When Post Malone took center stage at the 61st Grammy Awards to perform his hit song “Rockstar,” the only sign of the track’s featured guest, 21 Savage, was a brief glimpse of his name on the black T-shirt Malone wore under his leather jacket. At the time, the real 21 Savage, born She’yaa Bin Abraham-Joseph, was more than 2,000 miles away, locked up in an ICE detention facility in the tiny two-stoplight town of Ocilla, Ga. Instead of joining Malone for what would have been his first Grammys performance, Savage — whose recent album I Am > I Was had just topped the Billboard 200 — watched the ceremony from a TV in his cell.
The 26-year-old rapper’s arrest, in what he called a targeted move by ICE, came as a surprise to many, including his fans, who believed that Savage, with his American accent, city swagger, and southern drawl, was an Atlanta native. But Savage was born in England and came to the U.S. at the age of seven, leaving the country only once for a month-long trip back to the U.K. The rapper’s legal team says he returned under a valid H-4 visa, but admits the visa expired a year later in 2006.
“I knew I wasn’t born here, but I didn’t know what that meant as far as when I transitioned to an adult and how it was going to affect my life,” said Savage on ABC’s Good Morning America, after he was released on a $100,000 bond following a nine-day stint in custody. “I wasn’t hiding it but it’s like I didn’t want to get deported so I’m not going to come out and say, ‘By the way I wasn’t born here.’”
Now as Savage continues to fight his deportation, entertainment attorneys that work directly with artists are encouraging those in the music industry to take stock of any potential visa and immigration issues. For years, the business has been less demanding of requiring talent to produce documentation that is often required in standard employment contracts. Music executives and promoters are often more concerned with ticket sales than an artist’s I-9 form.
“People in the industry who put on shows, all they care about is, ‘Can they sell tickets?’ and ‘Is the artist going to show up?’” says attorney Howard King, whose clients have included Metallica, Pharrell Williams, Kanye West, Van Morrision, and Zedd.
But entertainment executives and lawyers say there is a new “chill in the air” following 21’s arrest, and if managers aren’t already huddled with their clients going over potential immigration issues, they should be.
“I can tell you that the federal government can and does take into account how notable a target is — and the reality is that a big case leads to general public deterrence,” Savage’s attorney, Alex Spiro, tells EW. “I can tell you that ICE absolutely targeted She’yaa.” (Savage told GMA that he heard the officers say “we got Savage” after they took him into custody.)
While ICE has not commented on whether performers like Abraham-Joseph are under enhanced scrutiny for their behavior, others say they have felt the pressure of government entities taking a closer look at their entertainment clients across the board. Artists have been stopped at the border and turned away, and those in the U.S. who might not be here legally find they are unable to meet international touring commitments.
Bernard Wolfsdorf, an immigration attorney, says his firm is experiencing on a daily basis an increase in rejected work visa applications for “the best and brightest” artists. He says in Atlanta that ICE is also being “particularly aggressive.”
“There is no question we are seeing what is being referred to as the ‘invisible wall,’” says Wolfsdorf, partner at Wolfsdorf Rosenthal, who declined to name high-profile entertainers he has represented, citing client confidentiality. “The current administration’s anti-immigration rhetoric is trickling down to the point where people in arts and entertainment are being subject to additional scrutiny. They have raised the high jump bar, made it more difficult — and this is in spite of the fact that Congress has not passed any more restrictive laws to support the president’s agenda.”
Immigration attorney Andrea Szew says Abraham-Joseph’s arrest should serve as a wake-up call to the music industry. She says that now is the time for lawyers and managers to have frank discussions with their talent and to encourage them to be proactive rather than reactive.
“It is definitely something that started a while back and this is one example of cracking down on people who overstay or people coming into the country on the wrong visa,” adds Szew, founder of the Szew Law Group in Los Angeles. “Immigration is looking at them closer, border patrol is being more vigilant these days. It is no joke.”
Szew states that while most artists are focused on making art, it is up to those around them to make sure they have the proper documentation. She advises full disclosure on any criminal history whether it took place in the U.S. or abroad because even an innocent mistake can have huge consequences. A deportation for Abraham-Joseph or any artist could mean being barred from the U.S. for 10 years — or even permanently. The visa selection process after deportation for re-entry consideration is also known for being extremely difficult.
“It can kill your career and it can kill everyone who has been depending on you for your career,” she says. “I do think if anyone in the music industry is not working with an immigration counsel on a regular basis they should be.”
Savage’s legal team have been working furiously themselves to rectify their client’s status to prevent his deportation. Spiro says that, like many “Dreamers,” his client had been left for some time with no way to fix his immigration status. According to Spiro, Savage, who has three children who are U.S. citizens, applied for a special U visa in 2017 set aside for victims of crimes who have suffered substantial physical or mental abuse. 21 Savage qualified for this visa, Spiro says, because his client was the victim of a deadly shooting attempt while sitting in a car with his best friend, who later died from his injuries. 21 Savage survived despite being shot six times. (The visa application is still pending.)
Spiro is hopeful that ultimately the government will allow Abraham-Joseph to remain in the U.S. He said the outpouring of support from political leaders, artists, and the public — Diddy, Cardi B, Jay-Z, Kendrick Sampson, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), have all rallied to the rapper’s side — is evidence that the “public saw through it, saw it for what it was, and knew that it was wrong and he should be home.”
Adds Spiro, “This is a humanitarian issue.”