Must Be Two Sides: 21 Savage Edition

Written By: CNH

Hip-Hop fans and critics continue to rely on outdated and/or unsophisticated metrics for artist authenticity. The artist’s persona must align seamlessly with his personal life, and if it doesn't, the artist’s entire catalog must be thrown into question. Most rapper’s careers hang on a tightrope of fan obsession or passing interest where one misstep, like false-claiming a neighborhood or city, could land them in a pit of ridicule and ultimately, memes.  Few rappers redeem themselves from a fall of that height.  21 Savage is a different story.

       When news broke of 21’s detainment by United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), social media collectively learned of his British heritage and proceeded to mock his origins, music, and ties to his self-proclaimed hometown, Atlanta, GA.  Putting aside the reality that the collective conscious of Twitter and Instagram is callous and impervious to facts or context, the online jokes revisited an age-old proposition in rap:  a rapper’s identity and authenticity is tied directly to his hometown.  That is, the hometown is the oversimplified lens through which fans view an artist’s credibility and artistry. For 21, who credits East Atlanta as his hometown, the combination of his lyrical content, the musical content of 21’s predecessors and peers who also call Atlanta home, and the general lore of Atlanta created through media (factual or not), allowed fans, for better or worse, to view 21’s artistic image as real, and therefore, acceptable (as if that’s an actual metric of success in the entertainment industry). Once Atlanta, or whatever traits attributed to Atlanta and its residents was taken away from 21, his story somehow became a farce—then a laughingstock.

    The news of 21’s birthplace was a supposed moment of cognitive dissonance for fans and critics where 21’s Atlanta trapper-turned-rapper persona confronted a primitive stereotype of Great Britain’s “high society.” Rather than contextualizing 21’s relationship to his birthplace and his hometown, the news served as an indictment against 21’s public image and credibility as an autobiographical rapper.  Despite 21’s well-documented ties to Atlanta, a line in the sand was redrawn about geo-authenticity in rap music: you can only represent a singular geographic and/or cultural experience as a person and rapper. The rule seemed to fly in the face of Hip-Hop’s international landscape and composition, especially in the era of social media.

Whether born and/or raised abroad, some of Hip-Hop’s most influential artists hail from countries outside the United States. DJ Kool Herc, one of Hip-Hop’s founding fathers, was born in Jamaica before immigrating to The Bronx to help push American music forward. Slick Rick, one of Hip-Hop’s colorful storytellers, was born and raised in the United Kingdom before immigrating to the United States. And of course, the biggest star of the last decade, Drake, was born and raised in Canada. The story of Hip-Hop is incomplete without acknowledgement of the international experience and contribution, which makes the jabs (playful or not) directed at 21 misplaced. But despite the overzealous and unverified critiques of 21, the culture always supersedes the critics. A flood of support from advocates of all walks of life would ultimately defend 21 and point to the larger issues at play, including the problematic pathway to citizenship for undocumented children, immigration enforcement, and from 21’s true fans, an understanding that home is not just a question of origin, but also of identify and solidarity.

            As 21 continues to fight against deportation while sustaining his music career, the last couple weeks suggest a necessary shift in the conversation about what 21 or any person of a multicultural background could represent as their home, especially in Hip-Hop.  In rap’s current climate, where the culture’s rules are constantly evolving to accommodate new or previously unacknowledged ideas, it may be time to approach the rapper origin story with more humility and sophistication.