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  • "Young, Scrappy, and Hungry":Hamilton, Hip Hop, and Race
  • Loren Kajikawa (bio)

Hamilton literally wrote a verse to get him off an island—that's the most hip hop shit ever. He transcends the struggle, and if you look at your favorite rapper, that's most likely what they did.

—Lin-Manuel Miranda1

In the period coinciding with the final years of Barack Obama's presidency and the vitriolic 2016 presidential battle between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, Hamilton: An American Musical became the hottest ticket on Broadway, opened a second production in Chicago, and racked up a plethora of awards and honors.2 In the midst of a national context charged with race, gender, and class divisions, the musical also became a political symbol. Although some critics have expressed concern that Hamilton reinforces a white-centered Founders myth by making George Washington and Thomas Jefferson seem cool to a new generation, more fans seem to have been inspired by the way the production writes women and people of color into the story of Revolutionary War hero and first US treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton.3 Relying primarily on black and Latinx actors, Hamilton has earned praise for its bold reimagining of US history. As Lin-Manuel Miranda, the musical's creator and first to star in its title role, put it: "This is a story about America then, told by America now."4

Scholars of US history and politics have shown that throughout American history—from George Washington to Donald Trump—executive power has been linked to the president's role as a symbol of national identity.5 Although Alexander Hamilton was never president, his status [End Page 467] as a Founder who arguably did more than some US presidents to chart the early course of the nation makes him a powerful vehicle for projecting different ideas about the kinds of people who truly embody American values. Through its unconventional casting and by reminding viewers of Hamilton's origins in the Caribbean islands, the musical places marginalized groups at the center of the American experiment. As Elizabeth Craft documents in her contribution to this issue, Hamilton manages to appeal to fans from across the political spectrum while claiming "cultural citizenship" for the United States' immigrant and minority communities.6

Although most writing about the musical's take on national identity begins with its casting, Hamilton has worked even for those fans unable to experience it live. As demand for tickets and the costs associated with traveling to New York City to attend a Broadway production drove prices out of reach for many would-be theatergoers, most fans experienced the musical via its Grammy Award–winning cast recording. Produced with help from the Roots' Questlove (Ahmir Thompson) and Black Thought (Tariq Trotter), the album deftly blends musical theater, hip hop, R&B, and other influences and has been a central but often overlooked aspect of Hamilton's popularity. This article focuses on the music of the musical. In particular, it explores how Miranda's engagement with hip hop's history, culture, and aesthetics contributes meaningfully to his retelling of the Founders story. By examining the cast recording as well as Miranda's public statements about his creative decisions, we can hear how the musical participates in the ongoing struggle to define national identity.7

A Hip Hop Musical?

Similar to the way it appeals to fans of different political stripes, Hamilton attracts a broad audience with differing musical tastes. Although it has been labeled a "hip hop musical" in numerous reviews and think pieces, Miranda and his team deliberately named the production Hamilton: An American Musical.8 The potential slippage between these two adjectives—"hip hop" (often understood as black and oppositional) and "American" (often assumed to be white and mainstream)—hints at the stakes of the musical's reception. Miranda's writing for the show successfully negotiates this tension, appealing to audiences that do not consider themselves rap music fans while also convincing dedicated hip hop listeners of his sincere engagement with the genre.9 This achievement is no small feat, given hip hop's "keeping it real" ethos and its fans' willingness to shun works that seem lacking...


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