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The flyting of Blizzard and Grist

Occasionally, you’ll come across a piece of internet gold which hasn’t gone completely viral yet and is still unknown to a lot of people (although, with a million views, ‘unknown’ is all relative). A few days ago, I came across one such piece of gold that made me remember why the internet can be such a wonderful place (caution: contains incredibly strong language and taboo themes!).

The video in question is a rap performance between two guys known as Blizzard and Grist, with the central theme of the performance being a battle between the ‘teacher’ and the ‘student’ (Blizzard isn’t actually Grist’s student, but it’s so well done that you’d be forgiven for thinking so). What’s great about the piece, though, is that the two performers are British, rather than American. The rhymes and cultural references that get flung about are distinctly UK in orientation (I particularly like Blizzard evoking OFSTED towards the end of one of the rounds), and there’s a definite sense that they’re not trying to be American, even though rap battles are very much associated with American rap.

There’s lots and lots that can be said about the performance, from accent features to cultural tropes, from performances of masculinity to the use of taboo language (there’s a good commentary on the performance here if you don’t want to/can’t watch the video). But crazily enough, what Grist and Blizzard are doing is not new. Neither are any of the very similar concepts they draw inspiration from, including American rap battles, ‘clowning‘ or ‘playing the dozens. In fact, these can all be traced back to a historical ritual known as ‘flyting‘.

As the link points out, flyting is an exchange between two participants where the main idea is to insult your opponent in the most poetic, colourful, intelligent and sophisticated way possible. It’s not enough to just throw insults at one another, but these insults have to be carefully crafted and thought out. Flyting is an art form. Through flyting, the participants (usually male) were able to demonstrate their intellectual prowess, quick thinking, wit and humour, with the aim being to defeat the opponent through a series of biting insults. The benefit of this was that disagreements between people could be settled without violence, maintaining at least some semblance of social order. The person that was defeated was beaten only in spirit, rather than being killed or seriously injured as might happen with other kinds of contests. So flyting was an important tool in the history of society.

Perhaps one of the best known examples of the form is The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedie, a brilliant poem written in Middle Scots by the Makar William Dunbar. The poem is basically a series of insults between Dunbar and Kennedie, based on an argument of ‘I’m better than you’. The poem itself is a  compilation of some of the most disgusting, taboo-riddled, poisonous insults ever found in literature. And it is wonderful. And hilarious. And clever. And inventive. And brilliant. But due to the fact that I’m not prepared to share with you some of the best insults in it (due to the fact that they are truly awful), you’ll have to read it yourself.

Essentially, the battle between Grist and Blizzard isn’t a million miles away from the battle between Dunbar and Kennedie. and it demonstrates just how resonant certain poetic forms are throughout the ages. That traditional poetic forms are reinterpreted and reformed with each new generation shows just how resilient good ideas are to the vagaries of time.

The Social Linguist

  1. February 13, 2012 at 10:41 pm

    I remember reading that in 1st or 2nd year of my UG studies – loved it! Also thought the rap battle was ace.

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