The second problem with Hamilton is its glorification of the creation myth of the United States. Of course, the aura which surrounds that myth disintegrates utterly on contact with certain historical facts.
Let us overlook for a moment the true nature of the supposedly anticolonial ‘revolution’, which ‘at bottom… was a fight between commercial interests in England and America’, precipitated by men of wealth drawn from the colonial ruling class.5
Let us acknowledge instead that between 1776 and 1887 the U.S. ‘seized over 1.5 billion acres from America’s indigenous people’, who were bestialised as ‘merciless Indian savages’ in its Declaration of Independence. Let us recall the author of that document, a slave-raping racist who, like seven other presidents, including this one, owned dozens of black people as property. Let us remind ourselves that, all in all, untold millions were brutalised by mass enslavement, and that after the last of them were freed — their forced labour having built the country — it was their masters who received reparations.
These facts form the wellspring from which the rest of U.S. history, bloody and ignoble as it is, issues forth. They should be fatal to anyone’s enjoyment of Hamilton, which unforgivably erases them.
We wouldn’t fall over ourselves to praise a show in which black South Africans glorified the system of apartheid, or Afrikanerdom more generally, by dressing up as Krugers and Verwoerds. We would recognise right away the perversity of a production that sought to ‘reclaim’ history for Aboriginal Australians by having a cast composed of them aggrandise the white invaders who literally considered their kind unpeople. And we would struggle indeed to get much pleasure out of observing Gazans, say, cosplay, with untrammeled glee, the birth of the state that ethnically cleansed their forebears. Why, then, should we respond any more favourably to a sick attempt at recasting Amerikkka’s genocidal heritage?
Finally there is Miranda’s desecration of hip-hop music.
A few years ago, Lowkey unassailably stated that ‘hip-hop, at its very best, has exposed power. It hasn’t served power.’ If we allow that Hamilton is in fact hip-hop, and not merely parasitic upon the form and the swagger of hip-hop, then we cannot deny that it does the latter. This much would seem to be equally unassailable.
Of course, the recuperation of hip-hop began some decades ago, when ‘major-label superpowers’ swooped — in the time-honoured manner of Yankee kleptocrats — to loot and pollute a culture they had no connection to. These corporations, controlled by old white men, succeeded in glamourising the mindless pursuit of ‘fat chains, sex and Tecs’, or what Raekwon once called the ‘jungle royal life, livin’ villain’. To all intents and purposes, they created what came to be known as gangsta rap.
In so far as it glorifies violence, such music can be said to have introjected the values of real gangsters, namely those in corporate boardrooms and on Capitol Hill. But more consequentially it perpetuates racist stereotypes of young black men and functions as advertising for the prison-industrial complex, which derives a huge chunk of its profits from racialised mass incarceration. And so it would not be controversial to assert that hip-hop, or at least the bastardised version of hip-hop sold by major labels, has, at times and in places, served the ends of the white power structure.6
But never before has hip-hop heaped hosannas on the men who helped to build that oppressive-exploitative structure. Never before has this art-form been severed so cleanly from its roots and commandeered to sanitise the system it was born denouncing. Never, in other words, has it served power as openly and earnestly as it does in Hamilton, whose ultimate purpose, it must be remembered, is to sell the notion that ‘[Amerikkka] is great because [Amerikkka] is good’. This is all part of what makes the show so execrable.
Those who sincerely wish to understand Amerikkka through the medium of hip-hop are advised to listen to BDP, 2Pacalypse Now or even the latest album by Joey Bada$$. Those who are thrilled by Hamilton will, for obvious reasons, find these and similar recommendations most unpalatable.
All that remains to do is explain how, exactly, the ‘hip-hop musical’ has grown to become a Cultural Phenomenon. To do this satisfactorily we need only identify the groups of people to whom it appeals most.
Firstly there are the cultural managers in the print and broadcast media. These people were bound to love the show. After all, the corporations that employ them operate to select for and reward ideological conformity, one key substrate of which is what Herman and Chomsky, towards the end of Manufacturing Consent, labelled ‘elemental patriotism’: that is, the ‘overwhelming wish7 to think well of ourselves, our institutions, and our leaders.’ Anything that serves — as Hamilton does — to redeem or reinforce this patriotism, this belief in the comforting illusion of Amerikkka’s essential goodness, will therefore always be seized upon by journalists and enthusiastically promoted. Hence Hamilton has been lauded for ‘respecting history’, for ‘remaining faithful to the historical record’, for ‘presenting the birth of the nation in a necessary light’ and for ‘showing that America’s history belongs to men and women of color as profoundly as to anyone else’. As criticism all this is ten times more pernicious — more abject — than merely gushing that the show ‘exceeds its own acclaim’ or is ‘exhilarating’, ‘chills-producing’ and a ‘transformative theatrical experience’ — though such hyperbole is, at bottom, tendentious enough.8
Secondly, and no less significantly, you have the average white liberal, who is anxious in this, the age of Trump, to demonstrate that they are most assuredly not racist. Going gaga over Hamilton permits them, one supposes, to quiet that anxiety, albeit at a price. For in applauding the show — which, after all, puts the ‘performative’ in ‘performative wokeness’ — these liberals reveal themselves to be wholly indifferent towards the fundamental nature of Amerikkka itself. Indeed they seem unaware that their compulsion to ostentatiously embrace anything that seems on its face to be ‘diverse’ and ‘inclusive’ has, at least this time, led them to grab at a colossal red herring — one whose stench fairly clings to them.
5. (n 3).
6. Many a hip-hop artist has spat about this state of affairs and its effects on black identity, few of them as lucidly as Mos Def on Black Star’s exquisite “Thieves in the Night” (1998). (As far as UK hip-hop is concerned, the first of Akala’s masterful Fire In The Booths will never be surpassed.)
7. Supported, of course, by ‘the required doctrines of benevolence (possibly gone awry), inexplicable error, good intentions, injured innocence, and so on.’
8. Still, there is one claim made of the show that inarguably does ring true: in view of its radically revisionist treatment of historical truth, we must agree with the Guardian that Hamilton is indeed ‘changing the world’.