Although Post Malone performed “Rockstar,” his chart-topping smash featuring 21 Savage during Sunday’s Grammy celebration, obviously, 21 wasn’t present to perform his verse on the song. The since-freed artist, born Shayaa Bin Abraham-Joseph, was incarcerated in a detention center after being detained by ICE two weeks ago. He was reportedly detained because he’s from the British Commonwealth of Dominica and apparently, his 2017 application for a U Visa wasn’t processing fast enough. So the Atlanta-based rapper wasn’t able to be at the Grammys in the physical sense, but there were still plenty of opportunities for him to be a symbolic presence — unfortunately, the “Rockstar” performance came and went without Post Malone so much as mentioning him. And Post wasn’t the only person who dropped the ball.
21 was mentioned just once throughout the two-hour ceremony, despite being a star artist whose I Am > I Was album just debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. He was also nominated for Record Of The Year for his appearance on “Rockstar.” Neither host Alicia Keys or the award winners (save “This Is America” producer Ludwig Göransson) mentioned him. There was no segment where his Atlanta music brethren — or any of his rap peers — showed solidarity with him. 21’s mother Heather Abraham-Joseph was having such a hassle getting tickets to the ceremony that she ultimately didn’t attend, a predicament that once again highlights the Grammy committee’s tone-deafness and apathy toward hip-hop.
Sunday night was a prime opportunity for someone at the show to highlight 21’s plight as an opening to present a political statement against ICE’s unjust treatment of undocumented people of color. But no one cared to enough to seize the moment. At the 2017 Grammys, during A Tribe Called Quest medley, Busta Rhymes railed at President Trump, calling the cartoonishly tanned-in-chief “President Agent Orange.” That phrase has stuck in pop culture as a shot at Trump, not only exemplifying hip-hop’s power as a political catalyst but the benefit of making a statement on a big stage.
The Grammys are watched by millions around the world, which makes it a prime place to amplify political statements. ICE currently has a record high 39,000+ people indefinitely detained at their detention centers, including, until today, one of the music industry’s brightest stars.
Post Malone bore a significant brunt of the blame for not mentioning 21 at all during the Grammys. Yes, he wore a 21 Savage shirt to the ceremony, but it wasn’t actually visible, and by the end of the show, there were many viewers on social media who called him out for the cognitive dissonance of performing his most commercially successful song without referencing the song’s other featured artist. The moment has become another strike against Post, a polarizing figure in hip-hop who has faced a backlash from the Black community for what many perceive to be culturally appropriative music and disappointing comments about rap lacking emotional range.
Post could’ve easily offered a “Free 21” shout out at the end of his performance — if only to selfishly gain points with rap fans. And if he really wanted to entrench his “Rockstar” image, he could’ve spoken for many by belting “F*ck ICE.” The FCC is infamously sensitive about obscenities and curse words being aired on broadcast TV, and it would’ve been fitting to see the committee panic over another foul-language fiasco aimed at another branch of the government for participating in what often amounts to domestic terrorism toward undocumented people. A story like that would have been the exact kind of disruption that the system deserves, and a way to ensure that what’s happening to 21 and so many other undocumented immigrants would stay at the top of the news cycle.
21 deserved for someone to toe the line, or at least acknowledge him in a meaningful way. One of his co-managers Kei Henderson tweeted on Monday morning that they “reached out to several artists” to perform 21’s “Rockstar” verse, but didn’t expand on who was offered and if they formally declined. His Atlanta brethren have rallied behind him on social media, and Jay-Z’s Roc Nation has offered to pay his legal fees, which trumps any symbolism, but it would have been a powerful moment. Hopefully, none of his peers actually turned down the opportunity, but the truth will likely come to light.
We’ll never know the full story behind Ms. Abraham-Joseph’s difficulties to secure her son’s Grammy tickets. The Grammys had a no-brainer opportunity to let her occupy the seats that 21 Savage would have filled if he were free, but the rapper’s other co-manager Justin “Meezy” Williams took to Twitter early Sunday morning to allege that the committee wouldn’t release 21’s tickets to his mother. Later that Sunday, it was announced that she did ultimately receive the tickets, but 21’s camp believes that the Grammy organizers were merely caving to public pressure after their tweets. Neither his mother or managers attended the ceremony.
The Grammys’ historical MO is to be reactive instead of proactive when it comes to hip-hop, but ignoring 21 was an especially glaring oversight. Despite the rap-related highs of Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” (which features 21 Savage) winning Record and Song of the year, their ignorance of 21 further stains the Grammy committee’s relationship with the hip-hop community. How could they award Childish Gambino’s politically charged song twice but ignore 21, an artist who was a casualty of the very system that Gambino criticized with that song?
The Grammy producers were cognizant enough to omit the late, controversial XXXTentacion from the “In Memoriam” segment of the show, but somehow couldn’t find a short, one-minute gap at some point of the ceremony to acknowledge the injustice of one of its nominees being detained — especially since 21 has an open application for a U Visa. The Grammys find a new way to drop the ball every year, and 2019 was a collective effort. The onus doesn’t merely fall on the show’s producers, the attendees also failed one of their own.
Rappers often call out nameless, faceless people who weren’t there for them like they should have been while they were incarcerated. We never know if they’re telling the truth or just employing a “me against the world” trope. But this time, we had three hours of live, internationally televised proof of the negligence.