In the months since he was released from detention, 21 Savage has maintained a relatively low profile. Now, as he gradually begins to return to the fray, we examine why it was beneficial for The Slaughter Gang artist to do so.
Throughout the genre’s storied history, hip-hop has looked fondly on triumph over adversity. Where adverse circumstances present themselves, many of its most coveted artists have attained success not because of what they’ve been afflicted by, but in spite of it. First verbalized by none other than Brooklyn’s finest, The Notorious B.I.G, overhauling your life from “negative to positive” has become a venerable badge of honor. Whether it originates from hustling, personal tragedy or any other hardship, having the wherewithal to clamber up from out of the pit of despair has always been a byword for authenticity.
Over the course of the past 12 months, no-one has been subjected to a more unanticipated and unorthodox spell of agony than one Shayaa Bin Abraham-Joseph. Better known as 21 Savage, Slaughter Gang’s main exponent was flying high off the back of his phenomenal 2018 LP I Am > I Was when his life was thrown into jeopardy by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. Commonly abbreviated to ICE, the agency has become an omnipresence in the minds of millions of American residents that fear expulsion around every turn. However, what was unbeknownst to the rest of the world, is that 21 Savage was one of them.
21 Savage at the St. Laurent fashion show - Neilson Barnard/Getty Images
Brought to the Us at the age of 7, the hip-hop world was turned on its axis when the news broke that Joseph— a former citizen of the United Kingdom— had been detained by ICE on the 4th February and was being held in an undisclosed location. From there, the internet launched into a paradoxical campaign of memes and genuine uproar that shoehorned 21 Savage into an unfamiliar position of public vulnerability. Bestowed with a legal team bankrolled by none other than Jay Z, the furore around 21’s abrupt capture led to a petition that accrued over 500,000 signatures.
Then, as he missed his slated Grammy performance alongside Post Malone, Joseph was relinquished back into the wider world. In a statement on behalf of the artist, the Alex Spiro-led team affirmed that “He will not forget this ordeal or any of the other fathers, sons, family members, and faceless people, he was locked up with that remain unjustly incarcerated across the country. And he asks for your hearts and minds to be with them.”
Speaking to Good Morning America, a show that he likely never would’ve been earmarked for in any other circumstance, the demurely dressed rapper relayed his story to the world just days on from the events. “I don’t even know, I was just driving and then I saw guns and blue light," he explained. “Then I was in the back of a car and I was gone… they didn’t say nothing, they just said we got Savage… It was definitely targeted.”
Now championed as a cause celebre, conventional wisdom would have implored must artists to strike while the iron was hot, making himself into an omnipresence in the public eye. But instead, 21 Savage simply spoke out against the sting that he’d been subjected to before retreating from the glare of the newsreels. For the more cynical and opportunistic, the decision to spend time at home with his kids or using Twitter to lament over Call Of Duty removing the “ambush” game mode would be looking a gift horse in the mouth.
On the other hand, the fact that he’s taken an extended hiatus from the hubbub of his career, at a time where his notoriety was at its highest, has meant that his gradual return to the spotlight has been all the more impactful.
Before he was taken into custody by ICE, 21 Savage was a name that many non-specialized music fans or newsreaders would have had certain pre-conceived notions about. With many people— including older hip-hop heads— nursing an adversarial relationship with the new school for its alleged artlessness, the face tatted, XXL Freshman alumni could be seen as just another assembly line rapper with no broader ambitions beyond sipping lean and amassing wealth by the uninitiated.
Save for sporadic live performances, 21 Savage had been a man of few actions and even scarcer words since his immigration battle began. And considering that his lawyers believe his newfound fight against deportation was retribution for the new lyrics to “A Lot” that he debuted on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon— "been through some things but I can’t imagine my kids stuck at the border"— that was be a wise move.
Notably absent from the visuals for Schoolboy Q’s “Floating” that debuted in May, his next on-wax appearance would come in a suitably discreet feature on Bazzi’s “Focus," But now, a spate of liaisons with R&B starlets has acted as a fitting summation of his new found reach. Earlier this month on Jhené Aiko’s “Triggered” remix with Summer Walker. Prefaced by a cryptic screenshot of the original back in August, 21’s verse saw him dabble in matters of the heart rather than the turmoil of his violent surroundings or any of the other lyrical content that we’ve come to expect from him. Just weeks later, he's expanded on this new side of his repertoire by lending his services to Normani's "Motivation." Dubbed the "Savage Remix", 21's inclusion and the very act of a former member of Fifth Harmony aligning herself with the man behind "My Choppa Hate N***s" attests to his newfound marketability in the pop culture sphere. Where he'd only ever worked with rap-oriented female artists such as Dreezy, Cardi B and City Girls in the past, the enlistment of his unique drawl within the context of love songs is a new development that's only presented itself in the wake of his dishreartening deportation battle.
Now fact-filed and extensively covered in mainstream news institutions that range from CNN and the BBC to FOX and The Associated Press, 21 possesses a level of name recognition that would’ve been previously unfathomable and it's being put to good use.
While it’s by no means a fair trade off for the anguish he’s endured, what Abraham-Joseph has utilised that newfound platform to not only stoke the hype that surrounds him, but attempt to remould society to his own specifications.
Teased within the trailer for Mortal Kombat 11, the temporarily reclusive rapper got all the affirmation he could ever need about the audience’s appetite for new music when he posed his Twitter followers a simple task. “Let’s see how many retweets I can get to persuade me to drop immortal 🤔”, he suggested and, suffice to say, fans began feverishly spreading the message to the tune of 106K Retweets. After letting the dust settle once more, 21 deployed the track on Halloween to the jubilance of fans around the world. Every bit the head-knocking street anthem that had been alluded to in the teaser, the song is being treated as though it were the return of the prodigal son and, at time of writing, that's without him even formally sharing the link on social media. Content to let the media and audience do the promo legwork for him, it's hard to imagine any other time where a surprise release from the Slaughter King would've been so emphatically received.
On the other side of the coin, we have a pursuit that 21 is seemingly more concerned with of late. Ever since he made his ascent into hip-hop’s upper reaches, 21 has participated in philanthropic projects. Whether it comes in the form of the annual “Issa Back To School Drive” or the “Bank Account Campaign” that he launched during an appearance on Ellen, 21 recently informed Another Man Magazine that he tries to enrich the lives of the youth as his influence “can change the cycle. That kid’s kid might have a better chance, and so on and so forth.”
Where 21 previously struck a neat counterbalance between artistry and activism, the scales have tipped in favour of the latter in recent months and garnered him no shortage of plaudits. Aligned with a litany of charities that are challenging the government’s policy on deportation, The National Immigration Law Center accredited him with the Courageous Luminaries Award. The highest honor they can bestow, the organization felt compelled to give him the prestigious accolade for both the awareness that his plight has afforded them and the sizeable donations that he’s made to legal funds in the wake of his release.
21 Savage attends Rihanna's 5th Annual Diamond Ball - Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images
Blunt and incisive with his words, 21 tends to withhold the details where other rappers would elaborate. For example, a July performance in San Diego saw him bellow out “Savage Mode 2 coming soon” to the delight of attendees before abstaining from mentioning it again. As a result, the only other evidence we’d had to suggest that new work is underway comes courtesy of his manager Justin “Meezy” Williams.
“He’s not really a big talker; he lets his music speak for itself,” he told Billboard. “As his manager, I would love for him to speak [in his lyrics] about being detained. I think eventually it will be in the music, because he’s becoming such a big voice.” Then, just weeks ago, 21 headed to social media and typified the reserved and measured approach that he’s taken in recent months with the following proclamation: “just because I didn’t remind you don’t think I forgot and just because it ain’t happened yet don’t think it’s not.”
Lingering ominously at the top of his timeline below the pinned banner that asks fans to “stop the deportation of 21 Savage,” it curtails all of the suspicion over his next move and implies that there’s a storm brewing for someone, or perhaps something, on the horizon.
Whether he wishes to become a spokesperson for the oppressed in the vein of Meek Mill, retreat to the gritty rhymes that made his name and were heard on "Immortal" or veer off into another direction entirely, 21 Savage has had the restraint to keep fans in the dark while he rectifies his private life behind-the-scenes. In doing so, the 27-year-old rapper has ensured that when a new project does emerge, it’ll be received by a global audience that goes way beyond the boundaries of the average hip-hop consumer to become worldwide news.
As to what it may constitute, this seems like the perfect place for a final excerpt from his September profile in Another Man: “Nobody can stand up for me,” he remarked. “I can stand up for myself.”