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Review: Digital Griots: African American Rhetoric in a Multimedia Age

Review: Digital Griots: African American Rhetoric in a Multimedia Age

In Digital Griots: African American Rhetoric in a Digital Age, Adam Banks uses the digital griot as a conceptual metaphor for “multimedia writing skills” in the context of African American literacies, such as the practices that are taking place in the digital spaces.  People are not just “tweeting” and “posting” the inane, but instead looking at specific spaces, community practices that used to be passed from stoop to stoop are moving through digital spaces. Using the word digital and griots is a strong rhetorical move: to ground the sometimes detached, post-modern aesthetic project of multimedia practices to purpose and to traditional and political networks that nourish African American rhetoric. He draws connections between the historical griot, such as praise singers, historian and storytellers and modern day griots like preachers, DJ’s and stand-up comics. The griots of old were the advisors to nobility and performers that were requested worldwide. Today, they perform on television and radio and record CDs. Many are popular singers who reinterpret traditional songs, giving new meaning to old words  Through the lens of community member who enact and engage with these new masters of music and words that are whose foundations in African American rhetorical practices to inform his ideas, Banks argues that digital spaces offer new opportunities to extend an African-American tradition of performative, multimodal, narrative-based writing for the future of digital writing practices and composition scholarship. The inclusion of this metaphor of the digital griot the persuasive motive of rhetorical practices linked to community commitment, making the transfer of this metaphor to writing a call for transformational work. He demonstrates how the persuasive role of the griot has historically been a part of this transformational work all along.  But this is only one of the many ways Banks develops his idea of the digital griot, because, in a demonstration of the flow, rupture, “cut break mix scratch bootleg” (9) style he says grows out of the unique African American experience, his own book performs the multi-layer, trans-historical, multi-modal process that African American rhetoric is. 


This passing of information through digital means is not specific to just one culture but the passing of information has always been important to cultural groups and the methods have adjusted to make space in digital areas. A DJ plays an important role in knowledge transformation, communication and dissemination and Banks relates one this back to the historic meaning as a musician oral historian. Messages through music as a cultural construct is seen through many cultures and using songs and musical performances is shown in exploring the griot of old, which often passed knowledge within and sometimes out of a tribe. The DJ in the African American community “tells the stories, carries the history, interprets the news, mediates the disputes, and helps shape the community’s collective identity” (25.) and represents a time where community knowledge was passed out from the radio in small locations. This practice is in danger of server alteration when looking at how this practice has been moved to a digital space where the knowledge that is being passed is no longer from a local DJ who is an active part of the community that listens to them, but instead a business entity controls the information that is given out and because of the digital spaces the unique flavor that used to show the culture of a location has been neutralized as the reach of the digital realm is global.  This is further illustrated when Banks goes “back in the day” and shows how the practice of remix was used to keep the community connected by showing the relationship of older and younger generations- where nothing was really new, but instead created and showcased in a way that could show where value and ideas about what had value had changed in the community. Thus he shows that writing in the new technological spaces are creating a griotic view of the writer, one who uses all the practices available to them through new media knowledge’s that are linked to “principles, priorities and purposes” (153.)


Just as Banks relates that pastors are no longer the sole author (51) and that through the interactions of the community that text is written together, so does this practice move into social media spaces.  As Banks shows in his work the idea of remixing is very alive and well in digital spaces. Again this related back to Banks’ re-definition of the concept of remix,  the idea of remix, which is not new but definitely grain a resurgence in popularity in many teaching pedagogies; in the composition classroom as a place for encouraging students to cite different forms and voices in a pastiche kind of writing. Banks defines remix as (in part) “a critical reflexive gesture producing the paradox of independent yet dependent texts” (90.) As Banks points out, the remix uses all the new practices available to the younger generation and to the education world to write and create texts but it does not discard the old texts. Instead, much like the DJ who spliced older and newer music to help show gaps in generational communication so it could be resolved, in this case using multiple media formats to compose writing, offers a different way to understand writing in a variety of spaces and using conventions that offer meaning making on a different level. (100) In this concept he connects to the scholarship of African American Literacy as grounded in history, knowledge and community as well as the experience of struggle.  As the digital realm emerges and seems to be heavy with sterile technological and highly aesthetic --almost anti-rhetorical-- practices, or, at least, practices that avoid addressing the rhetorical function of what gets produced, Banks’ book reminds us of the need to find openings to use multimedia practices in purposeful ways.


The ideas expressed in the idea of  “mixed taped cannon” allows the reimagining of  digital spaces as an intentional cannon formation (147) that allows ideas to be passed much like the folk telling and storytelling traditions. This helps to ease some of the information gap between the generations and knowledge can continue not only to be passed but stored in digital spaces as archives, this does lead some loss of the art of storytelling because of the limits of digital space in created a fixed story but it is a start.  However this is still not a space that comes free of stigma and can be viewed skeptically because of “consequences” for knowledge building in the use of language (Richardson by way of Banks) in Banks’ opinion is necessary to the forging of a direction for digital humanities.  “Acts of writing, the social networks and cultural contexts in which they occur, and the technological networks in which they take place and are disseminated, still involve systems of power...” (Banks 154.) Still there is the undeniable fact that black cultural artifacts are being made and preserved in digital spaces and constantly strive to think and re-think what Banks says about mixing, remixing and borrowing in the context of blues musicians and DJs who operate within an open and vital culture of appropriation. Banks links this practice to African American vernacular and literacy practices that “show us different interpretations of ethical questions” (145.).

This is an easy paced read that explores cultural rhetorical practices and how they have influenced, learning, writing and knowledge exchange.  It’s important to read to understand the various learning styles that can be missed or dropped if this awareness is not taken into teaching practices.


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