The 26-year old rapper — whose real name is Sha Yaa Bin Abraham Joseph — was arrested in the southern city of Atlanta Sunday by immigration agents who say he is, in fact, a British citizen.
The artist has long said he is a local act from Atlanta, the state capital of Georgia, which is considered the home of hip hop innovation.
According to ICE spokesman Bryan Cox, however, 21 Savage came to the US legally as a minor in July 2005 — “but subsequently failed to depart under the terms of his nonimmigrant visa and he became unlawfully present in the US when his visa expired in July 2006.”
In his statement, Cox added that the artist was convicted of felony drug charges in October 2014.
“Mr Abraham-Joseph is presently in ICE custody in Georgia and has been placed into removal proceedings before the federal immigration courts,” the statement said.
The rapper’s arrest came days after he performed at a pre-Super Bowl concert prior to the championship American football game hosted in Atlanta.
In a statement Sunday night, his lawyer Dina LaPolt said, “We are working diligently to get Mr Abraham-Joseph out of detention while we work with the authorities to clear up any misunderstandings.”
The news sent shockwaves through social media, with a number of top artists and industry insiders backing the young rapper.
“SUCCESSFUL BLACK MAN,” tweeted rapper Offset, one-third of the Atlanta trap trio Migos.
“THEY ALWAYS TRY SOME WAY TO BRING US DOWN.”
“HIS FAMILY DEPENDING ON HIM,” wrote Offset, referencing 21 Savage’s three children.
“Free 21,” tweeted hip hop artist Meek Mill, who was released from prison last year after his unexpectedly heavy sentence for a parole violation sparked protests over racial bias in US probation laws.
Rappers Lil Yachty and Vince Staples echoed that call, along with Alex Tumay, a mix engineer who regularly works with Atlanta artists.
“Abolish ICE,” Tumay tweeted. “ICE arresting celebrities to divert attention from the fact they just admitted they can’t reconnect kids with their parents.”
The US agency has come under fire in recent months for its aggressive deportation policy.
– Murky origins –
21 Savage, known for his conversational, subdued rap delivery and no-nonsense demeanour, released his debut studio album in 2017.
His lyrics touch on everything from drugs and violence to systemic racism and police brutality.
His second album, “I Am > I Was” debuted at the top of the Billboard 200 in December 2018, holding the number one spot for two consecutive weeks.
The rapper is up Sunday for two Grammys for his work on fellow rapper Post Malone’s smash hit “Rockstar,” including for the major Record of the Year award.
Throughout his rise to fame, he has toured the United States but does not appear to have performed abroad.
In public interviews, he has not explicitly called himself American, but regularly references his upbringing in Atlanta.
Many of the artist’s supporters were quick to note his contributions to the community.
“Mr Abraham-Joseph is a role model to the young people in this country, especially in Atlanta,” his lawyer LaPolt said, adding that he is “actively working in the community leading programs to help underprivileged youths in financial literacy.”
Since the news of 21 Savage’s arrest broke British reports have indicated he originally is from Newham in East London, a detail neither ICE nor his team have commented on.
In 2016 the rapper — who speaks with a thick southern American accent — gave an interview to urban news YouTube channel VladTV, listing a number of Atlanta neighbourhoods he has called home.
“I did grow up in all Atlanta really, everybody knows me,” he said. “If you don’t, you ain’t from this city.”