TheGrio Daily

The Grio(t) Explained

Episode 3

With all the talk about Black musicians and where they belong, and in which genre of music, we’re taking you back to one of the earliest theGrio Daily episodes. Wypipologist Michael Harriot discusses the roots of Country music, and honors Sister Rosetta Tharpe for creating Rock and Roll.

We’re talking about “Griots,” a class of people trained to keep our history and tell our stories. Michael takes us on a journey explaining where Griots first started and how they’ve trickled down through history. It’s deeper than you think, Kings and Queens.

Music Courtesy of Transitions Music Corporation

Full Transcript Below:

You are now listening to theGrio Black Podcast Network, Black Culture Amplified. 

Hello and welcome back to TheGrio Daily. The only podcast that knows the black equivalent of Once Upon a Time is, Aight so Boom. And I’m Michael Harriot. I’ll be here every day for about 10, 15 minutes to let you know what’s going on in your village. Think of me as your personal Griot. And speaking of Griot, all right, so boom, today, that’s what we’re going to be talking about. The Griot. No, not this platform, not the one owned by billionaire Byron Allen. I mean, that’s my boss. Y’all really think I’m crazy enough to just, like, do a whole podcast talking about my boss? No, I might say something wrong, and I need this job. No, we’re going to be talking about that African oral tradition. 

[00:00:47] I’m Michael. Harriot, world-famous wypipologist. And this is TheGrio Daily. You know how like some people say they come from kings and queens? Well, well, not me. I got come from people who the kings and queens hated. Some people say they come from royalty. Some come from warriors. Me, I come from a long line of shit starters. Apple cart upsetters, you know, the people who went around whispering, we should overthrow the king and the queen. For real. Yeah, we should. That’s who I come from.

And griots were like that in West Africa and the West African tradition, there was a separate class of people who were basically the caretakers of the truth. So people call it a Griot. Some societies called it a jolly or a jelly or, you know, it spelled a bunch of different ways. But it literally means blood. And some people call it the Grio. It’s kind of like how this platform spells its name, but with a T and it’s not a griot, it’s not Griot. Right? Lastly, that’s what happened in the Carter homes with, you know G-Money and “New Jack City” took over. Right.

Griot means different things in different communities or different societies in West Africa. Right. Sometimes some people describe a Griot as a storyteller, some like just a songwriter or like a troubadour. Some people say that they are poets. Some say that they are like historians or the keeper of the oral tradition. Some people say like praise worshippers. Some say they’re journalists or artists. But the truth is like they are all of that combined in one, right? The history of a society is combined in its art and in its journalism and in its truth-tellers. There couldn’t be an emperor or a king without a Grio in some African societies, but we kind of kept it going when we got here in America. And it wasn’t just something like you could become like you don’t just, like, apply for a real job or run for griot office. You had to be born into a class of Griots and raised as a Griot. And so, you know how like, say you send somebody a text message, right? And they misinterpret it like, hey, why you sent me that text message? Like grilling me on what I was doing. And he was like, Nah, I was just asking what he was up to. Like, What are you doing? So you can misinterpret that in text or in writing. But when you hear someone who is trained to communicate through the oral tradition for their entire lives, there won’t be any mistake.

And so it’s not quite like, you know, just talking and what people remember. Right? Like griots were trained in memory. They were trained in communication. So it’s not like a game of telephone. If a Griot tells you that someone had a red shirt on the day that this king was inaugurated, 300 years later, that same story will be told and the same person will have that same red shirt on because that story was filtered down through the Griot tradition. And in these societies, like the oral tradition, it was more important than a written tradition. That’s why, you know, like white people don’t trust anything that they didn’t read in a book. Like we would trust anything that we didn’t hear from a Griot in some societies right. And griots also created American culture, just like we left it over in Africa. Right. Like a few days ago. Right. There was this dude is white dude. And he was complaining about all of the black people who were at the Country Music Awards because he didn’t know that country music was created by griots by the African tradition. The first instrument of country music was the banjo, which is an African instrument that was used by Griots. Right. And so the Griot not just created African music. They didn’t just create country western music. They created all of American music right because, you know, country western music and the blues created rock and roll. And then that’s what created hip hop. So, look, all of that came from the griot. What are the greatest griots? Was Sister Rosetta Tharpe who invented rock n roll. And I only say that because I’m going by the definition of invented, which means like the first person to do a certain thing. And Sister Rosetta Tharpe in the 1930s was creating licks on a guitar and playing guitar the same way Prince plays it now. I like all of the great musicians from the early history of rock and roll say, Oh yeah, I just like doing what I heard Sister Rosetta Tharpe do. But we’ll take that trip to the sky and never may be the last blue moon. And Sister Rosetta Tharpe was raised as a griot. She was raised in the Church of God in Christ, and she would travel with her family, who were singers, who were musicians, to tell people about the good news. Right. We call it the gospel, but it’s really the West. First of all, gospel music is created from the West African praise tradition. Right. Though if you see people shouting when they get the Holy Ghost and you see a pray circle in the Yoruba culture, it’s the same thing, right? And Sister Rosetta Tharpe became the Griot who created rock and roll again. She invented it only because of the definition of invent. And that’s the same is true with with a lot of American culture. For instance, there was this guy, Charlie Case. Charlie Case was born in Lockport, New York, and he was smart and he became a lawyer. And he wasn’t a very good lawyer. Right. He would win some cases. He would lose some, but he would just go into these long stories every time he had a court case. And after he failed to defend this guy who stole a cow, true story, the judge told him, you should just get out of law bruh. And so he got a job as a traveling salesman, but he was a terrible traveling salesman also because people love to see him coming and they would gather around him and listen to him tell stories all day, but they wouldn’t buy anything. But, you know, as a traveling salesman, he made friends of people who were on the vaudeville circuit because he’d see them at the hotels and all that. And one of them got sick. And Charlie Case, he created this fundraiser for for him and he decided to, you know, just try to go on stage and do some vaudeville himself. And it was a hit. And he would sing on stage and he was dancing on stage. And he became one of the biggest acts in all of vaudeville. But he hated wearing blackface back then. He ended with blackface. And Charles, he was of of mixed heritage. Right. His mother was white. His father was black, but he hated wearing blackface. And so he decided to stop. And plus, he was really nervous on stage. He would do this thing where he would play with a string. And every time he told a joke, he would do this because he just had this nervous twitch and everybody started biting his style so much that. Every time the point of his joke would hit, they started calling it the punch line. That’s right, Charlie Case invented the punch line. But not only did he invented the punch, invent the punch line, but he became so popular that he just stopped singing. He just stopped dancing. He just stopped all of that in his act. He would just tell stories and talk about stuff that actually happened to him, but they didn’t even have a name for what he was doing. Right. So sometimes they built him as a monologue just and his you know, his call was they would bill him as the man who talks about his father because he can just tell stories about his family. And again, he had thrown away the singing party. He didn’t even need a band to come on stage with him. And and people started emulating that style and it exploded on the vaudeville circuit because Charlie Case was the first man who we would call a stand up comedian. And W.C. Fields basically stole his entire career. His first film, right, was a movie about a song that Charlie Case had written. And so Charlie Case was also a Griot. He was in that African tradition of telling the truth no matter what. And one of my favorite griots was a woman who lived in Memphis, you know, and one day she was out of town and a white mob killed one of her best friends. And as he was dying, the man said, Tell my people to go north. But who was going to tell those people? Well, his best friend, Ida B Wells, would because Ida B Wells like everybody knew that she was not afraid to tell the truth. Ida B Wells was legitimately the most famous person in America at a certain point because she basically created investigative journalism. She was the first anti-lynching crusader, and a lot of people credit her with the first being the first person who used data to talk about social justice. Right. So instead of, you know, saying this bad thing happened to this person in Memphis, what I had a B Wells would do was compile statistics of all of the lynching cases to show that it was an epidemic. Right. It was systemic instead of a problem that this that happened over here and a problem that happened over here. And Ida B Wells became the most famous woman in America. She was known for telling the unvarnished truth and she was a Griot. And, you know, one of the things one of the saddest things is that we’ll never be able to know all of the stuff that Ida B Wells wrote because the newspaper that she ran was burned to the ground by a white mob. And as a historian, as somebody who who looks into history, you’ll see that a lot when you look for newspaper articles by the Black Press, which was really prevalent in the early 1900s or even the late 1800s. But oftentimes you’ll find that an article that people reference has disappeared because the whole newspapers archive, especially black newspapers, were always burned by a white mob because you can destroy the written history of the abuses that black people suffered. Right. But you can’t destroy the movement and the memory that we have preserved through the oral tradition. And that’s why the Griot is important, because, you know, as we can see with what’s going on in the world, why people think that really that crazy about history, about passing along the truth. People in power aren’t very fond of the truth. And that’s why the Grio exists. Because who’s going to tell your story? Who’s going to whisper to you? Or we should dethrone the king. Who is going to watch the throne? Well, we will, because we are the Grio. That’s why we’re here. And that’s why griots are important. I want to thank you for listening. I want to let you know that we’ll be here every day for you to get your fix of what’s going on in the village. Don’t forget to subscribe. Don’t forget to download the Grill’s Black Podcast Network app. Yo really, for real, like even if you’re going to listen to it on another platform, download the app for real like it helps us out. And remember that someone has to tell your stories and I’ll leave you as I leave you every day with another black saying. And today, the only appropriate thing to leave you with is this. What had happened was. 

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You are now listening to the Grio Black Podcast Network. Black Culture Amplified. What’s going on, everybody? Panama Jackson here. And I’m the host of the Dear Culture podcast on the Grio Black Podcast Network. And I’m telling you to check us out every Thursday on the Grio app to make sure you get that new, amazing, original black content, that awesome creativity. Check us out. Dear Culture, Panama Jackson Out.