21 Savage at his "Issa Back 2 School Drive" in Atlanta. 
Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

ICE arrests rapper 21 Savage, says he is actually British and overstayed visa

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested Grammy-nominated rapper 21 Savage early Sunday morning, claiming that he is actually from the United Kingdom and overstayed his visa, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has learned.

21 Savage, whose real name is Sha Yaa Bin Abraham-Joseph, was taken into custody in a “targeted operation” in metro Atlanta, ICE spokesman Bryan Cox said.

Abraham-Joseph, 26, has claimed to be from Atlanta and has long been considered a local act.

“We are working diligently to get Mr. Abraham-Joseph out of detention while we work with the authorities to clear up any misunderstandings,” his lawyer, Dina LaPolt, said in a statement. “Mr. Abraham-Joseph is a role model to the young people in this country, especially in Atlanta, Georgia, and is actively working in the community leading programs to help underprivileged youths in financial literacy.”

Just last fall, Abraham-Joseph gave free school supplies to more than 2,500 DeKalb County school students, the latest in a series of charitable ventures funded through his Leading By Example Foundation intended to “give back” to his community, he told AJC.com. 

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21 Savage at his "Issa Back 2 School Drive" in Atlanta last year. (Photo: Getty Images)

Cox, however, said Abraham-Joseph is an “unlawfully present United Kingdom national” who came to the U.S. on a visa in July 2005. His visa expired a year later, Cox said.

Abraham-Joseph has been placed in “removal proceedings before the federal immigration courts,” Cox said.

ICE says it focuses enforcement efforts on immigrants who have criminal records, as Abraham-Joseph does due to a 2014 felony drug case in Fulton County. Representatives for the rapper said Tuesday he has no criminal record. Citing Georgia’s first offender law, which allows records to be expunged and records sealed, the Fulton County District Attorney’s Office said it could not confirm or deny whether he was convicted.

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An ICE official told AJC.com that when Abraham-Joseph was arrested in 2014, ICE was not aware of his immigration status. They only learned later that he is from the U.K.

Atlanta-based immigration attorney Charles Kuck, who is representing Abraham-Joseph, acknowledged in a statement Monday that the rapper is in fact not from the U.S., but said he never hid that from the government. Kuck said Abraham-Joseph’s family overstayed their work visas when he was a minor.

READ MORE: 21 Savage overstayed visa ‘through no fault of his own,’ attorneys says

In 2017, he applied for a U visa, which is for victims who suffered crimes while in the U.S. and are helpful to law enforcement, the rapper’s lawyer said. 

Abraham-Joseph, who spent much of his childhood in Decatur, has said publicly he was banned from the DeKalb County School District after he brought a gun to school, intending to use it on another student. Since then, after losing his younger brother and best friend to gun violence, he has become an advocate for gun control, the AJC previously reported. 

In the spring of 2018, Abraham-Joseph was credited with launching the “paintballs up, guns down” social media campaign, which was intended to curb gun violence. Authorities said the campaign backfired, leading to a rash of paintball wars and, in some cases, deadly shootings. 

MORE: ‘Paintball wars’ started by local rapper a problem for Atlanta police

Around the same time the rapper began promoting paintball guns on social media, 3-year-old T’Rhigi Diggs was killed in a shooting in southeast Atlanta when a teenager retaliated with a real gun after being assaulted with paintballs. Abraham-Joseph stepped up to pay for the toddler’s funeral.

ALSO: Rapper 21 Savage pays for funeral of 3-year-old DeKalb shooting victim

Then, when gunfire broke out at a community event he was headlining in southeast Atlanta last fall, Abraham-Joseph spoke out again. He encouraged positivity and urged the people involved to set a better example for kids. 

The ICE official said Abraham-Joseph’s Sunday morning arrest stemmed from a traffic stop in DeKalb County, during which three other people were arrested by DeKalb police. 

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The AJC has reached out to DeKalb police for information on that incident.

Abraham-Joseph performed in Atlanta as recently as Thursday in the Super Bowl Music Fest at State Farm Arena.

Sunday’s arrest was not a Super Bowl-related ICE operation, a federal law enforcement official said.

Abraham-Joseph jumped into the rap game with his debut mixtape “The Slaughter Tape” in 2015. His most recent album, “I Am > I Was,” hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200 album chart. He is nominated for two Grammy Awards this year, one for record of the year and another for best rap/sung performance.

 — Staff writers Jeremy Redmon and Chelsea Prince contributed to this article.

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