Mon | Sep 24, 2018

Brian-Paul Welsh | Shut up and sing

Published:Tuesday | July 4, 2017 | 12:11 AMBrian-Paul Welsh


Embedded in our genetic memory is the recurring role of the travelling storyteller embodied by the Griot (pronounced gree-yoh).

These charismatic personas enchant village folk with their mesmerising talent in song and in poetry, serving as entertainer, historian, and repository for cultural information through the oral tradition. Singer Ishawna is a recent example, but others we have come to admire include Vybz Kartel, Buju Banton and Sizzla.

It is a mystical calling, often hereditary in nature, and one that promises those so inspired a life of constant movement and repetitive performance. In modern incarnations, these artistes travel the island spinning their tales to the amusement of villagers and visitors alike, with some even spreading their wings beyond these shores, bringing news from their homeland to relatives scattered abroad.

Theirs is a fickle vocation evoking both admiration and revulsion from the wider society, nonetheless they persist, hopeful that by faithfully nurturing their gifts, they will one day yield substantial reward for themselves and their families.

As cultural ambassadors without the requisite training in diplomacy, many have gained notoriety resulting from unscripted improvisations at inopportune moments. This is especially perceptible during this era of technological advancement where we can see through the veil of popularity and literally examine the innermost thoughts of those we idolise.

Whereas in earlier times skilful puppeteers could weave a web around naive performers to affect our perception and create the mystique of an otherworldly star, nowadays, this mirage is just as easily destroyed by the inclination of artists to compulsively share their most tactless thoughts with little consideration for how they might stain the bigger picture they have worked to create and maintain.


Growing up as a fan of impressive performances in most cases there was little that could be gleaned about the person inhabiting the character beyond what was presented on stage. In those days, there were no smartphones to capture and share every moment and so catching a glimpse of a celebrated artist was a marvellous experience that was deliberately curated to be cherished by adoring supporters long after it concluded.

In this epoch of digital telepathy however, perhaps unfortunately, we can actually see the world through the eyes of these celebrated figures, and quite often those insights behind the magic cloak are shocking and disappointing, permanently eroding the illusions we once believed.

As the brightest stars rise to take their place in the pantheon we look up to with reverence, what often blocks their ascent is the weight of careless thoughts, flippant speech, or reckless deeds. Those performers who make it to the upper stratosphere of cultural admiration have been wise with their choices, and especially with what they've decided not to reveal.

They understand their role, treat it delicately and aren't given to flights of fancy, pomp, and pride. With the near-constant exposure in which contemporary stars seem to relish, many that once shone bright at a distance are now noticeably dim up close. Likewise, those who famously extol the virtues of gods while themselves still weak to the vices of men are eventually revealed, not as actors but as frauds, which is really such a waste, man.

In the competitive world of entertainment, many seek to distinguish themselves from the herd by putting on outlandish shows with grand embellishments. These garish displays attract attention for the wrong reasons, largely succeeding in promoting the artist instead of the craft, recording more likes, but generating far less love for those once widely adored.

Now that storytellers can reach their audiences from anywhere, even while on the figurative throne, it is obvious some have a preference for spending their time on more basic pursuits. They are no longer interested in the important role they were originally assigned and instead are more concerned with sporadic stunts for bursts of explosive attention.

At certain key moments in our story, these icons emerge to tell the tale of what's happening in the culture. Through their lens we see the world in a different way, sometimes plainly and sometimes with eyes of wonder. Increasingly, many have forgotten their purpose and instead use the coveted platform for frivolous gains, having found the trappings of fame and the accoutrements of wealth are easier maintained by telling only the stories that will excite.

While quietly observing the recent performances of some of our most beloved characters, I was struck by how little actual storytelling was taking place amid all the unnecessary and uninspiring chatter, and felt a tinge of sadness at how those once illuminated had allowed themselves to fall into a place of darkness.

- Brian-Paul Welsh is a writer and public affairs commentator. Email feedback to and, or tweet @islandycynic.