The Significance and True Meaning of Shuri’s Trailblazing AI ‘Griot’

“That thing unnerves me. I think that one day, artificial intelligence is going to kill us all.”

-Queen Ramonda

This Black Panther: Wakanda Forever quote is not totally wrong. After all, in a lot of books, films, and TV, AI is met with suspicion, contempt or outright dread. In the MCU, Ultron was the epitome of how evil and destructive AI could be. Of course, there were counterparts of this like J.A.R.V.I.S., the faithful AI for Tony Stark who later on becomes Vision and then White Vision (I really want to know where White Vision is chilling at). There’s also F.R.I.D.A.Y., the replacement for J.A.R.V.I.S and of all names, Karen, the AI for Spiderman. Not all suits are created equal, however, as James Rhodes’ War Machine (Don Cheadle) and the new Captain America (Sam Wilson), do not have AI that they talk to.

Oftentimes, these AI have funny moments and provide their heroes with the assistance that they need. But Griot, the AI for Shuri and most of Wakanda, takes the significance of this technology in the MCU to a whole ‘nother level.

The Meaning and Significance of a Griot

First, let’s take a look at that name, Griot. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a griot is “a class of musician-entertainers of western Africa whose performances include tribal histories and genealogies.” Griots functioned as record keepers, historians, and so many other roles. They would also inform their people of news or the village idiot to avoid, through songs or stories. The griot was highly important in their respective societies since a lot of ancient western African cultures relied on the oral tradition, not written. Basically, they were the West African version of Jaskier the Bard on The Witcher, but with much better music. (Yes, I said it. No wonder Henry Cavill left.)

In the same way that griots are there to keep track of events, relay information to people and advise, such is the function of Griot in Wakanda Forever. Griot helps Shuri with a variety of tasks, like synthesizing the vibranium on the bracelet given to her by Namor to remake their heart-shaped herb. It also acts as a translator between Shuri and the Talokanil.

Also, unlike the AI in the other MCU movies, which are usually just for one person and their suit, Griot is the people’s AI. Griot talks and more importantly, assists several characters from Okoye to Queen Ramonda. And it even helps those who are not Wakandan, like Riri Williams and everyone’s favorite colonizer. There are definite parallels between the highly communal nature of many African societies and how Wakanda’s AI functions similarly vs the American ideals of a very individualized AI that usually serves the suit’s owner only. 

It also seems like no small coincidence South African comedian Trevor Noah voices Griot. Noah, the former host of The Daily Show, was in a way, our griot for modern times. He literally told us the news, pop culture, and other current events through entertaining stories and humor. Noah’s role grows exponentially from the first Black Panther, working as a proxy of the late, great Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa. T’Challa was a stabilizing force for Wakanda and Shuri. So with him gone, Shuri relies on Griot for that stability, especially when Namor upends her life. Plus, Trevor is a native speaker of Xhosa, the South African language spoken by Wakandans. 

The Changing Depiction of Africa and Griot’s Importance in the MCU

As a Ghanaian-American, I watch Black Panther and Wakanda Forever with a certain amount of pride. When I moved back to the U.S. in the late ’90s, anything directly or indirectly associated with Africa got intense ridicule. But the lack of specificity annoyed me the most, with Africa being seen as this big blob without discerning culture, language or identity. There was no acknowledgment or investment in the cultural richness and humanity of our people, just the riches of the land and the labor of the people. Those prejudices usually came from a place of apathy at best and at its worst, racism.

Those prejudices against Africa obviously still exist, but I believe those preconceptions have improved somewhat. Beyoncé (‘nuff said) worked with a plethora of African musicians for her successful soundtrack album, The Lion King: The Gift. Just last year, The Woman King—starring Viola Davis and with direction by Gina Prince-Bythewood—became a box office hit film about the fearsome Agojie (whom the Dora Milaje are based on), the all-female warriors from the Kingdom of Dahomey (now modern-day Benin in West Africa).

split image of Shuri's AI Griot and a photo of her wearing white
Marvel Studios

In the same way as those titles, the Black Panther franchise has helped shift derisive views of Africa. Wakanda is not a real place; however, there is nothing artificial about the warm place it held in our hearts and minds. There is so much intentional thought in their clothes, speech, and AI. Unlike my childhood memories of American perceptions of Africa, there is no lack of specificity here.

There is a specific reason why this AI’s name is Griot. There is a specific reason why Trevor Noah plays Griot and why the communal nature of Griot gets emphasis. Wakanda Forever shows that when something’s done with consideration and care, it transcends its particular medium to mean much more. Queen Ramonda may feel a little nervous about Shuri using Griot. But I wish she could see it the way my 12 year old self would see it: as African Intelligence.

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