21 Savage

By
Photography Tom Keelan

21 Savage’s road to the glamorous life he currently enjoys has not been easy. Born Shayaa Bin Abraham-Joseph in Atlanta, Georgia, the rapper grew up surrounded by drugs and violence. As a teenager he joined a gang, and in seventh grade he was banned from the DeKalb County School District over a gun possession charge. His life changed irrevocably in 2013 when his best friend was killed and he was shot six times in the neck, arm, and collarbone, in what he describes as a surprise attack.

Now 25 years old, he looks back on this brush with death as a crucial turning point. “I turned into a savage,” he recalled in a 2016 interview. “If I didn’t get shot I’d be dead or in jail,” he told Seth Rogen over the phone last month, while relaxing and playing video games on a private plane. After the incident, Savage began taking music seriously. The uncle of his late friend gave him money for studio time, and his early releases like The Slaughter Tape [2015] turned him into an underground hero in Atlanta.

But it wasn’t until the release of the Metro-Boomin-produced Savage Mode [2016] that the eyes of the nation focused on him. The violence he’s experienced gives his music the unmistakable patina of truth; when he threatens to “pull up at yo’ momma’s house and put some rounds in her,” on his bone-chilling breakout hit “Red Opps,” you believe him. “21 Savage is important because he’s one of the last real street niggas left making music,” Metro Boomin told The Fader in 2015.

Over the last few years, Savage has left the underground rap lane and swerved gracefully on to the charts. His 2017 single “Bank Account” hit number 12 on the Billboard Hot 100; later that year, he appeared on the Post Malone single “Rockstar,” which cruised to number one. Along the way, he’s worked with everyone from Drake to Cardi B. Remarkably, he’s achieved mainstream success without sacrificing an ounce of hard-earned authenticity.

Yet it’s too easy to understand Savage only as the tough-guy caricature best captured in his viral “Issa knife” moment. In fact, he also has a deadpan sense of humor and a big heart. Appearing on Ellen last month, he announced that he’d started the “21 Savage Bank Account Campaign … to help kids learn how to save money and make money, and open bank accounts.” In 2017, he made headlines when he walked alongside his then-girlfriend Amber Rose at her SlutWalk event, carrying a sign that read “I’m a hoe too.”

Savage’s soft-spoken demeanor masks a rich interior life. He’s deeply spiritual, practicing the West African Ifá religion passed down from his Haitian and Dominican family. And he wants to get closer to god in a more literal sense; Savage has been captivated by planes since he was young, and over the last few years, he’s worked hard to acquire a pilot’s license. He spends his free time training with a flight simulator, and currently has ten hours of certified flight experience.

After everything he’s experienced, Savage is ready for a little stability. “I been shot, stabbed, lied to, cheated on, hated on, betrayed, held back, left out, counted out, locked up, broke, rich, homeless, and everything else you can think,” he wrote on Instagram earlier this week. “Keep da money, cars, fame and jewelry, and just give me all the happiness, I’ll be good forever.”

SETH ROGEN: Is this Savage?

21 SAVAGE: Yeah.

ROGEN: Okay, great. Awesome, where are you right now?

SAVAGE: Teterboro Airport [in New Jersey]. Sitting in the plane.

ROGEN: Oh yeah, the private airport. Last time I was there I ran into Bill Cosby and Jerry Seinfeld. This was before Bill Cosby was kicked out of the entertainment industry. [laughs] So I’ve been listening to a lot of interviews with you. I’m a fan of your music and your album, so I’m going to get into it, how’s that sound?

SAVAGE: How many interviews have you did?

ROGEN: For Interview, I’ve actually done maybe one or two. Do you like doing interviews, you’ve been doing a fuckload of them probably for the first time in your life I would assume. [laughs]

SAVAGE: Yeah, interviews aight, sometimes.

ROGEN: I’ve been watching a lot of your stuff and what’s interesting to me is it seems your life, thus far, has two very distinct parts to it. At some point you tried to turn the negative things that were happening to you into positive things, and I was wondering exactly how that happens. How did you decide to do that?

SAVAGE: I don’t know. I couldn’t really do nothing else. When I got shot there wasn’t really nothing else for me to do, because I couldn’t really move around the way I wanted to. So I was either in the house or in the studio.

ROGEN: That was it?

SAVAGE: Yeah, really. Just started going to the studio after I got out the hospital. My best friend who died, his uncle had a whole lot of dope money, so he started buying me studio sets and shit.

ROGEN: Do you think if you didn’t get shot you would have ever pursued the career that you pursued?

SAVAGE: Nah. I feel like if I didn’t get shot I’d be dead or in jail.

ROGEN: Wow. That’s fucked up that getting shot saved you.

SAVAGE: Yeah, it really did.

ROGEN: When did you first realize that you could actually succeed and have a career that was far different from the one you had before?

SAVAGE: When I started to see how people have reacted to the music.

ROGEN: Do you remember the first time you played one of your songs for people?

SAVAGE: All my homies used to be in on my studio sessions, so they’d hear it while I was making it and be like, “Yeah, that’s hard,” or they’d be like, “Nah, that one ain’t hard, that’s whack right there.”

ROGEN: Do you still listen to your friends when you’re making music, and get their input and go off what they like?

SAVAGE: Hell yeah. That’s the way I pick my songs, unless it’s just a song that I feel strong about. But for the most part, what my friends think is whack, I think is whack.

ROGEN: Do you have songs that no one else likes but you just like and so you keep them around?

SAVAGE: Yeah, I got songs that wasn’t the crowd favorite, but I still went with them. Like “FaceTime.” My manager didn’t really like that song. Shit, I like that shit. The label didn’t really like it neither, they told me not to put it out.

ROGEN: What’s it like to deal with the record label?

SAVAGE: Uh, it’s a process. It’s cool for the most part, but I’m so used to being independent. It’s different. I don’t like authority.

ROGEN: No, me neither. For movies, we have the studio, and that’s the equivalent to the label. And we essentially try to never listen to a fucking thing they ever tell us, basically, at all times.

SAVAGE: Right?

ROGEN: Do they actually try to offer creative input for your albums and shit? “Oh this part, it should be like this?”

SAVAGE: Yeah, they got A&R’s that put you with different producers and that type stuff, yeah. They do that. I don’t really use they ideas, I ain’t even gon’ lie. [Rogen laughs] I like to create my own stuff.

ROGEN: Did you grow up listening to a lot of music?

SAVAGE: Yeah, I grew up listening to everything really. I like a lot of R&B.

ROGEN: Yeah, me too. I love R&B.

SAVAGE: That was my shit. My mama listened to Biggie and Jay Z, but she was really more like an R&B type person. ’90s R&B. Like H-Town and Silk, Next, Aaliyah, that type of shit. That era, right there, when I was born. I was born in 1992.

ROGEN: That was a good year. I was 10.

SAVAGE: A lot of shit happened in 1992. The L.A. riots was in ’92. That was the year that Rodney King shit happened. That’s when I was born, October 1992.

ROGEN: That’s insane. I remember watching that from Vancouver, British Columbia. It seemed very far away. You ever go to Vancouver? That’s where I’m from.

SAVAGE: No, I ain’t never been to Canada.

ROGEN: Well, they got good weed there. I don’t know if you smoke weed, but they have wonderful weed there.

SAVAGE: They do? Oh yeah, weed is legal up there, right?

ROGEN: Uh-huh.

SAVAGE: Is it legal recreationally?

ROGEN: Yeah, it’s federally legal recreationally. It’s great. In California too, now. Have you been to L.A. since they legalized it recreationally?

SAVAGE: Yeah, I be getting high. I went to a couple stores. That’s the only time I really smoke is when I’m in L.A.

ROGEN: Yeah, the weed’s good.

SAVAGE: And you can’t go to jail for it out there. Atlanta, you can go to jail for that shit.

ROGEN: I made a movie in Atlanta and I was there for a few months and I was constantly afraid I was going to go to jail for smoking weed, which is what I do most of the time. [laughs] It scared the shit out of me.

SAVAGE: Yeah we got different laws. They ain’t as friendly.

ROGEN: Anywhere they can send you to jail for having a joint is somewhere I’m just generally uneasy.

SAVAGE: It’s kind of crazy to me. You can be on one side of the country and it’s legal but you go to the other side and you can go to jail for that shit. That don’t make no sense.

ROGEN: And you can just drive and there’s no borders. You just drive and if someone stops you, there’s no sign; by the way, you have a joint in your pocket, you can go to jail now. So, you seem religious. Are you religious?

SAVAGE: Yeah. I’m Ifá. I grew up practicing Ifá, my mom is Ifá, my whole family is Ifá.

ROGEN: And do you still practice?

SAVAGE: Yeah, I still practice.

ROGEN: I try to be spiritual, I grew up Jewish. How does that practice fit into your life?

SAVAGE: It’s basically just paying respect to your ancestors, including them in your life, letting them guide you through life, that’s basically it.

ROGEN: That sounds good.

SAVAGE: But I save my money like a Jew. [Rogen laughs] I’m Jewish when it comes to money.

ROGEN: That’s all that matters. Well, Jews aren’t allowed to get tattoos so that’s the one, you might have a problem there.

SAVAGE: They ain’t allowed to get tattoos?

ROGEN: Technically, if you want to get buried in a Jewish cemetery, you can’t have a tattoo. But only really religious cemeteries follow that rule. Now, I think no one really gives a shit but if you’re getting technical, that’s the rule. Which makes no fucking sense, and is silly. I think your religion makes more sense to me.

SAVAGE: There aren’t any stipulations.

ROGEN: And you believe in karma?

SAVAGE: Yeah, I believe in karma, heavy.

ROGEN: And you do a lot of charity work.

SAVAGE: Yeah.

ROGEN: How did that get started?

SAVAGE: Shit, that’s just really from the heart. I don’t do it for recognition, you know what I’m saying? That’s just me as a person. I just love my city and my people, so it’s natural for me to help.

ROGEN: It’s amazing. Have you met a lot of musicians? I’m an actor and actors, I think, are weird. But when I meet musicians, a lot of musicians are very strange people and lead very strange lifestyles from my perspective. Have you found this strange, to enter a world of musicians?

SAVAGE: Yeah, I done met crazy musicians. I don’t really … I stay in my own little world.

ROGEN: Do you have a big crew that you travel with?

SAVAGE: When I’m traveling, no, not really big. It be the same people. My DJ, cameraman, security guard, and there’s both my managers ain’t there, one of them there. Couple of my homeboys, like two, three homeboys. That’s really it.

ROGEN: That’s pretty slim.

SAVAGE: Yeah, I bring the crew out on tour and all that.

ROGEN: You like touring?

SAVAGE: Yeah, I like touring. It gets tiring though and I start missing home but at the end of the tour when I see how much money I made, I be alright. [laughs]

ROGEN: What do you do when you’re at home? You got a week, [you can] do anything you want, what would you do?

SAVAGE: I would fly my airplane simulator. Take my airplane craft to the airport.

ROGEN: Are you learning to fly?

SAVAGE: Yeah, I got ten hours on my private.

ROGEN: You’re learning to fly a jet?!

SAVAGE: Yeah, you got to start with propellers and then I’m going to go up to jet after that.

ROGEN: Wow, that’s awesome. No one does that. Were you always into airplanes?

SAVAGE: Yeah, I wanted to go to into the Air Force since I was young. That was my dream, but I had behavioral problems so that didn’t work out.

ROGEN: But now you can fly a plane.

SAVAGE: Yeah, I’mma buy my own. That’s why I need you to put me in a big movie role so I can buy a plane. [Rogen laughs]

ROGEN: I’m more than happy to. You can fly yourself to set, it’ll be perfect. Wow, that’s amazing. I would love to have you fly me some day. [laughs] It’ll be a wonderful experience. You play a lot of video games?

SAVAGE: Yeah, I’m playing 2K right now.

ROGEN: Really? [laughs] Are you good?

SAVAGE: Yeah, I’m alright.

ROGEN: Do you remember the first video game you were into?

SAVAGE: It was Tekken. On the gray PlayStation.

ROGEN: Oh yeah, man. [laughs]

SAVAGE: Playstation 1. I thought that was the first PlayStation.

ROGEN: Yeah, that shit was dope. I played that shit nonstop. Did you ever have a Nintendo 64? Goldeneye was the best game on that.

SAVAGE: Nah, I ain’t never have one. My friend had one though, I used to go to his house and play his. I ain’t never had one of my own though.

ROGEN: Did you play Goldeneye? It was like a James Bond game. It was the first game where four people could run around trying to kill one another in a video game and it was incredible.

SAVAGE: With the golden gun.

ROGEN: Yeah! That’s Goldeneye. That’s Nintendo 64.

SAVAGE: Oh, yeah, I used to play that. You’d have to blow the cartridge.

ROGEN: Yes, exactly, and you’d memorize the level and look at your friends screens and it was bullshit. [laughs] So, is there anyone that you’ve worked with recently, who inspired you to get into working in the first place?

SAVAGE: I’ve been working with Pharrell. That’s one of the only people that I grew up on that I’ve gotten to work with.

ROGEN: That’s amazing. It must be surreal.

SAVAGE: Yeah, he’s cool as hell, too.

ROGEN: Yeah, I’m in this Lion King movie and he’s working on the soundtrack.

SAVAGE: Oh, for real? New Lion King? That’s going to be crazy.

ROGEN: Yeah, it’s wonderful. I’m Pumba. [both laugh] Are you happy with how everything’s going? You’re making music people love.

SAVAGE: It feels good. I want to get better though. You can never be too good.

ROGEN: You feel like you’re getting better?

SAVAGE: Yeah, I feel like I am, business-wise and just as an artist. Because I’m learning more, I’m experiencing more, I got more shit to talk about.

ROGEN: Not a lot of people talk about their lives as openly as you do. Was that something that was hard to do?

SAVAGE: I’m just an honest person, so it’s just natural to me. You ask me a question, I’m just going to answer it as honestly as I can, so I guess sometimes that spills over into me talking about my life. That’s what people want to know about, so I ain’t got no problem telling.

ROGEN: Was there people that you listened to when you were younger that made you feel like, “Oh, I can be like that person?”

SAVAGE: Yeah. All the street artists. I used to listen to everybody. I never listened to them like, “Damn, maybe I can be a rapper one day.” It was more-so like they was rapping about things that I was doing, so I could relate. If one of my friends died or something, certain songs, it would soothe the pain. I ain’t never listen to ‘em for inspiration though, it was just on some street shit.

What is it like being in your position?

ROGEN: I have the job I always wanted to have, which is thrilling and I appreciate, moments like this. Things like this are some of the coolest parts of my job, that there’s other artists out there who, at one time, could not be further away from me and at the same time, we are involved in the same business, so there’s this weird thing that brings us together. I’m always trying to grow and learn and get better and I think the more people who do different things that I get to talk to, it helps me get better, you know?

SAVAGE: Right, right, right. Yeah, I agree with that.

ROGEN: Well, maybe one day we’ll meet in real life and hang out.

SAVAGE: Yeah, for sure.

ROGEN: I’d like that. If you ever come to L.A. I’ll give you some legal recreational weed. [both laugh]

SAVAGE: Yeah, we can smoke up together.

SETH ROGEN IS A LOS ANGELES–BASED ACTOR AND COMEDIAN.