From Press Secretary to Poet

In Government by Rika Mpogazi

Words are powerful instruments that some are expertly trained to play. In West Africa, the talent of wordplay belongs to the Griots. These prolific wordsmiths form a caste of skilled storytellers, but the tales they regale are not fictional, they are rich oral accounts of West African history and philosophical thought. 

In Medieval Mali, Griots of the Malian Empire served as important advisors to the emperor and other royal decision-makers. The Malian Empire encompassed the western Sahelian and Equatorial region, spanning through modern-day Mali, Senegal, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Gambia. As political advisors, Griots lived and worked in the emperor’s compound keeping the royal court updated on recent events in the region. But rather than simply regurgitate the news, Griots offered a critical assessment of each situation, proving their strength in political strategizing and philosophical reasoning. As a result, Medieval Griots not only helped their leaders attain military feats and evade potential conflicts altogether, but they also served as a useful instrument of meditation that helped facilitate the establishment of key diplomatic relations throughout the region.  

Their instrumental role as mediators also made them successful matchmakers, as their travelling back and forth between royal courts allowed them to put in a good word for royal families seeking to secure political alliances through marriage. To unite two families in matrimony, was to be knowledgeable in each family’s ancestral history and talented enough to boost their assets. They would recite the genealogy from the founding figures to the most recent figureheads, all while elaborating on their significant contributions to society. On occasions like these, talented Griots were commissioned by private patrons to deliver the origin and meaning of a family surname through elaborate chants composed in their honour. Prospective Griots were therefore expected to undergo a rigorous training process that involved learning the history of the community or kingdom in question by heart as their ability to poetically recite significant events demonstrated the strength of the people and their leaders. In fact, in many ways, one could draw a parallel between this medieval style of royal courts campaigning to modern-day public relations where a Griot would be considered the Empire’s press secretary par excellence.

Kings and emperors consulted Griots knowing they offered the best advice on political and social matters. During the pre-colonial period, some rulers tended to suppress any unwarranted criticisms of an absolute ruler and the social order which they had established but the legitimacy of status granted to the Griots enabled them to penetrate high society with a message from the people. Griots reached out to the people knowing how important it was to cultivate a direct line of communication between rulers and the people they represented. They set an agenda for the kings where they could understand the most pressing issues that touched the overall population. Griots were the intermediaries the empire needed, in service of all those who needed a voice, or a song to have their history told.

A Griot’s talent for recounting events also made them prominent record-keepers of history and genealogy for their wider community. As active members of the royal courts, Griots quickly became civil registrars of sorts for the royal family, mentally marking out the date of birth and decease of each royal member, past and present. Although the Malian Empire produced a rich collection of written works on topics ranging from mathematical and scientific theories to religious scripture, most notably found in the libraries of Timbuktu, not everyone had the education or the means to access this bank of knowledge. The Griot’s oral chronicling was therefore indispensable to the education of the people of West Africa as it reported vital information to the public and encouraged audience participation during ceremonial chants, allowing the wider population to become a part of its history’s narration.

The political structure of the French colonial administration completely shuffled Griots’ principal patronage. During this period, socioeconomic status no longer prioritized royal lineage as the sole indicator of wealth but rather individual merit, which allowed those who had once belonged to lower class families to rival the former elites through their education and through their appointments into high ranking positions within the colonial administration. Consequently, the power of the once untouchable ruling class was beginning to fall between the cracks.

While the practice of public praise was being proliferated amongst the new urban elites, the credibility of Griots’ speeches was increasingly being put into question. How was the Griot to know if the high-ranking administrative assistant’s grandfather really earned the title of the grand merchant of the century, if he and the patron had only been acquainted a month prior? Or how was the Griot to know that the bride-to-be’s family had been amongst the most notable scribes of the former empire if he’d only been referred to them the week before? Since Griots were no longer employed through long-term contracts within a family, many began to doubt the honesty of their recounting of one’s family background, and the credibility of their patrons’ credentials was up for debate.

In the newly independent Mali, praise songs were all the rage, especially in southern Mali where the federal governments began subsidizing Griots’ radio and live performances and the general arts and cultures. Still, Griots’ public perception in postcolonial Mali swayed with the coming and goings of political regimes. If their praise songs honoured presidents unfavourable to the people, then the Griots’ reputation suffered, and vice versa. However, Griots’ talent in subtle symbolism allowed them to convey mixed messages and double meanings that could be interpreted differently depending on the audience. This practice led to some songs being banned on national platforms because of the damage they could cause to a regime’s image, proving the undeniable value of Griots in West African culture and politics, past and present.

In the past, musicality was not a necessary characteristic of Griot’s narrations. Over time, however, their lyricism expanded to include chants and musical instruments like the kora or the ngoni, both small harp-like string instruments. Modern-day descendants of the Griot heritage are also bringing this lyrical prowess to the global stage. One example of this cultural legacy is the work of French-Malian singer Aya Nakamura, who applies subtly intricate wordplay to zouk and pop sounds to illustrate the realities of French African women, all with the same emotional acuteness and poetic minimalism as her predecessors. 

Griots played an instrumental role in governance structures, from the formation of the Malian Empire to post-colonial politics. They used the art of persuasion and their skills in language to bridge the gap between emperors and subjects, people and presidents, and even brides and grooms to be. A Griot’s word is a people’s history, which endures in the present and future. 

According to tradition, Griots are to be buried in the trunk of a Baobab tree. In the past, elders of a community used to gather around the foot of the tree’s towering frame for political meetings and discussions. These sturdy ‘trees of life’ are symbols of protection, enduring strength and longevity. Their lifespan stretches over thousands of years, and like the Griots buried in their roots, the history they carry is retold in a lyrical continuum generation after generation.