The news that rapper 21 Savage, who made his name as an MC who claimed Atlanta’s Zone 6 as his home, had been detained Sunday for and prepped for deportation by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was met with confusion, shock… and tons of memes.
When the news first circulated across the internet, it featured a tidbit from ICE spokesperson Bryan Cox: 21 Savage is an “unlawfully present United Kingdom national.” The jokes became about the idea that 21 Savage fabricated his background of a tough Atlanta upbringing by virtue of him being raised in what the jokesters believed to be a safer, less authentically Hip-Hop place like the UK. The jokes weren’t only misinformed but they were based on propaganda from ICE, a law enforcement agency that has terrorized and killed people of color with little regard for any actual justice. Now that the memes have stopped, we need to really investigate the factors in place and how they act to persecute people of color every day.
I get it. I understand that black folks want to hold on to our culture, namely Hip-Hop, and any time there’s an inkling of inauthenticity, it causes us to take up arms and defend what’s ours. But the problem lies in the presence of Black people taking ICE’s word for anything, even something seemingly as harmless as where a rapper with a tattoo knife on his head has always called home. It just troubled me to see anything ICE-related turned into a joke.
The Immigration and Customs Enforcement was ostensibly put in place to curb illegal immigration and fortify borders. But the agency, especially in the past few months, has been responsible for unspeakable acts of hatred and violence. Just last week, ICE ran a fake college ad for the purpose of luring immigrants to get deported. The second half of 2018 was spent with organizations and lawyers across the country trying to figure out how to get immigrant toddlers out of jails, reunite children who had been separated by their families at the border. ICE is facing a $60 million lawsuit for the mother of a toddler who died while in its custody. Nothing involving ICE is ripe for laughter, and the same policies that caused the revelation of the rapper’s past are the same policies putting babies in cages and ending their lives. Hilarious.
21 Savage is a father of three children who now don’t have access to their father, let alone the countless family members he supports financially. He has engaged in community service work across the country, offering financial literacy to children and delivering speeches decrying gun violence. He is a wealthy man who pays hundreds of thousands in taxes. He came to America as a 12-year-old and had no control over his immigration status or the expiration of a Visa that occurred when he was still a child. He’s a victim of the same system that oppresses countless people who look like him. And if his wealth can’t shield him from forced exile from the country, then what does that say about those among us without any resources who get sent away?
Beyond all of that is what the jokes said about our understanding – or lack thereof – of Black people in other countries like the UK. It’s sheer ignorance to pretend like being Black and British suddenly disqualifies someone from experiencing the same sort of injustices and poverty 21 Savage raps about surviving in Atlanta. Black people are persecuted everywhere on Earth and the UK is no different. If you recall, London went up in flames in 2011 over riots and protests that started with the police killing of a Black man. Those tensions persist and reflect the way Black people in Britain are second-class citizens. But yet, “tea and crumpet” memes persisted. Ignorantly.
I get that we as Black folks like to process our trauma with laughter from time to time and the use of memes gets us to that point. But, man, we have to at least follow that with a deep, thoughtful interrogation of the system that has victimized 21 Savage and the precarious position it puts him and his family in – and by proxy the people like him who don’t have nearly the same resources he has. We should never put ourselves in a position to even look like we are taking lightly the violence ICE perpetrates. ICE is an evil organization and any moment we take to let them off the hook is a moment too many. Right now, we need to stand with 21 Savage and the countless people who are victims of the horrors of that agency. We’ll have plenty of time to crack jokes about other moments on social media and enjoy them just the same.
David Dennis, Jr. is a writer and adjunct professor of Journalism at Morehouse College. David’s writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Smoking Section, Uproxx, Playboy, The Atlantic, Complex.com and wherever people argue about things on the internet.