Today’s release of two songs on the Hamilton Mixtape a long-awaited labor of love was a bright ray of sunshine during this cataclysmic storm of an election. My Shot (Rise Up Remix), by the Roots, featuring Busta Rhymes, shows definitively that Hamilton’s multiracial, up-to-the-minute portrayal in hip hop and song of idealized, distorted history was just the beginning of its cultural power.
Hamilton has become a cultural legend in its year and a half of existence. Accolades and superlatives cannot express the musical’s brilliance, beauty, and innovation; I am joined in this opinion by so many, from the Obamas to PBS to the corporate and government institutions funding opportunities for students to experience the groundbreaking show. Yes, I am a grown adult, and yes, upon listening I very quickly developed the intense fan-ship now known throughout the internet as “Hamilaria,” symptoms of which include playing/performing the album daily in the car; spouting verses and references (admittedly, to a possibly exasperating extent); and going into significant debt for a ticket with an obstructed view. For many of us, the excellent musical provided brilliant, Americana-themed escapism, especially needed during these troubling, pre-election days.
My musical- and hip hop-loving soul was enraptured, but my mind was still bothered about the ways in which history’s portrayal in Hamilton can be considered problematic or even offensive. Activist Ishmael Reed provocatively contends that having “black actors dress up like slave traders” does not mitigate the effects of presenting history in a way “that endowed slave traders and Indian eliminators the status of deities” (Counterpunch, 8/21/15). In The Public Historian (2/16), Rutgers scholar Lyra Monteiro compellingly analyzes Hamilton’s “erasure of black history.” The horrors of slavery, and its essential, foundational nature to the economic success of our country, are only glanced from a distance in Hamilton. Worse, abolitionist impulses are aggrandized, and slave owning is ignored or even joked about (Monteiro, also a fan of the show, has provided and interesting and thorough analysis of this elision).
As a white educator aligned with the goals of #BlackLivesMatter, I did not want to shy away from the possibility that Hamilton subtly supported white supremacy by focusing on the same “Dead White Males” treated as flawless heroes in most American History textbooks and classrooms (Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Loewen is a great source on this strong, nationalist tendency). Meanwhile, I’ve been enthralled by the work of Columbia professor Christopher Emdin, who focuses on the power of hip-hop and what he calls America’s “neo-indigenous cultures” to provide new, effective, sometimes therapeutic practices and philosophies for educators of today’s students.
Could Hamilton be a source of real, relevant learning about history, values, and life for today’s diverse students? Or was it a rendering, though in “neo-indigenous” hip hop, of elitist American history that we should all “learn important life lessons” from? My Shot (Remix) perhaps answered both of these questions in the affirmative. But these questions, the song told us, are just the beginning of understanding what Hamilton means and will mean as a masterwork of our American culture.
Inimitable creator Lin-Manuel Miranda has explicitly drawn connections between the historical and current struggles embodied in hip-hop music and his vision of Hamilton. He tweeted the lyric “I never thought I’d live past twenty. Where I come from some get half as many” in connection with the miscarriage of justice in the case of Tamir Rice. Analysts of lyrics have noted that “This is not a moment, it’s a movement” echoes the language of #BlackLivesMatter. Daveed Diggs’ verse at the BET Cypher (10/13/15) speaks volumes, in a characteristically hip hop, multi-layered, brilliant way: “Playing these dead presidents, I’m getting my reparations!”
My Shot (Remix) begins with the beat of soldiers marching, and the now-familiar strains of My Shot, but brings the musical commentary on contemporary social justice that partly inspired Hamilton full circle. Now, the revolutionary soldiers, the “young, scrappy and hungry” men who embody American hopes for freedom and democracy, are cast as today’s mistreated, misunderstood black youth: “When even role models tell us we’re born to be felons / We’re never getting’ into Harvard or Carnegie Mellon.” Now, the foundationally vital plans, poetry, and patriotism of Alexander Hamilton are compared to the way that one can never give up dreams in the face of the many obstacles he or she faces: “That’s why you hustle hard, never celebrate a holiday / That’ll be the day I coulda finally hit the lottery.” Hip hop’s mastery of using words to communicate multiple layers of meaning is on display here; Black Thought references ideas from Alexander’s refusal to “take a break” from his work in the show to today’s insistently hopeful (yet sadly desperate) widespread practice of playing the lottery daily.
Busta Rhymes’ voice, lyrics, and persona are, like Lin-Manuel Miranda’s mind, incomparable. Busta’s presence on the Mixtape attests to Miranda’s deep respect for the hip hop masters who inspired him. Customary growl calmed to a stern rumble, Busta adjures listeners to “Rise Up” today, implicating himself and all of us as responsible to work to improve society: “When are folks like me and you gonna rise up? Every city, every hood, we need to rise up.” Busta’s volume and intensity rise, and marchers for civil equality, women’s liberation, and voting rights, or against police brutality and prejudice, appear in the mind’s eye as an unbroken chain of quintessential American-ness, as American as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
The artists who created this remix evince passion and brilliance that make me proud to (in the words of Puerto Rican American rapper Joell Ortiz’s words, who also has a verse on the Roots’ song), “Be American, express how [I] feel, and take the credit.” Hamilton makes clear connections between history and modern life; Busta’s exhortation to “Rise Up” together and make a difference, despite the imposing odds stacked against many in society and against our society itself, could not have come at a better time.
Alison Dobrick, Ed.D. is Associate Professor of education at William Paterson University of New Jersey, and Director of the William Paterson University Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. She is currently working on HiPP (the Hamilton in Paterson Project) which brings Hamilton, hip hop education, and Paterson, NJ together for meaningful learning experiences in local history, hip hop music, and multiple literacies.