An Open Letter to White Hamilton Fans (From Another White Hamilton Fan)
I have never been a very avid music listener. I connect more immediately and more deeply to art that tells complete, narrative stories. Because of this tendency (and because of a brief stint as a drama kid in high school) my love for musical music is exponentially more developed than my love for any other specific kind of music. So, naturally, when Hamilton appeared on my radar, I jumped at the chance to love something so cool and so objectively good. And, I did. I loved (and continue to love) it so intensely.
After first discovering it, and as I continued to let my love for the music and the actors and the otherworldly perfection that is Lin-Manuel Miranda grow, I began to think about the show as a piece of art that influences the world in a way that is not entirely constructed or even approved by its creators. A friend of mine, one who has been reluctant to surrender her soul to Hamilton, said to me the other day that part of her reluctance comes from knowing how easy the show makes it for white people to detachedly consume rap and hip-hop. And it’s true, at least in my case. As I mentioned, I’ve never spent a lot of time listening to music. That Hamilton draws so intentionally and explicitly from the genres it does—a fact I’ve always known and genuinely think is cool and relevant—hasn’t actually affected how I interact with it or with music in general. I don’t know anything more about rap and hip-hop than I did before I listened to Hamilton.
It’s not exactly that I haven’t considered doing my research to try and understand the context the show relies on. It’s more that it hasn’t been a priority. Now, especially in light of the mixtape, it seems like I’ve been letting myself get away with something that’s inherently unfair to the show and its complicated relationship to the music and history it depends so entirely on. I am also realizing how that sort of listening experience may be more of the norm than the exception.
In some ways, The Hamilton Mixtape seems like a response to this sort of shallow, semi-appropriative engagement with the show and the music. Unlike the original, there’s no way to listen to it without considering the context. It’s no longer sufficient to just vaguely recognize allusions to racism and then, without missing a beat, sing along as King George III promises to send more troops if the rebels don’t surrender.
My point, I suppose, is that if we’re going to love Hamilton, we have to hold ourselves accountable; we have to understand its cultural context and influence. And I don’t mean the history of the American Revolution—that is arguably the least important context. I mean the history of rap and hip-hop music and the more recent commercialization (by white capitalist industries and consumers) of those same genres. I mean the history and current state of racism and classism, and all of the reasons why it is disingenuous to separate that oppression from the music that grew out of it. Hamilton is not just another musical, and we can’t engage with it as if it were. It has literally hundreds of years of context layered into it and it is ultimately irresponsible to ignore that.
The fact that Hamilton sounds fun and pop-y and makes white people (me included) feel like we’re being socially conscious consumers of media doesn’t automatically mean that we have a claim to it. We don’t. We can’t forget that it’s our privilege that allows us to separate the show from its context while we binge-watch Ham4Ham and make jokes on Tumblr about Lin adopting Anthony Ramos. Loving Hamilton is something fraught with responsibility—it’s up to us to figure out how to best and most sincerely shoulder it.