21 Savage shows his heart

Atlanta rapper’s Leading By Example foundation aims to help kids

It’s a sweaty Sunday in August, but 21 Savage is exhibiting his usual unruffled cool.

He leans back in the driver’s seat of his manager’s luxury truck, the air conditioner blasting as hard as the chest-rattling bass thumps a few feet away.

In the plaid pants and white tank top clinging to his slender frame, Savage looks younger than his 25 years, and strikingly like his mom, Heather, who stands off on a sidewalk, surveying the crowd that has gathered this afternoon to not only catch a glimpse of her son, but to benefit from his kindness to schoolkids.

“This,” Savage says, nodding toward the windshield, “this is the most important thing I do every year.”

21 Savage looks out at the crowd gathered at his "Issa Back 2 School Drive." Photo: Melissa Ruggieri/AJC

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The Atlanta rapper born Shayaa Bin Abraham-Joseph is known for his multiplatinum hits “X,” “No Heart” and “Bank Account” and, perhaps, his collaboration with Post Malone, “Rockstar,” which just won song of the year at the MTV Video Music Awards.

He’s also known for gun-related legal skirmishes since dropping out of high school in ninth grade — a past that he is intent on leaving there.

In 2013 — on his 21st birthday — Savage was shot six times and his best friend was killed. While recovering from his injuries — “I couldn’t move much. I had a cast on, my hip was hurt,” he said — he bought studio equipment he could use in the house.

Music became his redeemer.

“I turned around,” he said. “I might rap about a lot of stuff, but that’s just a reflection about what I’ve been through. But in real life, everything I do is positive. I want to bring everybody together. I want to help the community.”

Outside, along the sidewalk and in the stifling parking lot of the 285 Flea Mart and Club Libra off Glenwood Road in Decatur, hundreds of kids and parents clamor to scoop up backpacks, uniforms, folders, pens and paper.

It's the third year Savage has hosted his "Issa Back 2 School Drive," and by the end of the afternoon, more than 2,500 DeKalb County students and their families — triple the 2017 turnout — will have shared in the bounty (along with free haircuts, food and, as evidenced by the bass-pumping DJ, music).

Savage has ducked inside the truck for a few minutes to escape the commotion and chat with an unlikely crew — his lawyer, Dina LaPolt; U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, of Georgia’s 4th Congressional District; and Johnson’s wife, DeKalb County Commissioner Mereda Davis Johnson.

“What you’re doing, man, I really appreciate,” Congressman Johnson told Savage, who smiled quietly at the acknowledgment. “These are the folks that we represent. These are our people and their children. You’re doing good things in our community, and we want you to continue to do good things in our community.”

More than 2,500 DeKalb County students and their families came out to the August school drive, where 21 Savage provided them with uniforms, bookbags and school supplies. Photo: Melissa Ruggieri/AJC

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In January, Savage established a foundation, Leading by Example. He prefers to keep his charitable acts low-key, such as when he paid for the funeral of 3-year-old Atlanta boy T'Rhigi Diggs, who was killed in a shooting in April.

But some things, Savage wants to spotlight.

During an appearance on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" earlier this year, the rapper launched a "Bank Account" campaign to help young adults learn financial responsibility. He also donated $1,000 each to 21 kids in partnership with the nonprofit organization Get Schooled and is working to buy Atlanta property to provide housing for single mothers with children. (Savage recently talked more about his "Bank Account" effort here.)

“He does these things because he wants to,” said Savage’s business manager, Sally Velazquez. “He didn’t want (the foundation) attached to his name; he just wants to help kids.”

Indeed, Savage turns extremely animated when asked about his dedication to helping youths, especially in Atlanta.

“I feel like people don’t care until it’s too late. They don’t care when you’re 3, 4 years old. People start caring when you’re 12, 13. But by that time, your mind is already made up about what you’re gonna be in life,” he said.

He nodded again toward the crowds picking up their school supplies. “We didn’t have this growing up, so I feel like if we woulda had somebody who woulda come around and said, ‘Look at him’ — actually see someone, not just on TV — ‘Look at what he did,’ I think it would have changed a lot. Not everybody, but I know at least for a couple of kids here, (this event) is gonna motivate them their whole life.”

The location of the “Back 2 School” drive is also deliberate. As a teenager, Savage lived in the apartments behind the strip mall housing Club Libra and the flea market. He and his friends used to walk down the hill behind the property and hang around the club parking lot.

“I got a lot of memories here,” Savage said, gazing out of the windshield again. “I used to do a lot of (troublemaking stuff) right here. So it means a lot for me to come here (to do) the total opposite.”

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