NOTE: This story has been updated in light of new information released by lawyers for the rapper because they are disputing details that ICE provided to the AJC.
Last week, 21 Savage was a 26-year-old rapper firmly ingrained in the Atlanta hip hop scene, a young man with a headlining spot at State Farm Arena in the run-up to the Super Bowl and two fresh Grammy nominations.
This week, he’s an inmate in immigration custody with a previously unknown history to his legions of fans made public: He is from the United Kingdom and long ago overstayed his visa in America.
The rapper, whose given name is Shayaa Bin Abraham-Joseph, was born in the U.K. and came to the U.S. at age 7, according to his representatives. He briefly left in 2005 and came back that same year in July, when he was 12. His visa expired a year later, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. That makes him one of an estimated 4.5 million people who are in the United States with expired visas.
He is easily one of the most prominent personalities to be held on visa issues amid an escalating debate over immigration enforcement — including how to treat transplants who entered the country as minors. The rapper is nominated for two Grammys at next Sunday’s music awards, including the coveted record of the year for “Rockstar” with Post Malone.
Authorities said Abraham-Joseph was grabbed Sunday in a "targeted operation" meant to nab local rapper Young Nudy, whose real name is Quantavious Thomas, by DeKalb County police and agents with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Abraham-Joseph happened to be with Thomas.
Abraham-Joseph is in “removal proceedings before the federal immigration courts,” ICE said. ICE says it focuses enforcement efforts on immigrants who have criminal records, which the agency says Abraham-Joseph does due to a 2014 felony drug case in Fulton County. But representatives for the rapper said Tuesday he has no criminal record. The Fulton County District Attorney’s Office said it could not confirm or deny whether he was convicted, citing Georgia’s first offender law, which allows records to be expunged and sealed.
One of the rapper’s attorneys said he’s been denied bail — he’s expected to miss the Grammys — and called the arrest unnecessary.
“As a minor, his family overstayed their work visas, and he, like almost two million other children, was left without legal status through no fault of his own,” Charles Kuck said in a statement Monday. “This is a civil law violation, and the continued detention of Mr. Abraham-Joseph serves no other purpose than to unnecessarily punish him and try to intimidate him into giving up his right to fight to remain in the United States.”
The lawyer said Abraham-Joseph is awaiting an answer on his visa application, which he filed in 2017 as a crime victim. Kuck didn’t say what crime, but the rapper has long spoken of a 2013 shooting that left him shot six times.
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Abraham-Joseph has remained in the country even as he had encounters with police, including in 2014 when he was charged in the drug case. (ICE didn’t fault county officials for not turning him over to immigration authorities.) In 2016, a police report says he called Atlanta officers himself to report that someone had kicked in the door of his 10th Street condo, taking a Glock handgun, a Rolex and other jewelry, a Louis Vuitton bag and a safe containing $345,000.
Abraham-Joseph’s attorney said Monday he never hid his status from authorities.
But it apparently never came up publicly.
In hindsight, there were signs. Such as last year when he embarked on a tour with Post Malone and didn’t attend the second show. It was in Vancouver, British Columbia. Canadian press noted in passing that he had trouble getting into the country, not realizing the reason: a person without legal residency can’t cross the border.
Roshonda Craig, a friend who’s known the rapper for years, said she had never heard a word about him being from anywhere but Decatur. She called him a great man who should be allowed to stay.
“This is his home,” she told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “He has helped so many people here.”
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Indeed, besides music, there are two key things 21 Savage is known for around Atlanta: charity and gun-related incidents.
For the past three years, the rapper, who has lived around Decatur and Atlanta and went to school in Gwinnett County, has held a back-to-school drive, which has benefited thousands of DeKalb students. He has a campaign to help single mothers. Craig recalled him helping out a woman with cancer.
As the rapper tells it, it was a shooting that drove him to music.
In 2013 — on his 21st birthday — Abraham-Joseph said he was shot six times and his best friend was killed. While recovering, he lost himself in his craft.
“I turned around,” he told the AJC last year. “I might rap about a lot of stuff, but that’s just a reflection about what I’ve been through.”
Still, Atlanta police arrested him a year after the turnaround. He was riding in a car on Boulevard on Aug. 28, 2014, when the driver did a U-turn, attracting an officer’s attention, according to a police report. The officer asked Abraham-Joseph for his ID, but he told the cop he didn’t have it. The officer found a couple handguns, 22 grams of marijuana and 89 hydrocodone pills in the 1998 Acura.
In 2016, Atlanta police Maj. Scott Kreher emailed residents and City Council members saying, “I have had three separate incidents at separate locations in Zone 5 surrounding a rapper called ‘21 Savage’ this year. … All three incidents resulted in large crowds and crime.” The rapper wasn’t charged.
In the spring of 2018, Abraham-Joseph was credited with launching the “paintballs up, guns down” social media campaign, which intended to curb gun violence by encouraging young people to use paintball guns instead of real firearms. Authorities said the campaign backfired, leading to a rash of paintball wars and, in some cases, deadly shootings.
One of the of the suspected victims was 3-year-old T'Rhigi Diggs, who was killed in a shooting in DeKalb County when a teenager allegedly retaliated with a real gun after being assaulted with paintballs. T'Rhigi's mother happened to be Craig, whose brother had long been good friends with the rapper.
She did not fault Abraham-Joseph. She thanked him when he came to pay respects — and to pay for the funeral.
As Craig has learned, even the mourners of the most tragic deaths can’t stay at your side forever. The calls slowly stopped, and she was mostly alone with memories of the boy she lost. But she said Abraham-Joseph still checks on her.
— J.D. Capelouto, Jeremy Redmon and Jennifer Brett contributed reporting.