115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

UpWord Mobility: Rhetoric and Social Justice in Hamilton

Amanda Hill, University of Central Florida

In this paper the authors borrow from rhetoric and social justice theories as well as historiography to explore the use and import of Hamilton’s hip hop poetics as a means of transcultural storytelling in an effort to expose the ways diverse rhetoric opens new channels of visualization knowledge and meaning making in dominant cultural narratives within changing political and cultural norms.

Proposal: 

Hamilton: An American Musical tells the story of Alexander Hamilton, the United States’ first Treasury Secretary. Before the musical’s Broadway opening, Hamilton’s contributions to the founding of the country’s government and his creation of the federal banking system were often relegated to the margins of textbooks. Like many of our founding fathers, Hamilton was the monochromatic figure of 200 years past and a name that graced some public buildings. However, rather than introduce him as an accomplished scholar, a career politician, and a decorated war veteran, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s libretto opens with three unlikely adjectives for a vaunted historical figure: “bastard,” “orphan,” and “son of a whore.” Hamilton thus challenges the visibility and reading of the traditional narrative of our country's forefathers by reimagining Hamilton and his contemporaries not as “great men,” but rather as “everymen.” The characterization makes Hamilton more relatable to common folk; he was an immigrant, a tireless worker, a loving and cheating husband. Where the authority presumed by the identity “forefather” distances common folk from Hamilton, in recognizing and centralizing Hamilton’s humanity and passion, the musical  shows justice and recognition for oft marginalized cultures in the United States.

In this paper the authors borrow from rhetoric and social justice theories as well as historiography to explore the use and import of the musical’s hip hop poetics as a means of transcultural storytelling in an effort to expose the ways diverse rhetoric opens new channels of visualization  and meaning making in dominant cultural narratives within changing political and cultural norms. They consider how the use of hip hop poetics drives the narrative and affects societal understandings of power in history. Hamilton not only succeeds in challenging the dominant visual representation of our founding fathers, but challenges the way America consumes and tells historical narratives. By combining hip hop poetics with American history and musical theatre, Hamilton recognizes the importance of marginalized rhetoric. Postmodern and hip hop scholar Russell A. Potter writes, “. . . African-American cultures have mobilized, via a network of localized sites and nomadic incursions, cultures of the found, the revalued, the used . . .” (108). Miranda carries this tradition forward, sampling from myriad sources like historical letters and papers written by and about Alexander Hamilton, Ron Chernow’s contemporary biography, classic hip hop styles, and musical theatre structures. By seamlessly integrating and celebrating many voices, Miranda breaks down hierarchies of rhetoric that value “academic” over “street” vernacular. In Hamilton, America’s founding fathers and hip hop’s founding fathers remind us that history, like the text, can be participatory, intersectional, and liberating.

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