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Rap and its Griot Roots

Rap and its Griot Roots
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Rappers wandered the Earth long ago. They were entertainers, but also advisors and diplomats adept at synthesizing histories with the present. Both scorned and lauded, lavished with jewels and praise and well-travelled, they rapped their tales for slaves and kings alike. Cultural writer Lafcadio Hearn relates in a letter to Henry Edward Krehbiel:

... through the yellow desert northward into the Maghreb country, often a solitary wandering … they play old Congo airs for the great black population of Stamboul, whom no laws or force can keep within doors when the sound of griot music is heard in the street ... [griots] carry their music with them to Persia and even to mysterious Hadramant, where their voices are held in high esteem by Arab masters...the transplantation of negro melody to the Antilles and the two Americas, where its strangest black flowers are gathered by the alchemists of musical science and the perfume thereof extracted by magicians like Gottschalk. (Afro American Folksongs by Henry Edward Krehbiel, 38)

Imagine the presence of a griot. An African bard, versatile in music, storytelling, history, improvisation, and a consistent ability to satirize. Imagine never seeing another land or hearing a different language until one day a mysterious visitor comes into your city rapping out a story with far away roots. They were media incarnate, venerated for their ability to synthesize the past with the contemporary.

... their powers of improvization are so great and their willingness to employ them to mercenary ends so well known that that they are feared as well as hated... (Afro American Folksongs, 143)

They had different statuses and lives, depending on the region. Some lived nomadic lives, while others led settled, rich lives attached to the hip of a king, functioning much like a cross between a court jester and a minstrel. Although, unlike European jesters, writer Thomas Ashley notes that griots were so rich "their wives have more crystal blue stones and beads about them than the king's wives" (An Introduction to the Study of National Music by Carl Engel, 314).

A quick trace back along the lines of American music takes us back to their time. Hip-hop music transplants from the sampled soul music of the Sixties, which in turn stems from the blues, folk songs, and slave songs of the 19th and early 20th century, then further on across the big pond called the Atlantic to the African griot tradition. Griots both spoke and sang over music and rhythm from instruments like the kora.

Although there is a general positive outlook on griots in western countries, in West Africa griots are a subject of controversy. Thomas A. Hale writes, "One reason for this ambivalence is fear of the power of words spoken or sung by griots."

By Thad Higa



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