Knowledge Session: The Griot Tradition

Gri­ots are; poets, his­tor­i­ans, advisors, spokes­per­sons, gene­a­lo­gists, dip­lo­mats, peace-makers, praise-sing­ers, inter­pret­ers, musi­cians, com­posers, teach­ers, war­ri­ors and wit­nesses.


What is the gri­ot tra­di­tion?

Through­out pre-col­on­isa­tion where oral tra­di­tion took pre­ced­ence over the writ­ten word, gri­ots were part of a fun­da­ment­al found­a­tion of Afric­an soci­et­ies. Gri­ots were chron­iclers of his­tory- passing down tri­bal his­tory to the next gen­er­a­tion, gri­ots con­nec­ted their com­munit­ies to the past and let no story go untold. Gri­ots are also orators, lyr­i­cists and musi­cians and they train to excel in all three art forms.

Gri­ots or jalis act as coun­cil­lors for their people, often giv­en spir­itu­al guid­ance, know­ledge and advice using music and poetry.

Tra­di­tion­ally, in order to become a gri­ot you had to be born into a gri­ot fam­ily. Gri­ots were so fun­da­ment­al to Afric­an soci­ety that they were a social class on their own. The gri­ot tra­di­tion is a hered­it­ary art form and gri­ots could be men or women.

Gri­ots are also trav­el­lers, it is essen­tial that they have a strong know­ledge of their region in order to pass on inform­a­tion to the next gen­er­a­tion of inhab­it­ants.

Where did it ori­gin­ate from?

Although oral tra­di­tion is present through­out the whole of Afric­an soci­ety, it is believed that the gri­ot tra­di­tion came out of the Mali Empire and more spe­cific­ally the Mandinka peoples which encom­passed the major­ity of mod­ern day West Africa (Mali, Gam­bia, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Burk­ina Faso, Guinea-Bis­seau, Maur­it­ania, Seneg­al, Sierra Leone and Liber­ia).


Why is it import­ant?

The gri­ot tra­di­tion is pivotal to empower­ing Afric­an com­munit­ies and the Afric­an Dia­spora. We live in a white suprem­acist world where the nar­rat­ives of Afric­an people are heav­ily mis­con­strued and nar­rowly rep­res­en­ted. From the edu­ca­tion sys­tem to the media, there is a racist con­sensus that Africa is a very sav­age, depend­ent, homo­gen­ous place with no his­tory unless it is linked with the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade or the Ancient Egyp­tians and their pyr­am­ids. The gri­ot provides an anti­thes­is to this nar­rat­ive, through the gri­ot we can learn the vibrant his­tory of Africa, and not just as if it is one big coun­try but all the 3000 dis­tinct eth­nic groups in Africa. The gri­ot teaches us many mor­al les­sons without using Abra­ham­ic reli­gions and thus presents with altern­at­ive schools of thought. The gri­ot teaches us all about the vari­ous inven­tions, art, music aIMG_3770nd his­tor­ic­al fig­ures of Afric­an peoples, thus inspir­ing and empower­ing young­er Afric­ans too.

Gri­ots provide a rad­ic­al altern­at­ive to the Euro­centric edu­ca­tion sys­tem. When stu­dents do learn about Afric­an his­tory it is often centred around white­ness. For instance, slavery and the Civil Rights Move­ment are com­monly taught because white people are involved in these events. How­ever, these par­tic­u­lar his­tor­ic­al events when taught alone can fur­ther per­petu­ate ste­reo­types of Afric­ans as depend­ent on Europeans and also con­veys that Afric­an his­tory only holds rel­ev­ance when white people are involved.

The found­a­tion of hip hop

The roots of rap can be traced back to post-colo­ni­al West Africa and the gri­ot tra­di­tion. It can be argued that Afric­ans have been rap­ping long before we were stolen and taken to Amer­ica. In fact Afrika Bam­baataa calls the rap­per a ‘post­mod­ern gri­ot’.

The Last Poets are prob­ably the best example of the gri­ot tra­di­tion being intro­duced in its purest form to West­ern audi­ences. How­ever there are mul­ti­tude of pop­u­lar con­tin­ent­al Afric­an gri­ots such as: Bakari Sumano, Sekooba Diabate, Mamadou Cis­sé and Dembo Jobarteh.

Rap came from the Afric­an con­tin­ent via Jamaica via the Bronx. The gri­ot tra­di­tion heav­ily influ­enced Jamaica toast­ing (chanting/talking over rid­dims) which came to prom­in­ence in the 1950’s. This was trans­por­ted to New York in the 1970’s and 80’s by Carib­bean immig­rants such as DJ Kool Herc and pop­ular­ised by block parties powered by sound sys­tems. From here many Afric­an Amer­ic­ans began to put their own spin on these music­al tra­di­tions, and thus hip hop was born.


“The role of the gri­ot and the role of the rap­per are com­pletely dif­fer­ent, we are noth­ing alike. Ancient gri­ots served kings and mod­ern gri­ots praise rich people and serve politi­cians. We are the opposite—we serve the people against the politi­cians, we are the voice of the voice­less.”-Thi­at of Keur Gui

How­ever it can be argued that the gri­ot tra­di­tion is largely roman­ti­cised, in fact the mod­ern rap­per is anti­thet­ic to the val­ues of the gri­ot. Gri­ots were often roy­al advisors and to some extents were a bour­geois buf­fer class between the nobil­ity and the com­mon people. Of course, these soci­et­al roles are anti­thet­ic to the hip hop move­ment which star­ted as a grass­roots work­ing class socio-polit­ic­al move­ment that verbally chal­lenge the state and oppress­ive struc­tures.

The links are undeni­able, regard­less of the classist ele­ment of the gri­ot tra­di­tion, we can say that the gri­ots social role has evolved into that of an act­iv­ist. Of course, not all rap is revolu­tion­ary and all rap does not need to be revolu­tion­ary. Nev­er­the­less one ele­ment has remained unchanged from the Mali Empire in the 7th cen­tury to the Bronx in the 1980’s- rap is all about being true to your­self and telling YOUR story or your community’s stor­ies. From the pos­it­ive and uplift­ing to the crim­in­al and neg­at­ive, they all need to be told so they can be passed down and so no story is left untold.

‘Unless the lion learns to write their own story, the hunter will always be the hero’.


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Maya Elese

Maya Elese

Edit­or / Author at No Bounds
Mul­ti­lin­gual Lon­don born, bred & based print & broad­cast journ­al­ist, presenter, DJ & cul­tur­al pro­du­cer with a par­tic­u­lar love for glob­al afro-dia­spor­ic cul­tures. @mayaelese on everyth­ang.

About Maya Elese

Maya Elese
Multilingual London born, bred & based print & broadcast journalist, presenter, DJ & cultural producer with a particular love for global afro-diasporic cultures. @mayaelese on everythang.

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