Hip-hop and the revolution

January 7, 2016

An unlikely musical about the life of Alexander Hamilton deserves the praise it has received, says Seth Uzman--but there's more to the story than makes it to the stage.

"YES, IT really is that good." That's what New York Times reviewer Ben Brantley had to say about the Broadway debut of Lin-Manuel Miranda's original musical Hamilton. "I am loath to tell people to mortgage their houses and lease their children to acquire tickets to a hit Broadway show," Brantley continued. "But Hamilton...might just about be worth it."

Originally conceived as a concept album, Hamilton recounts, in the language of tragedy, the life of Alexander Hamilton, one of the architects of the U.S. Constitution, the first U.S. Treasury Secretary and chief aide to George Washington.

Presented with many echoes of Miranda's love for hip-hop, the musical features a cast made up predominantly of people of color who play roles historically reserved for white women and men, including Hamilton, Elizabeth Schuyler, George Washington and Angelica Schuyler. The brilliant exception is the casting of England's King George as a white man, which gives the story of the rebellion in Britain's North American colonies a whole new dynamic.

Hamilton is a critical and audience favorite in New York City
Hamilton is a critical and audience favorite in New York City

As a result, Hamilton has been hailed as "radical," "triumphant" and "dazzling." If the production wrecks shop at this season's Tony Awards, it will be with good reason.

Miranda's casting and use of hip-hop are marvelous compositional and theatrical choices. The winner of a MacArthur Genius Grant, he displays remarkable skill in translating political debates that took place more than two centuries ago into accessible contemporary language.

Memorable chord progressions and incisively funny lyrics abound as Miranda displays a tremendous ability to express emotion in any and all musical styles, ranging from hip-hop to jazz to pop. Likewise, Hamilton's construction is a testament to Miranda's craft as a storyteller--he seems to wield literary nuance as easily as the author of essays known as The Federalist Papers did his pen (if you're skeptical, click here and take a listen).

Additionally, Miranda's musical arrives at a contentious historical moment, with Republican personalities like Donald Trump drumming up support by fanning the flames of hate against immigrants and other persons of color. Hamilton is a laudable effort to reclaim U.S. history in the name of "the people"--though Miranda displays profound weaknesses with how he chooses to retell that history, and what he leaves out.

Review: Theater

Hamilton, book, music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Mirando. Performances at the Richard Rodgers Theater in New York City; directed by Thomas Kail; starring Miranda, Christopher Jackson, Leslie Odom Jr., Jonathan Groff, Jasmine Cephas Jones and Renee Elise Goldsberry.

MIRANDA'S TRAGEDY seeks to answer the question posed by Aaron Burr in Hamilton's opening hip-hop number:

Aaron Burr:
How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore
And a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot
In the Caribbean by Providence, impoverished, in squalor
Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?

Hamilton's background as a poor immigrant allows Miranda to explore the role of (some) oppressed populations in shaping U.S. history as he chronicles the revolutionary activity that will erupt in the British colonies:

The Company:
The Battle of Yorktown. 1781

Monsieur Hamilton.

Monsieur Lafayette.

In command where you belong.

How you say, no sweat.

Finally on the field. We've had quite a run. Immigrants...

Hamilton and Lafayette:
We get the job done!

Hamilton's elevation of a hip-hop vernacular, spoken by a Black and Brown cast, strives to register the subversive origins of revolution so often lost in conventional rehearsals of U.S. history, such as the film Lincoln or the musical 1776, where the white faces of a past revolution simultaneously gesture towards the ruling class of the present.

The youthful, insurgent energy of revolution, expressed in the words of energetic Black and Brown revolutionaries, armed and dancing to the music and language of today's U.S. youth, is juxtaposed with an immobile, white King George, singing in a style reminiscent of classic but nostalgic British pop.

At the same time, though, the shortcomings of U.S. independence--which Hamilton admits remained "full of contradictions"--are presented with zeal. In one of several references to the dependence of settler wealth on slave labor, Hamilton speaks these words to Declaration of Independence author and slave owner Thomas Jefferson:

Thomas. That was a real nice declaration.
Welcome to the present, we're running a new nation...
A civics lesson from a slaver. Hey neighbor,
Your debts are paid cuz you don't pay for labor.
"We plant seeds in the South. We create."
Yeah, keep ranting,
We know who's really doing the planting.

The settler revolution's restriction of democratic rights and political power to white men of property is pointed out by some of Hamilton's most dynamic characters:

Angelica Schuyler:
I've been reading Common Sense by Thomas Paine
So men say that I'm intense or I'm insane.
You want a revolution? I want a revelation
So listen to my declaration.

Eliza/Angelica/Peggy Schuyler:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident
That all men are created equal"

Angelica Schuyler:
And when I meet Thomas Jefferson


Angelia Schuyler:
I'm 'a compel him to include women in the sequel!

WHILE THE character of Jefferson absorbs much of a liberal audience's misgivings about the profound contradictions of the early U.S., Hamilton remains relatively immune from Miranda's critical historical eye. He is depicted in the threads of a tragic hero, as in the musical's opening number, in the words of the character John Laurens:

The ten-dollar Founding Father without a father
Got a lot father
By workin' a lot harder
By bein' a lot smarter
By bein' a self-starter

For all of Miranda's awe at Hamilton's prolific ability to "write like you're running out of time," he carefully avoids some of Hamilton's other writings that express condescending suspicion of the political capabilities of women, the poor, Black slaves and the working class. For example, in a 1775 pamphlet titled "The Farmer Refuted," Hamilton wrote:

[I]n persons of indigent fortunes, or such as are under the immediate dominion of others, all popular states have been obliged to establish certain qualifications, whereby, some who are suspected to have no will of their own, are excluded from voting; in order to set other individuals, whose wills may be supposed independent, more thoroughly upon a level with each other.

Hamilton is conspicuously silent about its hero's own connections to slavery, as well as many other features of early U.S. history. While his title character raps, rhymes and rips through the South's dependence on slave labor, Miranda condones Hamilton's worship of the slave owner George Washington. If Miranda sees any flaws either in Hamilton himself or what he calls "the American Experiment," these are subordinated to the mythology of American Exceptionalism that the musical quietly cultivates:

Hey yo, I'm just like my country
I'm young, scrappy and hungry
And I'm NOT throwin' away my shot!

[The word "shot" will slip and slide through various meanings as the musical develops, sometimes referring to the importance of seizing revolutionary moments, and later referring to the "shot" from Hamilton's gun in his duel with Burr.]

DURING MOMENTS like this, any criticisms of the new nation established by white settlers in North America seem to dissolve under the kitsch portrayals of a "young, scrappy and hungry" country.

We can tap our feet to the exhilarating string section during the musical bridge of the number "Yorktown" or the various "throw-down" debates at a Continental Congress, while easily forgetting that the North Carolina delegation to this same Continental Congress openly declared the rationale for the genocide of Native Americans, in these words quoted in Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz's brilliant book An Indigenous People's History of the United States:

The gross infernal breach of faith which [the Cherokees] have been guilty of shuts them out from every pretension to mercy, and it is surely the policy of the Southern Colonies to carry fire and Sword into the very bowels of their country and sink them so low that they may never be able again to rise and disturb the peace of their Neighbors.

Indeed, the Indigenous peoples of North America receive no mention in Miranda's tragedy--a characteristic omission in art that emerges from settler-colonial societies like Israel or the U.S., as both the Indigenous of North America and the Palestinians must remain "other" in the "origin stories" of their occupiers.

To do otherwise would frustrate the sympathy that Miranda wants us to feel for the charismatic personalities he puts before us--and undermine the audience's excitement for the rebellion in the British colonies that would never have been possible but for the ethnic cleansing of Indigenous peoples from their land.

In this sense, Hamilton, regrettably, is an example of the treacherous connection between liberalism and critical narratives of national mythology, a partnership that often transforms sober appreciations of history into defenses of sentimentality. Despite a narrative so pregnant with the overtones of tragedy, the worst atrocities of American history are more likely to be forgiven or accepted by audiences than condemned.

Hamilton reveals the political limits of historical narratives built around the stories of "great men," which to this day remains the method of biographies like Ron Chernow's Alexander Hamilton, which served as Miranda's inspiration and resource as he developed the musical.

Hamilton is as contradictory as the bourgeois revolution it portrays. Nevertheless, these criticisms shouldn't obscure the virtues of Miranda's beautifully constructed and superbly performed work.

Alexander Hamilton was indeed a complex historical figure, who to his credit harbored more nuanced views on the colonies' oppressed minorities than his contemporaries. His class background makes him a natural subject for Miranda's noble effort to cultivate a people's history of the early years of the U.S. "It feels important, because it allows us to see ourselves as part of history that we always thought we were excluded from," Miranda told a New Yorker writer.

Indeed, Hamilton's glorious images of armed people of color revolting against a white oppressor--a symbol of the white supremacy that underlies the capitalist system of today--certainly attest to some of Hamilton's deepest and most profound radical aspirations.

Further Reading

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