We need to pay attention to how musicians interact with borders

The recent detainment of 21 Savage highlights how the state unequally restricts movement, and reproduces a complex web of institutional violence.

February 8, 2019

On Super Bowl Sunday, news broke that ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) had arrested Grammy-nominated rapper 21 Savage earlier that morning. In a statement to Atlanta Fox affiliate WAGA, ICE called the arrest a “targeted operation” involving local and federal law enforcement, explaining that 21—born She’yaa Bin Abraham-Joseph—had been forwarded to federal immigration court for deportation proceedings. According to ICE, the 26-year-old entered the US legally in July 2005 as a British citizen, but overstayed his visa and became unlawfully present in the country when his visa expired in July 2006. The statement also claims that Abraham-Joseph was convicted on felony drug charges in Fulton County, Georgia in 2014.

News of the rapper’s arrest spread quickly as outlets like The Atlanta Journal—Constitution, TMZ, and music publications like Pitchfork shared the story across platforms. Fans and celebrities decried ICE practices on social media, and Black Lives Matter created a petition demanding his release (at the time of publication, it currently has more than 350,000 signatures). Meanwhile, 21’s attorneys offered statements of their own.

In a statement released to Channel 2 Action News, Lawyer Charles H. Kuck characterized the arrest as “a civil law violation,” claiming he was apprehended “based upon incorrect information about prior criminal charges.” He also pointed out that 21 “never hid his immigration status” and applied for a still pending U visa two years ago:

The Department of Homeland Security has known his address and his history since his filing for the U visa in 2017, yet they took no action against him until this past weekend…ICE can only continue to detain individuals who are a threat [to] the community or a flight risk to not show up at their hearings. Obviously, our client is not a flight risk, as he is widely recognizable, and a prominent member of the music industry.

Another lawyer, Jacoby Hudson, clarifies that 21 completed a first offender sentence for the 2014 Fulton County drug case ICE mentioned in its statement, and as a result, under Georgia law, he has not received a conviction. On February 6th, Jay-Z hired an additional attorney, Alex Spiro, to help with the case.

American authorities dealing artists of colour deportation orders over visa issues and non-violent crimes is nothing new: homeland Security forbid California DJ and rapper Chippy Nonstop from re-entering the U.S. after touring Asia on an expired visa in 2015; London-born MF Doom never obtained citizenship after moving to New York City as a child, and after departing for a tour in 2010, was met by an immigration official as soon as he returned, even though his wife and children were all born in the U.S.; and Geto Boys’ Bushwick Bill was up for deportation after he was arrested in Georgia for drug possession, although he was eventually released from custody after winning his removal case.

21 Savage’s encounter with ICE signals both the skewering force of border security, and the fact that for many musicians, their interactions with international borders reflect a plethora of larger social issues. In this case, the mass crackdown of undocumented immigrants in the United Stated under the Trump administration, the disproportionate surveillance of artists of colour, and the ongoing villainization of migrants globally. For racialized artists, contending with this institutional reality challenges a latent characteristic of making art which allows musicians to speak to global audiences while confined to a regional, terrestrial existence, affording its creators the unique ability to transcend borders through their work. But as musicians physically occupy and interact with the same spaces their art flows freely through, they enter bluntly alienating panopticons.

While it’s easy to look to the particularly fraught migration dynamics in the United States, Canada’s history of detaining and refusing entry to black artists is well-documented. A$AP Rocky, Danny Brown, DMX, The Game, Hopsin and Waka Flocka Flame are among the many who have previously been denied entry to the country and forced to cancel shows because of border difficulties. Until 2011, Wu-Tang MC Ghostface Killah was barred from entering the country for 15 years.

In a 2014 op-ed for Noisey, Samantha O’Connor wrote about the complications hip-hop artists routinely encounter when attempting to enter the country, claiming “issues with the Canadian border have spanned the length of the hip-hop show industry in Canada.” Her article underscored the serious logistics involved for promoters, management teams, and performers when seeking access to foreign countries, but it neglected to address a crucial point: who gets turned away and who gets a pass. For several years, Canadian customs has disproportionately applied these restrictions to black performers in a way that’s connected to the systemic criminalization of people of colour in western society.

In 2007, Detroit rapper and MurderCap Records CEO Jerome Alman launched a $900 million federal suit against the Canadian government, alleging its engagement in a “wholesale profiling” of rappers, claiming Canadian immigration had rejected or detained him for questioning at the border on 117 of 120 occasions since 1998 (MurderCap is incorporated in Canada). Across the Pacific, Tyler, the Creator can’t go to Australia, but white supremacist Milo Yiannopoulos can.

These examples reveal that borders are not experienced equally, nor are they subject to uniformity by design. But as the boundary lines that define where regions, their values, and policies begin, international borders are often the nervous centres of political debate and social activism. Choosing to cross them (or not to cross them) become hypervisible responses to foreign policy movements and objectives.

In recent years, few opinions have been as intensely and publicly divisive as the debate around the boundaries defining Israel and Palestine. Musicians have orbited the conversation mainly in relation to the question of whether or not they should perform in Israel as the country continues to occupy territory claimed by Palestinians. It’s an issue that has been underscored by the efforts of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and its campaign to call on  sporting, cultural and academic institutions, and artists to abstain from working in the country until it meets BDS’s demands.

The movement counts notable support from the likes of Roger Waters, Brian Eno, Lauryn Hill, Thurston Moore, Jarvis Cocker, and TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe, amongst others (it bears mentioning that when the BDS movement approached Nick Cave and his band the Bad Seeds regarding two scheduled Israel concerts in November, Cave declared the show would go on and joining Bon Jovi, Elton John, Madonna, Metallica, Ozzy Osborne, and Rihanna who have all ignored calls to cancel performances in Israel). In 2017, Lorde signaled solidarity for the boycott by cancelling a January appearance in Tel Aviv, declaring in a statement to concert organizers “i pride myself on being an informed young citizen, and i had done a lot of reading and sought a lot of opinions before deciding to book a show in tel aviv, but i’m not proud to admit i didn’t make the right call on this one.”

While BDS and allies celebrated the move, pro-Israel voices have gone so far as to criticize it as an act of bigotry, Orthodox Jewish rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s This World: The Values Network took out a full-page ad in the Washington Post to accuse Lorde of anti-semitism while Roseanne Barr asked followers to “boycott this bigot” in a since-deleted tweet. While these criticisms are rooted in the assumption that BDS’s boycott is in opposition to Israel itself, the movement has rejected these claims, insisting that it persists to challenge the actions of its government. For many, there is no middle ground. BDS describes the potential influence of abstaining from performing in the country removes support of the local economy.

Elsewhere, for many artists, the right to boycott is directly connected to their ability to impart activism into their music. We’ve seen similar gestures from territorial boycotts like Zack de la Rocha’s Sound Strike, which called on musicians to boycott performing in Arizona in response to the 2010 state immigration measure Senate Bill 1070 (aka the “Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act”), which encouraged police to card suspected immigrants while requiring immigrants within the state to carry documents verifying their status. Kanye West, Cypress Hill, Nine Inch Nails, Sonic Youth, Massive Attack, and Serj Tankian all joined the boycott, and Shakira openly spoke out against the law.

With the country struggling to recover from a recession, as popular acts like Pitbull, Hall & Oates, and Los Lobos cancelled scheduled dates in the state, the Sound Strike pulled significant business from the Arizona economy, provoking local promoters and clubs to express concern over the issue. In conjunction with other related boycotts, the movement attracted national attention, and just days later, a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction that temporarily blocked sections of the law and required a speedy review.

But the question remains: are musicians obligated to take a stand on the issue?

When artists boycotted performances in Arizona, Fucked Up frontman Damian Abraham questioned the efficacy of Montreal’s Stars joining the boycott, tweeting at the band that “All this does is not give the people that like your band enough credit and assumes that they are in someway [sic] supportive of the bill.” While Bill 1070 allowed for fans to “be pulled over and harassed every day because they are brown or black, or for the way they speak, or for the music they listen to,” as de la Rocha wrote in a press release, the strike also deprived those same fans a platform for resistance within the very same state.

By asking what happens when artists interact with borders, we often encounter voices and narratives that are hidden by institutional design. Morrissey’s boycott on Canada offers another glimpse into the shortcomings of wholesale border boycotts. Known for his aggressive animal rights posturing, the former Smiths singer has refused to enter the country over its annual seal hunt since 2006, going so far as to compare it to the practices of Nazi Germany.

But as award-winning Inuk throat singer and Tanya Tagaq has pointed out, for Inuit peoples in resource-strapped regions, the seal hunt is vital.“We don’t get a tonne of money from the natural resources that are being extracted from Nunavut, but we do have one resource and that’s seals,” Tagaq told Chart Attack in 2014. “For some reason there’s a level of discrimination happening that one of the smallest minorities on the planet isn’t allowed to reap the benefits from their own resources. It just seems like there’s a lot of oppression happening from too many sides.” If we extend Tagaq’s critique to Morrissey’s seal hunt statement, we can begin to contemplate how such a blanket boycott of the country carries oppressive implications of its own.

When artists interact with borders, they not only highlight the solidarity between them, but also the complexities of creating in an increasingly surveilled society, where institutional barriers restrict movement for many. By tuning into and tracking these interactions, we can transcend boundaries we are more intimately acquainted with.

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