Is 21 Savage American? By any measurement other than citizenship, yes. He was born She’yaa Bin Abraham-Joseph in England in 1992. According to Charles Kuck, one of his immigration attorneys, he came to the United States at age 7 and has been here continuously ever since, apart from a one-month period in 2005. He then re-entered the country on an H-4 visa, which expired in 2006, leaving him without legal status.
But the events of the last few days underscore the ways in which the hard power of government authority and soft power of online conversation can align in peculiar and insidious ways. As news began to spread on social media of 21 Savage’s arrest on Sunday, the meme and joke ecosystem that uses trauma as oxygen went into overdrive, reacting with special intensity to the revelation that 21 Savage — one of the titans of Atlanta’s rap scene — was in fact British. As the government put his relationship with this country in peril, thousands of people chirped in online to poke at the unlikeliness, and precariousness, of his situation.
That 21 Savage is in fact a British national is, ultimately, not particularly revelatory, or even meaningful. Foreign-born residents made up 13.7 percent of the United States population in 2017, according to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, published last year (which includes those in the country legally and illegally). Most of the humor turned on a high-society caricature understanding of England, and the dissonance of locating someone like 21 Savage — a seen-it-all stoicist with a dagger tattooed on his forehead — inside it. By and large, those people overlooked, or didn’t think as far as, the more odious association: that of empire and colonization. (His mother’s family hails from Dominica, a former British colony in the West Indies.)
His success, however, is especially American. Growing up in some of Atlanta’s poorest communities, 21 Savage had a troubled childhood. He’s said that he dropped out of school to sell drugs, and has spoken in interviews of a youth marked by violence and crime. But after losing a close friend and a brother to gun violence, he turned to rapping. And within a year, he was one of Atlanta’s most promising prospects.
He’s since worked with Drake, Cardi B and Post Malone. His 2017 debut album, “Issa Album,” went gold, and his second studio album, “I Am > I Was,” released in December, debuted at the top of the Billboard album chart. At this Sunday’s Grammy Awards, 21 Savage is nominated in two categories.