Academic journal article Journal of Pan African Studies

Troubling the Trope of "Rapper as Modern Griot"

Academic journal article Journal of Pan African Studies

Troubling the Trope of "Rapper as Modern Griot"

Article excerpt

"[Ancient] Griots would accompany kings into battle to record their deeds and sing their praises, so they were brave, they were militant. Today rappers have become militants, so there is again no difference."

--Fadda Freddy of Daara J Family

"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

One consequence of the paucity of continental African focus in global HipHop (1) studies has been the failure to interrogate how reified notions of African culture continue to circulate in the literature. HipHop studies grounded in lived African experience offer opportunities to supplant romanticism with reality in service of social justice and global African liberation. P. Khalil Saucier's edited volume Native Tongues: an African HipHop Reader (2011) is a welcome corrective to HipHop scholarship's relative lack of continental attention. At its time of publication, it was perhaps only the second book-length treatment of HipHop in Africa--after Mwenda Ntarangwi's East African Hip-Hop (2009). In the anthology's foreword, Murray Forman invokes this imbalance. He acknowledges that "Africa has long been defined as hip-hop's 'ground zero,' the original site of the drum and dance from which hip-hop was born." Yet, he argues, Africa as a trope--without deep engagement with its living history--casts it "as the wellspring of an innate black cultural aesthetic that reverberates across time and the diaspora, producing a single essentialist cultural continuum that is unproblematically traced through the creative arts" (Forman 2011, xi). Ironically, one of the most ubiquitous examples of this one-dimensional troping of Africa in HipHop studies is perpetuated in Native Tongues, namely, the un-nuanced reading of rappers as "modern griots" (Appert 2011; Saucier 2011, xviii).

Indeed, this troping in HipHop studies is part of a larger phenomenon of appropriation that Stephen Belcher identifies as a "mythos [that] now attaches to griots, who have come to symbolize all that is positive about the preservation of the past in African oral tradition" (2004, 172).

He continues,

Many of the features that define a griot in the original West African context are lost in translation: questions of hereditary and ambiguous social status, ... questions of behavioral norms, the relations of griots and power structures. These elements are lost [in part] ... because they attach to a less idealized vision of the griot.... Yet these features should also draw our attention, for in West Africa they are common to the institution across ethnohistorical lines[.] (2004, 173)

Recognizing these complications, I set out to determine how Senegalese HipHoppers (3) grapple with the tensions inherent in the rapper as griot analogy. My participant observation included formal and informal interviews and discussions with over one hundred artists, who overwhelmingly dissented from the trope. Their objections were framed largely in recognition of the definitive relation "of griots and power structures" (4) and their contrasting perceptions of rappers as counter-hegemonically aligned. This criticism resonates with a perspective on griot subjectivity well established in the literature on griots but elided in scholarship positing rappers (5) as modern griots. I proceed by reading the scholarly depiction of rappers as modern griots against the literature on griots themselves and in contrast to the widespread, though not unanimous, rejection of the notion by Senegalese emcees. I then suggest how this development invites a constructive re-articulation of HipHop identity as African diasporic activism.

While this article uncovers an under-recognized criticism of the rapper-as-griot analogy that undercuts a particular essentialist interpretation of HipHop's Africanness, it opens the space for a more activist affirmation of the same claim. …

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