Griot - the precursor of hip-hop

Unique to Western Africa, the griot, or jeli, profession encompasses many roles. Griots have been referred to as historians and storytellers, but they do everything from recounting history to composing music, to teaching students, to acting as diplomats. They are genealogists, historians, spokespeople, ambassadors, musicians, teachers, warriors, interpreters, praise-singers, masters of ceremonies, advisors, and more. Not every griot does all of these things, but these are all examples of functions the griot profession embodies.

Griots held powerful roles in the Empire of Mali

Traditionally, in order to become a griot, you had to be born into a griot family. It was an art form passed from father to son, almost like an apprenticeship. Your family would expose you to verbal and musical arts, and you would learn to play the kora, a musical instrument similar to a harp that is associated with griotism. There are also more formal ways of griot training. Sometimes towns have a central house presided over by a master griot where griots go to learn from each other. Today there are both private and state sponsored schools that offer training in griot arts, though these focus more on the musical rather than the verbal aspect of griotism. This has made the profession more accessible to people who are not born into it. It is also important for a griot to learn by traveling. Young griots visit and learn from master griots in other regions or countries. They accompany them to ceremonies where they watch and learn and often assist. Once talented griots reach middle age, they become master griots, and their chief role becomes to train new generations of griots.


Today, performing is one of the most common functions of a griot. Their audience range has widened, and many griots now travel all over the world singing and playing the kora or other instruments. Though the world has changed, griot tradition is still alive and flourishing.  griot helps keep the past alive by remembering and articulating it for others. A griot sings, praises, celebrates, announces, as well as many other things.

The Griot can be seen as the precursor to hip-hop music in many ways, as in its early years, and in the work of a few modern artists such as the author/poet/scholar/rapper Akala, this genre was primarily concerned with storytelling.

Modern griots


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