She'yaa Bin Abraham-Joseph moved to the United States with his mother when he was only 7 years old. Bidding farewell to his sisters, father, and grandmother, Sheyaa arrived in the U.S. under a temporary work visa. Exiting the door of the Hartsfield-Jackson airport that day he could have felt despondent or tearful thinking of the family and friends he had suddenly left behind. Or perhaps he was a bit excited, unaware of the vast implications the 9-hour trip would have some two decades later when he would be better known as world-famous rapper 21 Savage.
On February 3 last year, She'yaa was driving around Atlanta with his cousin. His visa had expired 13 years prior, making him one of around 500,000 undocumented Black people living in the U.S. But Atlanta was his home.
The historic, ongoing participation of white civilians in the arrest and murder of Black people indicates that the breadth of "the police" stretches far beyond the reach of state-funded departments.
The city's unimpeachable skyline, the hothouse clubs lining Edgewood Ave—the faults and flame of the city that had raised him. She'yaa didn't fit the profile of those ICE deems "high-risk" when officers arrested him that night—he had applied for a visa in 2017, and had no serious criminal convictions. He fit a different profile: that of a prominent Black performer and artist known far outside his home city.
Law enforcement has surveilled and criminalized rap artists ever since rap music gained widespread attention outside of Black enclaves. In 1989, the FBI's assistant director of public affairs publicly condemned NWA's "Fuck tha Police," arguing that the song encouraged violence against police. Even before rap hit its stride as a popular genre, authorities targeted the genre's forbearers for stirring public sentiments towards authorities; the FBI surveilled jazz poet Gil-Scott Heron for several years throughout the 1970s.
The recent murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor continue to prove that the police have always already targeted Black people for incarceration and death. Rap artists face an additional scrutiny.
Rap music promotes righteous anger against white supremacy, as the FBI contends. But the preeminence of Black rap artists also serve as a tool for police to fashion into cautionary examples of Black insurgency. Abraham-Joseph's expired visa was simply the excuse needed to prop him up as a corrupt "thug" who could now be lawfully subject to extreme punishment. ICE attempted to paint 21 Savage as a lying criminal, stating, directly after his arrest, that "his whole public persona [as Atlanta-bred] is false."
His newest music tells a different story.
In a recent Instagram snippet, 21 addressed his arrest for the first time. Over a dark, piano-led beat, 21 raps: "I ain't know nothin' 'bout no visa, I was in the park with the gang / Moms be feelin' bad, I try to tell her she is not to blame / no social security, couldn't get a license, still I didn't complain."
21's reflections maintain a balance between his inner turmoil, and his hardened exterior. Growing up undocumented burdened 21 with daily concerns, but in his estimation made him more resilient. His music often alludes to the vicissitudes that have marked his life, and marked the life of so many Black people: state supervision, premature death, extreme sentencing, and police violence,. His verses share fraught reflections on these topics, that can be striking in their detachment and, simultaneously, devastating in their anguish. His complexities present alternatives to the incessant hegemonic police characterization of Black people as violent and expendable felons.
The historic, ongoing participation of white civilians in the arrest and murder of Black people indicates that the breadth of "the police" stretches far beyond the reach of state-funded departments. Gregory and Travis McMichael's murder of Ahmaud Arbery, and Amy Cooper's false report against Christian Cooper recall antebellum slave patrols, and postbellum lynching mobs, both composed of white civilians acting as de facto police. Although violent white militias are easily identifiable as police, journalists, who often accept police narratives as objective fact, represent another common accomplice.
His complexities present alternatives to the incessant hegemonic police characterization of Black people as violent and expendable felons.
Several prominent music publications have shared messages of solidarity to those fighting for police abolition, suggesting that their journalism supports the goals of such activism. Yet, their coverage of trap music suggests otherwise.
When artists like 21 are profiled by music outlets, writers often focus on the supposed realism of trap music, erasing its creative roots and its emotional complexity. For instance, Music and lifestyle magazine The Fader often examines trap music as autobiographical rather than acknowledging the possibility of an imaginative lens. In their first profile of 21, writer Alex Russell characterizes 21 as a memoirist. Russell writes:
His music leans heavily on robbing and killing, pulling inspiration from lived-in hardships: Auntie hit the dope say it make her fucking jaw lock/Stray bullets hitting kids while they playing hopscotch, he raps on "Skrrt Skrrt." Gucci Mane's influence is clear as ever, with a fresh menace that feels just an inch removed from the life it documents.
In Russell's story, 21's lyrics are depicted as a direct representation of his life as a gang-affiliated drug dealer. By arguing that his music portrays "lived-in hardships," Russell forfeits the opportunity to examine "Skrrt Skrrt" as an imaginative work.
In Salvation: Black People and Love, bell hooks calls out that the conflation of "grittiness" and "authenticity" robs Black art of its ingenuity: "The insistence that portraits of Black folks be 'realistic,'… is somehow shorthand for 'representational.'" hooks suggests that "gritty" portrayals of Blackness are always seen as ubiquitously and exclusively true and not for what they are—imaginative constructions.
Black art which explores themes of violence, crime, and survival is often assumed to be authentic, no matter the artist's intentions. Belying the anguish and ingenuity alive in this Southern subgenre of rap, Russell and others attempt to enforce their own stereotypes about what authentic Blackness and authentic trap music ought to be. In The Fader's second profile of 21, writer Amos Barshad describes 21 as an outlier bringing a social-realist intervention in an outlandish and surrealist trap scene. He writes:
And that means aspirational "weirdness" has become more and more the status quo. It wasn't necessarily his intention, but Savage has appeared as a corrective to all that. His street talk is unvarnished, almost brutally so. And his message is simple: Atlanta is still a city of bullets and drugs.
In both stories, 21 assumes the role of an uncritical and unfeeling eye witness, who captures authentic Black experiences that might later be embellished.
Russell and Barshad overlook 21's origins in horrorcore rap, which is a genre of rap that does exactly that: dramatize the conflicts and hardships rappers have faced through exaggerated reference to the macabre with the intention of expressing what is experientially ineffable. The tension between sangfroid and misery that 21 exhibits both in his verses and beat selection is directly informed by Southern rap traditions.
As rap critic Stephen Kearse observes, great horrorcore artists like 21 craft upsetting narratives to "find a language and vehicle for rage and misery."
Groups like Geto Boys and Three 6 Mafia first experimented with themes of horror and melancholy in the late '80s and early '90s. Three 6 Mafia, who 21 clearly idolizes, perfected this subgenre, now known as horrorcore, by combining ominous production with frequent reference to the occult.
Before Three 6, rap artists often wrote violent lyrics, but rarely complemented these verses with supernatural mythos or immersive soundscapes. DJ Paul and Lord Infamous' "Damn I'm Crazed," released one year before they co-founded Three 6 Mafia, presents a masterclass of horrorcore. Lord Infamous introduces himself, rapping: "sacred black magic from the deadly voodoo powers / secret séances performed at midnight hours / mystic styles of the ancient mutilations / horrifying chaos, shackle zombies in my basement."
Like other icons of the occult, such as black cats and crows, Lord Infamous uses myths of black magic as a source of illumination. His lyrics intend to shock the listener, but they also gesture towards moments of anguish that have altered his perspective. DJ Paul's filtered production, marked by disembodied vocal samples, intensifies Lord Infamous' reflections in these eldritch scenes: "I talk to myself 'cause there is no one to talk to / I am the cool damn fool that will shoot you / I think of murda, murder on me mind." With this confession, Lord Infamous reveals that his horrifying imagery is a means to express his darkest feelings.
21 Savage uses similar horror designs to explore damaged interiorities. On "Numb," he raps "Make a diss song, they gon' wrap you like a mummy / my young n-as geekin' on boot like zombies," to describe the frightening images in his mind. On "Don't Come Out The House," he first presents himself as a horror villain, only to subvert this trope moments later. After he warns his listener about the dagger he carries ("Slaughter gang so I keep a knife") he alludes to his own night terrors ("All these bodies I can't sleep at night").
By characterizing 21 as a witness to "bullets and drugs," rather than a writer of pulp fiction working to negotiate experiences of violence, The Fader writers show their allegiance to the myths of police culture.
Like Lord Infamous, 21 writes horror scenes to both frighten his listener, and reveal the guarded persona he has developed through past trauma. Although his references to the occult may first provoke fear, through his later confessions, he reveals that he is just as scared as anyone. As rap critic Stephen Kearse observes, great horrorcore artists like 21 craft upsetting narratives to "find a language and vehicle for rage and misery." Through their songs, horrorcore artists share feelings of anguish that may otherwise go unacknowledged.
Ironically, although horrorcore might first incite terror, it can also foster connection by speaking to unarticulated pain.
By characterizing 21 as a witness to "bullets and drugs," rather than a writer of pulp fiction working to negotiate experiences of violence, The Fader writers show their allegiance to the myths of police culture. Their focus on 21's behavior betrays their kinship with progressive news outlets like The New York Times, which treat trap artists as if they are uniquely prone to committing crime. In a feature for The New York Times, pop music writer Jon Caramanica characterizes a new wave of trap music, which he calls "SoundCloud rap," as a culture of delinquents. Although he profiles several artists, who vary in terms of their age and behavior, Caramanica argues that all of the new artists are susceptible to bouts of violence and indiscretion. He writes:
"But sometimes, as at the Seattle show, the extreme behavior spills into the real world. Ski Mask the Slump God was attacked on stage while performing in Los Angeles. On social media, Lil Pump bragged about crashing a new Porsche and, after reaching one million followers on Instagram, celebrated with a Xanax-shaped cake. The current XXXTentacion tour has been riddled with problems: One night, he was attacked onstage by a rival; another, he punched a fan… XXXTentacion was arrested twice in 2016, including on a charge of aggravated battery of a pregnant woman."
Caramanica affords Lil Pump, who was 16 at the time of publication, no sympathy for his provocative behavior. Although Pump was charged with no crime for crashing his car, Caramanica likens him to violent offenders, suggesting that he is headed for the same fate. This editorial choice is noticeable when contrasted with Caramanica's other reporting on white artists, like Justin Bieber. Profiling Bieber in February, Caramanica stated that "he's suffered the pains of superfame for half of his life." Caramanica gives Bieber a wide room for error and opportunity to reemerge as a "prisoner of regret" in the wake of his multiple DUIs and assault charges. Young Black and brown trap artists, like Lil Pump, are instead presented as "at-risk" youth doomed to recidivism.
Through their profiles, The New York Times and The Fader craft self-fulfilling prophecies. The assumption of guilt that pervades their coverage of trap music contributes to the over-policing of trap artists. Just a year and a half after Caramanica's article, Miami Police falsely arrested Lil Pump for drug possession, and then charged him with disorderly conduct for maintaining his innocence. Caramanica's feature laid the groundwork for this arrest. By casting Pump as an accomplice of criminals, Caramanica deemed him worthy of suspicion and supported the state's prosecution of Black and brown artists like him.
The Fader's conflation of 21 Savage's musical persona and personal history led to similar repercussions. In a press release, 21's attorneys indicated that he was detained by ICE in a targeted sting operation, based on "incorrect information about prior criminal charges." When writers like Alex Russell report that 21's music is just "an inch removed from the life it documents," they strengthen misconceptions about artists' criminal history and normalize literal interpretation of trap music.
Both Davis and Al-Amin were murdered seven years apart for the same crime: listening to rap music.
These straightforward readings often conflict with trap artists' own descriptions of their writing. Yet, in the hands of prosecutors and judges, trap lyrics have been contorted into legal evidence, used to incriminate prominent artists who are otherwise uninvolved in illegal activity.
In The New York Times and The Fader's features on trap music, the genuine threats of violent police, private probation, and federal surveillance, are passingly described, if mentioned at all. By portraying trap artists as natural felons, progressive journalists erase the anti-Back state project which fashions Black men into criminals. But if trap artists promote violence at all, they promote counterviolence, which, as Frantz Fanon states, "aims at removing the existing structure of violence." In their faulty accounts of the "fresh menace" of trap artists, journalists suggest that trap music incites violence rather than confronting it. This botched analysis adopts the rhetorical strategies of respectability politics, which places blame on the behavior of the Black person, rather than the antiblack state.
The murders of Black 17-year-olds Elijah Al-Amin and Jordan Davis show that the myth of trap music's criminality has fatal repercussions even outside formal legal structures, directly inspiring white nationalist violence. Both Davis and Al-Amin were murdered seven years apart for the same crime: listening to rap music. Michael Dunn, who murdered Davis in 2012, and Michael Adams, who murdered Al-Amin in 2019, both characterized rap music as an existential threat. When questioned about his murder, Adams explained that people who listen to rap are "a threat to him and the community." In 2012, before Michael Dunn killed Jordan Davis, he expressed a similar sentiment, telling his girlfriend "I hate that thug music."
The language which Adams and Dunn use to describe trap music is harmonious with that of The Fader and The New York Times, which similarly casts trap as an inherently violent genre of music. Under the guise of authenticity, The Fader hides its fundamental belief in the dangers of "thug music" and the inherent criminality of trap artists. Yet, regardless of its journalistic portrayal, trap music will continue to elude easy definition. A year before his arrest by ICE, 21 Savage wrote the following on Twitter: "they want us to kill each other especially now since we young and rich." 21 argues that those who frame Black men as violent criminals are guilty of a more insidious violence.