Listening To 21 Savage Won’t Make You “Real”

Hip-Hop is obsessed with authenticity. Unfortunately for some fans, there are no shortcuts.

Atlanta rapper 21 Savage has a knife tattooed on his forehead.

In a recent interview with VladTV, after the interviewer mistakingly asks what his cross tattoo means, the rapper makes this point especially clear. “It’s a knife!” Savage snaps back, visibly perturbed by the confusion. (21 refers to the knife in a number of his songs, notably “Dirty K”). The exchange is a telling illustration of what 21 Savage, and rappers like him, face as they go from fame inside of a familiar community to being admired by people who couldn’t be less like them. The monotone witticisms that made Savage an Atlanta favorite for the past few years have begun traveling through a number of unfamiliar filters––memes, the press, and social media writ large, both lending to Savage’s increase in popularity and ostensible drop in control over his narrative.

Since the release of his collaborative tape with super-producer Metro Boomin, Savage Mode, 21 Savage has become an avatar of “realness” for rap fans whose life experiences share very little with the Atlanta MC. In 2013, 21 Savage — né Shayaa Joseph — was shot six times, and his best friend was killed. The incident is just one of a number of harrowing, real-life events that color the rapper’s marauding lyrics. “Seventh grade I got caught with a pistol, sent me to Pantherville/Eighth grade started playin’ football, then I was like fuck the field/Ninth grade I was knocking niggas out, nigga like Holyfield,” he raps on “No Heart,” an ebullient yet abrasive cut from Savage Mode. For 21 Savage, who has been a mainstay in Atlanta’s rap scene for several years, these vignettes of harsh realities are nothing more than reflections of the heart, but to the scores of new fans attracted to the tight-lipped rapper for his ostensible street-cred, there’s an uncomfortable element of fetishization at play.

In a recent appearance on the equal parts terrible and fascinating No Jumper podcast, conservative provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, alongside his band of hype men, or groupies, briefly discuss Milo’s predilection for “poor” black men. One of his comrades comments on uploading a bunch of “ghetto” music to the blogger’s iTunes in order to assimilate him to what they see as the culture. The most agreed upon artist discussed is 21 Savage. This type of characterization is familiar for what many describe as “street” rappers. That is, artists whose muse tends more often than not to be the realities of America’s Black urban centers. As The New Yorker’s Kelefa Sanneh notes in his review of Gucci Mane’s Everybody Looking, Gucci’s drug addled antics, which ultimately landed him in prison, only served to fuel the sort of mysticism surrounding him. “The older, meaner hip-hop world elevated brilliant but scruffy neighborhood guys like Gucci Mane, without asking them to apologize or explain,” Sanneh writes. “But it also fostered a kind of exoticism: it was tempting to think of Gucci Mane primarily as an avatar of East Atlanta mayhem, rather than as an entertainer and a craftsman.

None of this, of course, takes away from 21 Savage’s impressive abilities as a craftsman. The rapper has a unique flair for packing melodic vignettes into as few words as possible, quite literally smacking you over the head with lines like, “Without no weave, you bald / Hold up, hold up, bitch I spent your rent inside the mall.” Fans hoping that some of 21’s signature bravado will brush off on them through repeated listens or, worse, that listening to 21’s music aligns them to the struggle faced by residents of over policed and underserved communities, are part of a long––and uncriticized––tendency in hip-hop fandom to romanticize and exploit that which very few actually understand.

Trap music, an aesthetically neutered term that once defined one of hip-hop’s most vibrant cities, has become in many ways a sub genre of EDM. As college-aged white men continue to absorb black culture (alarmingly quickly) online, the stinging realities of much of black music — from Kendrick Lamar’s scathing introspection to Kanye’s racial provocations — remains under constant threat of sanitization. Put simply, as black artists gain more notoriety making black music, the very blackness that informed that music gets cast aside to appeal to wider audiences. Now, a streetwear-clad teen from middle America feels as much a claim to rappers like 21 Savage, as an Atlanta resident living through what he raps about.

As for the rapper’s quick-fire response to the VladTV interviewer’s erroneous inquiry, the bit was shared far and wide online, the joke being that not knowing 21’s tattoo was a knife makes you a “fake.” That very well may be true, but the suburban kids bumping 21 Savage in their parents SUV with Trump stickers on the bumper might be better served watching another 21 Savage clip. And while they’re at it, maybe asking themselves what exactly they think they are.