GRIOTS OF WEST AFRICA: ORIGINS OF THE MC
Updated: May 26
(Griots of West Africa, Pinterest)
In modern day Britain, the term MC has become so synonymous with Grime and Garage culture, it is near impossible to separate its definition from images of sweat ladened lyricists, relentlessly delivering bars over a hefty bassline.
When pushed for an answer, for many of us the roots of modern day emceeing stem only as far as Jamaican toasting culture, or the parameters of the birth of hip-hop.
These roots, however, span farther than the wubs any soundsystem can emit.
NOT A RAPPER
To understand what emceeing is, it’s useful to look at what it’s not.
To do this, let us call upon emceeings’ distant cousin, the art of rap.
Given their surface level similarities, the distinction between emceeing and rapping have long been debated within the music industry and the depths of Reddit. I’ve collected a couple of my favorite arguments on their dissimilarities to make things easier;
An MC has roots in live performance/crowd based settings whereas a rapper has roots in studios/poetry.
An MC tends to possess more witty and intricate vocabulary with a heavier focus on wordplay, whereas rappers (specifically party rappers) are interested in lyrics that get a party going.
Emcees encompass a hosting based style, such as talking to a crowd as a track is played by a DJ, whereas rappers are more concerned with performing tracks back to back.
Think Wiley vs Eminem, or MC Neat vs ASAP Rocky.
LONG LIVE THE MASTER OF CEREMONIES
(Don't Call Me Urban!, Simon Wheatley)
The very existence of the Master of Ceremonies’ multi- genre span, from Garage to Grime and Jungle to Dancehall, in itself solidifies their unanimous necessity.
The commonality of storytelling through emceeing regardless of genre, consolidates the importance of the MC as somewhat of a lyrical teacher.
Many look to the MC as a leader, preacher, or some bloke that really knows how to get a crowd going.
In spite of how the crowd may feel about the seemingly frantic, high energy MC, they in essence act as the mouthpiece of the community from which they originate. Whether expressed through direct imagery, slang, spiritual/religious chanting, or some impressive wordplay, the MC is someone to be related to.
Whether in the shape of D double E detailing grim realities from childhood, or Stevie Hyper D giving us a peep into rave culture, the MC is a storyteller in alternate form.
GRIOTS OF WEST AFRICA
The eurocentric lens many of us are fed African histories under paints the continent as having little to no historical relevance outside of whiteness. Often when we are asked to think of African histories, events created or perpetuated by white actors are the first, if not only, to come to mind.
Africa ,however, is a continent rich with its own distinct cultures, traditions, and histories.
For centuries oral tradition took precedence over the written word across the continent of Africa, and was one of the ruling forms of record keeping. Through this practice, the Griot tradition emerged from the Mali empire in the 13th century (though some speculate its origins to span further back). Griots appear in various ethnic groups throughout West Africa, such as the Mandinka and Mande peoples.
(Kora instrument, Shanmugamstudio 2012)
The role of the Griot is that of oral historian. Griots are trained to recite history, cultural beliefs, or myths tailored to a given village over a live melody by utilising instruments such as the kora or balafon. Their aim is the preservation of local histories, which is kept alive through the retelling of stories of ancient empires.
Griots make music designed to evoke specific emotions or memories surrounding incidents in the past or relating to happenings in the present, such as baptisms or weddings.
Armed with a Kora or backing singers, these performers recite impressive histories such as extensive lists of deaths, births, and marriages within specific generations and families in a manner unique to this region of the continent.
It is common knowledge that all musical forms and genres overlap with and are bred from one another. The trajectory from ancient Griot music, to the modern day MC, started with a vital journey from Africa to the Caribbean.
The Griot tradition heavily influenced chanting culture in Jamaica (chanting over melodies and rhythms) which came into being in the 1950s. From here, this new manner of speech over a melody, both rhythmic or monotonous, eventually landed in New York between the 70s and 80s thanks to Caribbean immigrants such as the legendary DJ Kool Herc, who played a part in introducing this new sound to the city.
From here, the chanting sound metamorphosed into many forms, namely hip hop. Eventually finding its way to the UK, where it dived into a melting pot of sounds.
Grime was eventually born as a result of this period of invention and experimentation, drawing on aspects of genres such as Jungle, Garage and a bit of Rap/Hip hop, the MC became a staple in Grime culture from the early 2000s through to the present day.
The Griots and your favourite MCs' relation, although an admittedly winding and distant one, is a relation nonetheless. One could not be if it weren't for another, modern day emceeing and rap may not have been what it is, if it were not for the Griots, so rich in culture and wisdom, chanting those first chants so very long ago.
Big Love Always.
Further information on the importance of Griots: