you’ve known? What does justice look like for you? I despair for those adversely affected by the law-makers in government who hide their immoral disregard behind laws that history will judge as legal but lacking the morality they claim to uphold.

Posted on February 08, 2019