Realness in rap: the case for 21 Savage

Published

Credit: Flickr / Ralph Alversen

Tayla Benson
Writer

Superbowl Sunday saw social media preoccupied with the surprise revelation that Grammy nominated Atlanta Rapper, 21 Savage, is in fact British.

On the morning of Superbowl Sunday, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrested the rapper, threatening deportation as a result of overstaying his visa by over 10 years. The government agency claim that 21 Savage arrived in the US legally as a minor in 2005, however became an illegal presence in the country after failing to leave after this expired in July 2006.

Confirmation of the rapper’s supposed true identity sent waves of confusion through rap and hip-hop fans around the world. Like many American rappers, 21 Savage’s music is littered with references to the “zone 6” of Georgia Atlanta in which he grew up. The idea that this in fact is not the origin of his story, stated not just through his music but in interviews too, left many feeling that they had been lied to.

21 Savage, also known as Sha Yaa Bin Abraham-Joseph, possesses the familiar “trap rap” markings of his fellow Atlantan rappers, such as Migos and Future, mixed in with the monotonic mumble rap styling synonymous with the latest era Sound Cloud rappers. Finding this sound after losing his friend and brother in acts of gang violence encouraged him to find a way out of his life of guns, drugs and gang rivalry, introducing him to the safer spaces of studios, a way of exploring and reflecting on his experiences and the consequences of being a part of that world.

It’s through his exploration of gang violence and dependency on crime to make money that his music has spoken to many of his fans – these are the scenes that many see and hear of in their daily lives. This is where a lot of the disappointment over his British citizenship lies. For his Atlanta fans, and also those American fans from similar deprived backgrounds, he symbolises that there is still hope and possibility of success and better life. Nowhere in this fairytale story of 21 Savage’s success is there supposed to be a British prologue.

This British citizenship seems to have completely debunked the identity he has built up through his music, as seen from the reactions on social media, with memes flooding Twitter timelines joking about the rapper’s secret preferences to tea rather than “lean”, a concoction made up of cough syrup and fizzy drinks referenced by many American rappers. So the question is: why does it matter?

The world of hip hop and rap are not just seen as genres of music but a culture, one that is based on a concept of “realness”. It is a culture in that has seen the ridicule of rappers that have been found to be putting on a front that is different from their reality, those that have failed to “keep it real”. Accusations of this type have affected seemingly untouchable superstars such as Drake, with other artists such as Pusha T calling into question the authorship of his lyrics and other lifestyle choices. It follows that for 21 Savage to fail to reference his old life in the UK, or even refer to his immigrating to the US, many feel that his identity has been a composed façade – a mask made by the music industry to make him more appealing to rap fans.

It also comes down to the perceived differences between American rap and UK rap. Although gang violence provides a common trope, other major cultural differences cannot be ignored, with issues such as gun violence between warring gangs being much less prevalent in the UK, for example. The similarities outweigh the differences, in that many rappers of the UK also experience growing up in underprivileged areas. The musical styles, however, are completely different, with afrobeats and bashment featuring heavily in the beats selected by UK rappers currently, and the more aggressive Drill style making appearances in the official UK Charts. On the other hand, classic rap flows and focus on clever lyrics with the inclusion of trap style beats are very much American.

But it is clear through his music that 21 hasn’t been influenced by the UK sounds or UK London experiences, of which he was born into. Spending his formative teenage years in Georgia, Atlanta, his image and music reflects completely the community which supported and raised him to his Grammy nominated success. Even his name, “21”, alludes to the block in which he lived and grew up in. His activist work also focuses on improving the lives of the young people of Georgia, using his own stories and mistakes to deter young men and women falling into the same patterns that saw him lose his friends and sibling.

It is this community that formed the identity he pushes in his music and interviews, the identity that fans have been able to relate and aspire to. In his mind, he may have been keeping it as “real” as he felt necessary. Bearing in mind that he entered the US as a minor, it is completely possible that his previously British life seems to be a part of a completely different life all together.

Amongst the disappointment, derision and anger aimed at the rapper’s nationality, however, we need to remind ourselves that we are not entitled to every detail of our favourite musicians’ and performers’ lives. With the impact of social media, it seems we have become somewhat expectant of involvement in their every decision and to insert ourselves into their narrative.

Ultimately, rap is art. It’s a mode of telling a story, and whether these stories are the musicians own or not is up to them to decide and for us to believe and place importance on. The identity they give to us as rap fans through their music is the one they crafted, the same way they craft their lyrics. Many of the world’s most successful rappers (the likes of Jay Z, Kanye West and Eminem) hold both names and identities: they were not born with but moulded through their music. 21 Savage’s story bears little difference. Rap needs to rid itself of this obsession with the importance of “realness” if it wishes to continue evolving and producing new talents in the genre. Origin stories need not be as important as the overarching narrative itself. Yes, Sha Yaa Bin Abraham-Joseph was born in the UK, but the man the world knows as 21 Savage was very much made in Altana, Georgia.