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Congressman Hank Johnson Advocates For Release Of Detained Rapper 21 Savage


Last Sunday, hours before the Super Bowl kickoff in Atlanta, immigration officials detained someone they called, quote, "an unlawfully present United Kingdom national," unquote. They were referring to the rap artist known as 21 Savage.


21 SAVAGE: (Rapping) How much money you got? A lot. How many problems you got? A lot. How many people done doubted you? A lot. Left you out to rot? A lot. How many pray that you flop? A lot. How many lawyers you got? A lot. How many times you got shot? A lot. How many [expletive] you shot?

MARTIN: That's "A Lot" from his most recent album, which hit No. 1 on the Billboard Top 200 chart last month. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said that 21 Savage has overstayed his visa, and they've placed him in deportation proceedings. But fans and major figures in music have reacted with outrage, saying that the rapper, whose birth name is Shayaa Bin Abraham-Joseph, was brought here as a child of 7 years old, that he's never hidden from the authorities and has pursued whatever avenues for legal status have been open to him. Congressman Hank Johnson, who represents Georgia's 4th District, is also advocating for the rapper, and he's with us now. Congressman, thanks so much for joining us.

HANK JOHNSON: Thank you for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: So the news of 21 Savage's arrest spread rapidly on Twitter. You wrote a letter to immigration judges, calling him a remarkable young man. And you cited his community efforts. Tell me a little bit more about that if you would.

JOHNSON: Well, I had the opportunity, last year, to participate with him in his third annual book bag giveaway. He has an event that draws thousands of young people getting ready to go back to school. So they get book bags crammed with notebooks and pencils and paper and all of the things you need to start school. And he's very beloved by the people of Atlanta, the people of the community in which he lives. This targeted operation to arrest and detain Shayaa appears to be something that has ulterior purposes behind it, so we want to find out exactly what those are.

MARTIN: Well, just - let me just clarify a couple of points here, that ICE, initially, during the - when he was initially arrested said that he had a felony conviction. His lawyers say that that is not true. Why do you think that he was arrested?

JOHNSON: I will say that - first of all, that Shayaa is a young black male. We are disproportionately impacted by deportation proceedings, so there's a racist ICE agenda out there that is being perpetrated. Whether or not it's because he is black, whether or not it's because he has a cross on his forehead - tattoo or whether or not it could be due to the record that he released a couple of weeks ago that talks about how ICE mistreats children on the southern border - whatever the reason it is, it's bad for Shayaa. And we're going to make sure that we do everything we can to get him the help that he needs to face this persecution that he's undergoing by ICE.

MARTIN: One of the points that you made in your letter is that he supports his siblings, that he's the main breadwinner for his family, for his siblings as well as for his own three children. Do you have any sense of how are they doing with him being detained?

JOHNSON: Well, he was immediately taken to a ICE detention facility three hours away from home down in the notorious Irwin County private for-profit detention facility, the largest detention facility for immigrants in the United States of America. He's been held down there in solitary confinement, basically, 23 hours a day. And so his family is worried about him, and his community is worried about him.

But I understand that he's holding up well, and he is determined to see this thing through. And he thanks all of his supporters and those who have tried to help him. This was a very targeted action taken at a key moment. And it was meant to send a message to immigrants in Atlanta to keep your mouth shut and stay hidden. And so it adds to the climate of terror that ICE has been projecting on the immigrant community in Atlanta ever since Donald Trump came into office.

MARTIN: That's Congressman Hank Johnson of Atlanta. He represents Georgia's 4th Congressional District. Congressman, thanks so much for talking to us.

JOHNSON: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.