Rapper 21 Savage is becoming more transparent about his life as an immigrant kid, especially after being the target of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in February of this year.
The 26-year-old U.K. citizen spoke with The Associated Press on Thursday before receiving an award from the National Immigration Law Center (NLC). He explained that he thinks immigrants like him who lived in America illegally as kids should automatically become U.S. citizens, especially considering the lengthy process it takes to obtain visas.
“When you’re a child, you don’t know what’s going on,” he said. “Now, you grow up and got to figure it out. Can’t get a job. Can’t get a license. I’m one of the lucky ones who became successful. It’s a lot of people who can’t.”
NILC honored 21 Savage for advocating immigrant justice. Back in February, the Grammy-nominated artist was arrested in a targeted ICE operation over his expired visa. He had to spend 10 days in a detention center in south Georgia before being released. Savage, whose birth name is She’yaa Bin Abraham-Joseph, was a British citizen who relocated to the U.S. when he was only 7 years old. His visa expired in 2006, but his lawyers argued that it wasn’t his fault.
“When you ain’t got no choice, you should be exempt,” 21 Savage said. “It’s not like I was 30, woke up and moved over here. I’ve been here since I was like 7 or 8, probably younger than that. I didn’t know anything about visas and all that. I just knew we were moving to a new place.”
Savage said other kids just like him should be made citizens when they enter the country. “I feel like we should be exempt,” he said. “I feel like we should automatically become citizens.”
Federal immigration officials say they knew 21 Savage had an expired visa since at least 2017 when he applied for a new one. His current immigration case is still pending a hearing before a new judge, according to his lawyer.
Savage said the process of applying for a visa is intimidating to a lot of immigrants who don’t have documents because it “hangs over your head forever.”
“They just lose hope,” he said. “I feel like kids who were brought here at young ages, they should automatically be like ‘Yeah, you good to stay here, work and go to college.’ It should be nipped in the bud before it gets to a point before you come of age.”
Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors has continually supported 21 Savage for becoming an advocate for social justice and she also brings more attention to immigration issues facing Black people.
“Up until the moment when he was arrested, there wasn’t a nationally or public conversation about Black immigrants,” said Cullors, who introduced 21 Savage and gave him the Courageous Luminaries award. Her activist group organized a coalition to facilitate the rapper’s release from ICE custody.
“The conversation primarily revolved around Latin immigrants,” she said. “His detention really pushed a national conversation and it made us talk about what’s happening with Black people who are undocumented. All the Black people in America aren’t just citizens.”
Savage is happy to carry on the conversation, saying, “We got a fight that we need to continue in this country. It ain’t over yet. Even after everything is cool with me, we still have to fight and help people who can’t fight for themselves.”