Long Live The Griot
Saturday/Sunday, September 30, 2007.
By Andrew Togobo
Griot: a storyteller in West Africa; one who perpetuates the oral traditions of a family or community. The keepers of history.
These are baron-times in black music. Ask anyone. They’ll tell you: “It’s not what it used to be.” We are forced to reminisce back to better times, whether that is ten years ago with the final hour of hip hop’s golden era, or forty years ago with the height of soul music.
In these baron times, the average artist is mute in the face of worldwide social issues. It would appear remnants of consciousness only appear when rehashing words of Bob Geldof’s wish for snow in Africa.
Consequently, the world looks bleak for black youth, stigmatised as menaces to themselves, their families, and society. Much of today’s youth have little concern of events that occurred before their birth dates.
This choice of ignorance is not helped by the schools and is fuelled by industries who’ve mastered the art of heralding the most ignorant artists as role models. Ten or fifteen years ago, role models were figures like Public Enemy or Brand Nubian.
Ten or fifteen years before that, the role models were Muhammad Ali and Bob Marley. Ten years before that it was Malcolm X, Marvin Gaye, and Sam Cooke. All had a degree of socio-political consciousness that injected serious issues to their listening public. These are indeed barren times when the minds of the youth are warped by a music machine designed to misrepresent them.
Behind this world of despair, however, a glimmer of hope is rising on every corner of the globe.
A chorus of marginalised voices in black communities from the UK to the US, Canada and southern Africa are turning the tide. They have resurrected the legacy of the griot and speak with the authority of Malcolm X and the prowess of rappers. Known as modern day griots, spoken word artists, or performance poets, these fearless wordsmiths have created the most vibrant underground community in London.
The circuit is filled with creative individuals who have accepted the right to exercise their freedom of speech. Topics range from social injustice, exploitation, racism, and street violence, to love and sex. You really don’t know what to expect when a poet is on stage, which is the beauty of the art.
There are no restrictions. These poets have erupted at the worst point in black music, as though they were manufactured to explode their scriptures like prophets from the Old Testament. Along with their various messages, they are also arriving with the highest form of lyrical evolution previously occupied by rap.
Ironically, poets were the ones who originally ushered in the onslaught of rap music.
Artists such as The Last Poets, The Watts Prophets and Gill Scott Heron paved the way in the 60’s and 70’s for what rap would later become. Around the same time in Britain, Benjamin Zepphaniah and Linton Kwesi Jones laid the foundations for what poets like Malika B, Jonzi D, and Adisa were to achieve in the early nineties.
This underground community is not new, but has never had the mass recognition it deserves. However, its resurgence is spreading like a virus with many Britain-based artists travelling to poetry circles throughout the globe, and receiving a steady stream of international guests visiting the UK.
These artists are not funded by a label. They believe only self-motivation will develop this art. Ask London-based poet Amen Noir who recorded, produced, wrote, performed, packaged, marketed, and distributed three CDs with his own hands.
Although the popularity has grown over the years, it is still spread on a word-of-mouth basis. The audiences who have been attending, however, have been privy to some of the most exciting acts in the UK. Like the formative beginnings of Grammy-nominated Floetry before their plane trip to Philadelphia, rapper Estelle before Top of the Pops, and fellow emcee Ty.
Ty is particularly fond of the poetry circles, giving reference to two of his favourite poetry events Soul food and Urban Griots in his song I Want To. He also invited UK poetry heavyweight shortMAN to feature on Rain, in his mercury-nominated album Upwards.
For years, poets have remained in insular friendly communities honing their craft, inviting the uninitiated to be converted, and preaching to the choir. But now they are entering a new phase of their ascension, bravely marching into uncharted territories in an attempt to combat the steady stream of negative music.
Their work is slowly achieving its deserved exposure. Some poets can be heard on radio stations such as Genesis, Power Jam, and Flame FM. You can see others on cable stations like OBE, BEN and ACTV. Kat Francois was winner of the BBC poetry slam, and open mic shows have become eagerly awaited events.
Flagship events such as Kindred Spirit have integrated poets in their line-up of singers, rappers and other musicians. It is beautiful watching the marked showmanship poets have when in the company of other artists.
There seems no end to the rise of the poets and probably the most exciting formation has been the unification of some of the UK’s spoken word heavyweights. Tuggs.t.a.r, Amen Noir, OneNess and ShakaRa have joined forces to present The Best Kept Secret collective. This has expanded the word into the realms of theatre.
In 2004, they performed two nights of sold-out performances in the Oval Theatre. In a sense they are the UK’s reincarnation of the Last Poets. Let’s hope they are not the last, but merely the beginning of something new.
Make no mistake; in this current climate, poets have no equal, and as long as they are willing to push their boundaries, there is still hope of a brighter day. They must guard against the dilution of messages, thereby forcing the search for new art forms to express age-old prophecies.
Long live the griot!
Main picture: Linton Kwesi Johnson
Andrew Togobo is with Rice'n'peas Magazine where this piece first appeared.
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