U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Lin-Manuel Miranda: Latino Public Intellectual (Part 2)

[Editorial note:  the following essay is a guest post by Kahlil Chaar-Pérez.]

Lin-Manuel Miranda: Latino Public Intellectual (Part 2)

by Kahlil Chaar-Pérez

In my first post about Lin-Manuel Miranda, I wrote about the politics of Hamilton, looking at how the Broadway musical reconstructed the U.S. quintessential narrative of individual opportunity for the Obama era.  One cannot emphasize enough how much the musical’s success is rooted in its hip-hop aesthetics, as the Hamilton soundtrack’s own popularity shows. Questlove, the famed drummer from The Roots who helped produce the soundtrack, has mentioned in interviews that he “feel[s] the spirit of hip-hop” through Hamilton.  According to him, this feeling is connected to Miranda’s canny use of rap,  which does away with the typical structure of spoken dialogue and song one finds in musicals. Furthermore, the rhymes, tunes, and beats that form the backbone of Hamilton constitute a reverential archive of references to hip-hop artists and songs from the 1990s and early 2000s, with the Notorious B.I.G. at its center.[1]  Hamilton’s celebratory sampling enacts one of the essential elements of the hip-hop genre: its creative incorporation of other songs, which are of course not limited to any genre (the musical itself also draws from pop and rock music and even a traditional show tune, sung by the King of England).   As Questlove puts it: “Hip-hop, at its heart, draws on old pieces of multiple traditions but gives them a new context and new life.”

Questlove’s main point is essentially that, by mashing hip-hop with the Broadway musical, Hamilton exalts both artistic forms, breathing a “new life” into them.  This “new life” is based on the U.S. ethos of “boisterous diversity” that President Obama sees in the musical: through its brown and black actors and its aesthetic hybridity, Hamilton stages the gradual diversification of the Great White Way, as seen in musicals like The Color Purple, Dancegirls, Fela, and Miranda’s own In the Heights. Within the mainstream boundaries of Broadway, Miranda’s celebration of diversity and hip-hop culture follows the logic of cultural recognition that took form in the post-civil rights era, often through a liberal rhetoric of multiculturalism that limited itself to a politics of representation and visibility, without tackling the deep structural inequalities that communities of color have continually struggled against. Since the heyday of the so-called era of multiculturalism, the marketing forces of mainstream and social media have had no problems in turning racial and ethnic difference into ever more individualized commodities for the pleasure and care of the self.  Perhaps the most significant social phenomenon to develop the Obama years, the Black Lives Matter movement emerged in part as a call against these politics of recognition, against a world that reduces the empowerment of African Americans (as well as Latinxs and other marginalized groups) to the path of individual opportunity and visibility.  As the applause of conservative heavyweights like Dick Cheney and Rupert Murdoch demonstrates, Hamilton’s aspirational “revolution” ends up being rather quaint against the background of BLM or even Colin Kaepernick’s protest.

This is not to devalue Hamilton as just another commodity or as mere ideology (especially in the context of escalating racism among Trump supporters and the alt-right), but to recognize the limitations of its cultural politics.  One should also not forget the constraints the Great White Way imposes: the hegemony of whiteness is even starker in Broadway than in film and television.  And, as Warren Hoffman has noted, “the myth of the American Dream” is part and parcel of the narrative of successful musicals, even in cases where strife and pain are dealt with through the portrayal of non-white characters (A Chorus Line, for instance).[2]  As a great admirer of the musical tradition, Miranda did not stay away from this narrative: at the end of the day, Hamilton is a tragic yet uplifting archetypal story of individual drive with which most can empathize.

But what narrative does Miranda articulate then, through and beyond Hamilton, in respect to his Puerto Rican background, as he actively intervenes in the public arena?  In my next post, I will finally tackle the phenomenon of Miranda as a Latino figure, untangling the political and cultural knots that surround his public persona.

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[1] Throughout its numerous footnotes the Hamilton book explains in detail the different ways in which the musical samples hip-hop culture in general.

[2] Hoffman traces the history of racial performance in Broadway in his book The Great White Way: Race and the Broadway Musical, published in 2014.

Kahlil Chaar-Pérez is an independent scholar whose work addresses Caribbean and U.S. Latino aesthetics and politics from the nineteenth century to the present. He has a forthcoming article in the collection Uncle Tom’s Cabins: The Transnational History of America’s Most Mutable Book, to be published by University of Michigan Press.

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Like Tim. I’m looking forward to the next installment too. I really enjoyed the first one and this one too. I used a couple of the rap battles between Hamilton and Jefferson in a class in prison over the summer and it totally clicked in ways that I couldn’t have expressed myself.

    Your post raises a couple of questions for me about the relation between culture/politics, and cultural politics.

    The sharp point you made there at the end about genre here really sealed the deal for me. In a sense, Miranda’s respect for the American dream/Horatio Alger narrative/tradition of Broadway musicals meant he had to work within certain parameters. (Garry Wills figured Richard Nixon was the “last liberal” all the way back in 1968. Boy was he wrong. That old tune still had a lot of life in it yet.) So is it that Broadway, because of the conventions of the musical genre, set constraints such that Miranda was limited in what he could do politically, or is it that Miranda “changed the joke and slipped the yoke” to use a phrase Ralph Ellison liked, where those previously on the outside transformed a genre by an inversion or playful subversion of the elements of the genre itself? In other words, sure, maybe Dick Cheney digs the musical, but does he really get what’s going on or not? I’m not saying I know the answer to that question, but your post made me think about it anew. (It gets into reception of the work, doesn’t it.) Thanks for this. I’ll be reading that next one with interest.

    • Peter, thanks for this comment! I should have noticed it before, perhaps the election circus influenced me in not checking again if folks had replied to my post.

      I think that Hamilton is subverting some of the conventions of Broadway, without a doubt. But there is a very limited space for radical subversion if the aim is to create successful Broadway musical. Another way to analyze Hamilton is to focus on the aesthetic and narrative norms that it reproduces, how for example it is still all about creating a feel good storyline that even Cheney can empathize with–even if he cannot recognize the musical’s subversions. One can add also how the gender politics of the musical are quite conservative, as some critics have stated.

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