21 Savage and the Paradox of Identity

On Feb. 3, the Music Industry woke up to discover that popular rapper She’yaa Bin Abraham-Joseph, best known by the public as 21 Savage, had been arrested by American immigration officials. With this arrest, came a larger revelation about the rapper and his past. Despite being associated with the Atlanta rap scene, Abraham-Joseph is not actually from Atlanta or even the US. Instead, he is from the UK. The case has clear political elements to it, at the very least because of ICE’s involvement. Abraham-Joseph’s lawyer wrote that “People can’t connect to the people at the border because they don’t know them.” Therein lays what makes this case interesting beyond politics. 21 Savage’s case reveals something about the fluidity of both American and celebrity identity.

   Anyone who lives in the United States is victim to a paradox of identity. That paradox being that the vast majority of us are not originally from the US, at least in terms of ethnicity. This serves as the basis for the myth of the American Dream. Anyone can come to the US and make it big through sheer determination and enterprising spirit. We have heard these narratives so frequently that the American Dream has become a trope that is expected. Among some, there is the belief that to become successful, one must first behave like those that are successful. Nowhere is this more clear than on social media, where the presentation of self can be edited in just the right way to give the illusion of superiority.

   Performance is, unsurprisingly, what it takes to be a celebrity in the modern age. An explicit case of this lays in naming. No one recognizes She’yaa Bin Abraham-Joseph, but a good handful can identify 21 Savage. Performance is also key to the creation of a celebrity culture that exists parallel to ours, like a soap opera. While there is still exists an undercurrent of celebrity drama, it is nothing like the early 2000s with the crazy highs and breathtaking falls of Lohan, Spears, and Hilton. Responding to backlash and taking cues from early YouTube, celebrity culture now tries to project an air of ‘authenticity,’ and emphasizes how much celebrities are just like us.

The revelations about 21 Savage / She’yaa Bin Abraham-Joseph are not shocking because of his immigration status. Rather, they are shocking because they call into question how ‘authentic’ the experiences of 21 Savage really are. Recent memes about the debacle have surfaced which use Abraham-Joseph’s UK-ness to re-contextualize lyrics as being about British subjects rather than American. When 21 Savage raps about a booth, it now means a red phone box instead of the booth in a recording studio. 21 Savage no longer drinks purple lean from a styrofoam cup, instead he drinks tea from his styrofoam cup.

In a 2016 interview, 21 Savage said that he is from Decatur, Georgia. Given the recent news, people doubt the accuracy of that statement. The solution to this problem is quite simple, and it has to do with performance. She’yaa Bin Abraham-Joseph is not from Decatur and so if he had been interviewed, he would be lying. Luckily, 21 Savage was the one who was interviewed, and he is from Decatur. That raises another question, though.

Right now, Decatur and the rest of the Atlanta metropolitan area are the epicenters of the most popular style of modern rap, Atlanta Trap. Artists like Migos and Childish Gambino both call Atlanta home. In this industry, to say that you come from Atlanta carries weight, weight that must be backed up with authenticity. The controversy surrounding Iggy Azalea provides an example of what happens when someone tries to emulate (and appropriate) southern rap culture. Azalea provides a pretty clear demonstration of appropriation as opposed to other artists such as Ariana Grande. However, in the case of 21 Savage, there is clear authenticity. She’yaa Bin Abraham-Joseph has lived in Atlanta since he was 13. He experienced his coming-of-age there and became a rapper out of that experience. He is, so far as American identity is concerned, American.

This episode, which is ongoing, is important because it hits upon all of the questions we have about identities, both national and ethnic, and of authenticity, both real and manufactured.