My first visit to the Middle East was a spiritual and social learning experience.  It highlighted the differences in our cultures as well as the commonality of the human experience. I cried viewing the majesty of Masjid Al-Haram in Mecca, smiled while dancing with children with special needs in Jeddah, and laughed at myself when I finally figured out what the water hoses were for in the bathroom stalls. As a part of a group of American hip-hop artists sponsored by the Department of State, I got the opportunity to share ideas with young Saudis throughout the country.  One thing that surprised me was many acknowledged a race problem in their country.

Jason Nichols
Jason Nichols

The Saudis are a kind and gracious people, but have many areas in which they need to evolve.  The opportunities for women and gays are limited and its justice system can be extremely harsh.  In addition, they are involved in a deadly proxy war with Iran in Yemen which has claimed countless lives and displaced over 3 million people.

I arrived in the capital city of Riyadh with this understanding.  However, what first surprised me when I entered the U.S. embassy to conduct an emceeing workshop was the intense diversity of the youth.  Saudi Arabia’s diversity rivals anywhere in the West.  When I sat down to work with one young man and asked him what he wanted to write a rap about, he answered “racism”.  I was taken aback.  My previous perspective on the Middle East was informed by Alex Haley’s {Autobiography of Malcolm X} and from Malcolm’s letters.  In one letter after his hajj to Mecca in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia he stated, that Islam was “an already proven solution to the race problem”.

However, when I visited KSA, the people told a different story.  In Jeddah, which lies on the Red Sea and is only about a 40 minute drive from the holy city of Mecca, the aspiring emcees I worked with told me of being labeled “Hijazi” by Saudi nationals because they were of African or South Asian descent.  They were looked down upon because the ethnic Saudis would say they came for Hajj and did not have the money or resources to return home.  They were never eligible for Saudi citizenship and their children are referred to as “tarsh”, another slur.  We visited an economically depressed neighborhood in Jeddah and played soccer with the children there.  As an African American, I did not look out of place among the people in that community, the majority of which were Somalis, Sudanese, Eritreans, Nigerians, and Senegalese. While the race and ethnic conflicts are exponentially stronger in countries like Iraq and Israel/Palestine, the intersection of race and class was clearly visible.

According to Human Rights Watch, there are roughly 8 million “guest” workers in Saudi Arabia.  The Kafala system makes it so that a foreign nationals’ residency is linked to their employer. Needless to say, this places an inordinate amount of power in the hands of employers to potentially exploit workers by preventing them from changing jobs, forcing them to work, and taking their passports so they are unable to leave. It is unfair to single out the Saudis for this system, as it is practiced in Lebanon, Jordan, Bahrain, Qatar and the UAE.

Saudi King Salman appears to want to bridge the racial and ethnic chasm in his country and has pledged to bring unity to the country.

The U.S. certainly has no room to look down upon the KSA for its racial and ethnic issues.  We are home to ICE raids on immigrant families, a broken immigration system, rhetoric of building walls between our nation and our neighbors, and a disproportionate amount of people of color in our prison system.

I saw very few interethnic marriages, and the communities had an element of segregation in KSA.  Many of the working class laborers were non-Saudi.  However, among the youth that I encountered few were so disillusioned to identify as anything other than Saudi.  As the Middle East opens up to western traditions, I believe a major voice for socially conscientious hip-hop could very well come out of that region, Continental Africa, or the Indian Subcontinent.

A lot of the youth in KSA enjoyed newer rappers like Kendrick Lamar, Drake, and others.  However, for many, their favorite rapper was still Tupac. They identified with the pain and passion in his voice, which requires no translator and can only come from the sting of social marginalization and struggle. The fact that you can encounter racism, poverty and segregation in what is the holiest region in the world to 1.6 billion Muslims, 2.2 billion Christians, and 12 million Jews, begs the question, “I wonder if heaven got a ghetto”?

Jason Nichols is a full-time lecturer in the African American studies department at the University of Maryland College Park and the current editor-in-chief of Words Beats & Life: The Global Journal of Hip-Hop Culture, the first peer-reviewed journal of hip-hop studies.