'Rap Music Invented in Scotland'? Nonsense! Rap Music Is American, of African Roots

Culture Watch

The author is completing a book, tentatively titled, "DNA Inheritance: Sex, Secrets, Strengths in Roots."

This past week the news broke in many media, including the New York Times, that American rap music derives from Scotland's medieval pubs. The BritishTelegraph newspaper quoted an American professor who cited, "an American civil war poem, printed in the New York Vanity magazine on November 9, 1861, as the first recorded example of the verbal battles being used in the United States." He identified "flyting," a medieval Scottish style of word duels in pubs, between nasty-mouthed drunken poets as the roots of American rap music. That's nonsense.

Verbal duels, especially between poets, existed in many of our ancient cultures; they did not start in medieval days in a single culture. Specific people's ancestors are at the roots of their cultural traditions. Others, however, have tried to steal African American culture because they, and so many African Americans, do not know the specific ancestors at the roots of African American DNA. So let me, Speak girl, as my ancestors would say.

One of the advantages of genealogical research is that the results uncovered fill in the gaps, errors or misconceptions of history. An American history professor who specializes in American and Scottish studies announced that rap music, which was born in the Bronx, New York, has its roots in the Scottish verbal dueling tradition called, "flyting," and the media does not take him to task. As an American whose extensive genealogical research resulted in a genuine, Queen of England granted Scottish coat of arms, I challenge him. I comment by whispering in the wind -- Cease the nonsense!

My Scottish coat of arms, revealing ten generations of recovered ancestral documents, based on ten years research into my ancestry, was granted in 2005. As a newly discovered descendant of Scottish nobles, who were, -- and are -- relatives of the kings and queens of Scotland and England, I understand blended history, and do not have to distort it.

As a descendant of African ancestors who lived among the griots, who were storytellers of Ancient Mali and Ancient Ghana, who sang of political and communal events in medieval times, I know my ancestors' contributions to world culture. I know their contributions have been overlooked.

As a descendant of Jamaican ancestors, whose reggae music parodied political, local and personal events, whose farmers sang competitive work songs, whose market women, "higglers" sang competing songs to sell their fruit and vegetables, I celebrate the complexity of our roots.

As a New Yorker, raised in Manhattan and the Bronx, where young musicians were so creative and improvisational on their musical turntables, in their angst, and in poetry, I say, Don't even think about distorting the roots of this history.

As an American, a student of pop culture, I say, Stop the nonsense! America has grownup, and now accepts the blending of culture at its roots; it now sees and accepts the contribution of black Americans to the Americas and the world. Let's celebrate the richness at its roots, not muddy or distort its heritage: America's blended heritage with African origins.

The professor said Scottish slaveowners brought the verbal tradition to America, taught it to the African slaves, African Americans, who, centuries later, gave birth to rap music. He credits Scotland with the birth of hip-hop rap music. So he's saying rap music, derived from anti-slavery fighting roots, was taught to the slaves by the slaveowners who enslaved them. Right. His research is hollow. Shallow. Reports such as this one from historians are ignorant of the tug-of-war and the subtle blending of cultures in American colonial times. My research revealed that I am descended from slaves and Free Colonial Americans, people who were originally farmers and village leaders in medieval Ghana. I used family nicknames, folk stories and DNA to locate and confirm these ancestors. I found records of how they intermixed and blended with Scottish slaveowners and abolitionists, some of whom were nobles.

My genealogical research revealed how extensive the blending was, in a variety of arenas, from slavery battlefields to wilderness churches. My ancestors, Scots and Africans, met in bush wars and, in religious fellowship. On my family tree in Jamaica, Ghanaians from West Africa were mostly Akans, Fante and Akuapem people. They were first cousins of the Ashante and other Akan people who settled in Suriname in the wilds on the northern coasts of South America.

A Scottish commissioned officer, Captain John Stedman, who led the slavers' militias against these Akans and also Congolese Angolans, described how the African slaves who fled to the wilds and fought for their freedom participated in verbal duels on the battlefields. These Africans were called runaways, Maroons. They fought fiercely, including using verbal warfare now called playing-the-dozens. So don't tell me about the roots of African American music. It was not 1861 in Vanity Fair.

In his Narrative of a Five-Years' Expedition, Against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam in Guiana from the Wild Coast of South America from the Years 1772 to 1777, a 704-page colonial war journal, Captain Stedman described the songs, chants, praise-poetry, verbal dueling, posturing and martial arts "capoeira-style" flying moves these African ancestors used in anti-slavery warfare. Their dueling battled, characterized by a war of words, drumming, dancing and singing, among English-speaking Maroons were called "plays," and among the Dutch-speaking Maroons, "baljarden." The tradition was a rendition of the remnants of medieval word-plays of young men who defended their African villages against enemies and invasions in medieval Ghana. The Fante and Ashante young men formed military organizations, "asafo," in which they wielded words, songs and dances, rivaling in verbal duels, military dance duels, and anti-slavery village defenses.

So don't tell me about the roots of this dueling verbal art form.

In America in the 1770s, Captain Stedman described the verbal duels these Ghanaians and Angolans who were Maroons threw at his militia soldiers on the battlefields. "They told us . . . they scorned to expend much more of their powder on such scarecrows; but should the planters and overseers dare enter the woods, not a soul of them should ever return . . . ." The Maroons, in graphic curse words, also hurled curses at the black soldiers the militias recruited to combat Maroons in the American wilds. Stedman's 704-page war journal said, these African American Maroons hurled words at them, calling them, "poltrons [cowards, wretches] and traitors of their countrymen, challenging them the next day to single combat; swearing they only wished to lave [wash] their hands in the blood of such scoundrels, who had been the principal agents in destroying their flourishing settlement." The other curse words were more graphic.

So let's not steal this history from these ancestors.

In my book-in-progress I describe how the spiritual traditions came together, how the call-and-response form of church worship and musical performances, ritual word plays, and sing-song music, which is now so popular in our African American churches and in American and world music concerts, blended. The oral styles of Scottish-Irish-English religious worship and African charismatic spirituality and anti-slavery military traditions came together, in America. In my book, I say, "We inherited the DNA of blended cultures." We are a people with the blended DNA of a variety of ancestors.

The capoeira-style verbal gymnastics of the Africans blended with the "lining out," the calling out of words the Scots brought. Scots added to the African "griot," style of storytelling, and "asafo," defensive verbal gymnastics, but the verbal style that gave rise to charismatic-call-and-response music in American and Caribbean churches, to reggae, soca jamback, and rap, were all African at the root of their polyrhythms. The style is still heard today in Akan "asafo" festivals in the Fante villages in Ghana, Africa, where I found my family's DNA marches. Medieval military battles evolved into festive celebrations of cultural contests.

The "lining out" traditions, verbal call-and-response, my Scottish ancestors brought to wilderness worship was added to the oral traditions and musical styles my African ancestors brought to America. It did not give rise to them. It was not at the root. The Africans arriving in the Americas as slaves continued to practice their music, gathering in the wilderness fields, around a griot, and responding to a single "griot" speaker-singer, who sang, in a sing-song, telltale voice. They retained the resistance, word-play, sing-song style of their medieval African ancestors. Their descendants in the Bronx, New York, created rap music from African ancestors'cultural DNA.

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More Comments:

R.R. Hamilton - 1/6/2009

By all means, don't blame the Scots for rap music.

Raul A Garcia - 1/4/2009

The author is clear about cultural blending- too often previous and some present historians persist in purist positing....we are all mongrels according to the DNA assessments. I find that reassuring and even though I have not submitted to genetic testing, I will no doubt find a variegated family tree as well.