Saturday, February 20, 2016

Flyting and the origins of Rap

Flyting or fliting (from the Old English word flītan meaning quarrel; and from Old Norse word flyta meaning provocation), describes an intense verbal jousting, usually between two skilled rivals, often laced with vulgarity, and accusations of cowardice or sexual perversion. Flyting was remarkable for its fierceness and extravagance and the intention was to provoke the opponent Although contestants attacked each other spiritedly, they actually had a professional respect for their rival’s vocabulary of invective. When the final winner had the last word in the argument, the loser fell conspicuously silent.

The tradition seems to have derived from the Gaelic filid (class of professional poets), who composed savage tirades against persons who slighted them. The poetic exchange of insults was practiced mainly between the 5th and 16th centuries. Examples of flyting are found throughout Norse, Anglo-Saxon and Medieval literature involving both historical and mythological figures. The 13th century poem The Owl and the Nightingale and Geoffrey Chaucer's Parlement of Foules contain elements of flyting.

Flyting became public entertainment in Scotland in the 15th and 16th centuries where rival makars (court poets or bards) engaged in verbal contests of poetic abuse involving obscene rhyming insults. These were always provocative and confrontational and invariably with sexual and scatological nature. The winner was usually credited with the wordsmith with the maist gleg (quick witted intelligence). Flyting in court was permitted despite the fact that the penalty for profanities in public was a fine of 20 shillings (over £300 today) for a lord or a whipping for servant.

Both James IV and James V enjoyed "court flyting" and occasionally engaged with the participants. The most famous example of flyting comes from the Court of King James IV and was contest between William Dunbar and Walter Kennedy is entitled the Flyting Of Dunbar And Kennedy . In 1536 the poet Sir David Lyndsay composed a ribald 60 line flyte to James V after the King demanded a response to a flyte.

Flyting appeared to die out in Scottish writing after the Middle Ages but was continued for writers of Celtic background. Robert Burns parodied flyting in his poem, "To a Louse."

The genre continued into modern poetry with Hugh MacDiarmid's poem A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle.

Rapping describes a sophisticated form of speaking or chanting of rhyming lyrics, involving sex, violence and socio-political issues and set to a beat. For centuries West Africa stories were told rhythmically and set to the beat of a drum, then later Caribbean Islands musicians told stories in rhyme. By the 70s rapping was popular in the U.S. as a kind of street art, especially among street wise African American teenagers.

According to Professor Ferenc Szasz, University of New Mexico, rap is similar in both form and function to flyting. Feuding street gangs developed Gangsta Rap to insult and intimidate rivals.

This was combined with Brooklyn uprock, a skilled choreography involving fancy footwork, shuffles, hitting motions, and movements that mimic fighting. The winner of the preliminary rocking decided where a fight might take place or jurisdiction over a drug related turf war. The whole process softened into commercial hip hop and Michael Jackson made reference to these and other gang behaviours in Beat It and Bad videos.

Szasz believes it was Scottish Tobacco Lords and slave traders that encouraged their human cargo to use flyting instead of physically harming each other when arguments developed. He argues this was adopted and developed by African Americans emerging many years later as rap.

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