The Magic of Words: The Role of Griots in West African Society and Film

Student Author(s)

Dorothy Dickinson

Faculty Mentor(s)

Professor Brandon Guernsey

Document Type


Event Date



When asked about their relationship to the traditional West African storytellers and singers called griots, African Hip-hop artists have responded negatively, describing griots as parasites and sycophants. African filmmakers like Ousmane Sembène, on the other hand, have compared themselves favorably to griots, describing griots as artists and preservers of culture. This presentation explores both the disconnect between the two descriptions and the resemblance between griots and filmmakers. After examining second-hand accounts, as well as looking into the interviews and films of African filmmakers, it becomes clear that the position of the griot in West African society is complex. It may be a familial occupation with a long history, but it is still a job that relies on the donations of patrons. This reliance can make griots resemble sycophants. While they may show a keen artistry, griots must sing the praises of their patrons. Filmmakers, despite sharing artistic and traditional goals with the griot, have much more freedom. Perhaps, then, filmmakers should not only continue to portray griots in their films, but should employ them as well. Bringing more griots into the African film world will not only help to resolve their financial difficulties and provide them with a platform for their stories and songs, but will also allow West African filmmakers to stay connected to their roots even as they continue to explore what it means to be filming in Africa today.

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