Learning from Culture: A Lesson from 'Hamilton'

When cultural phenomena happen, we have several options of how we are going to respond: condemn, critique, copy, or consume (Andy Crouch, Culture Making). The danger, however, comes when we only view culture through one of these lenses (Andy Crouch, Culture Making). Therefore, there are aspects of culture that we should be willing to view with an open mind because they can ultimately have a positive impact on culture. A recent and important cultural phenomenon which has positively impacted culture  is the Tony Award winning, Broadway Musical, Hamilton, by Lin-Manuel Miranda.

You might be thinking, “Hamilton? You mean someone actually wrote a musical about Alexander Hamilton?” Yes, Lin-Manuel Miranda actually wrote a hip-hop/rap musical about “The ten-dollar founding father without a father.

In 2008, Miranda picked up biographer Ron Chernow’s book on Alexander Hamilton while on vacation and was inspired to write a musical based on the life of this Founding Father.

Why hip-hop/rap for a Broadway musical? According to Miranda, “I [also] believe it is uniquely suited to tell Hamilton's story. Because it has more words per measure than any other musical genre. It has rhythm and it has density. And if Hamilton had anything in his writings it was this density.” In another interview, he said, “‘It's because the hip hop narrative is of writing your way out of your circumstances. I joked to someone else, I think all my favorite hip hop songs are really good musical theater 'I want' songs. I wanna get somewhere else. I wanna get my corner of the sky.’” The music of Hamilton is definitely not what is typical for Broadway, but it has proven to be successful beyond the box office.

Hamilton gives this generation a unique way to learn about history and the founding of America. Lyrics are often easier to remember than facts from a textbook and the lyrics of Hamilton provide an exciting way to learn facts about American history.

At the very start of the musical, a question is posed: “How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten Spot in the Caribbean by providence, impoverished, in squalor Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?” This question is answered throughout the course of the musical and leaves listeners/theatre goers with the legacy Alexander Hamilton left behind.

Politics could get personal during this time, so Miranda uses rap battles to convey the opposing positions. For example, Hamilton debates Thomas Jefferson over “Hamilton’s plan to assume state debt and establish a national bank[.]” arguing that “If we assume the debts, the union gets A new line of credit -- a financial diuretic How do you not get it? If we're aggressive and competitive The union gets a boost. You'd rather give it a sedative?”

Teacher Jim Cullen, from the Bronx, created a curriculum that revolves around the musical. “He designed an entire course centered on Hamilton (the figure) and Hamilton (the show). He’ll be teaching Hamilton: A Musical Inquiry in the fall. Students will be asked to sift through primary sources like George Washington’s farewell address and show tunes like ‘One Last Time’ and ‘Washington on Your Side’; one essay assignment is to pick a song from the cast recording and analyze it.” Other teachers like Patrick Sprinkle, from New York, and Angelica Davila, from Los Angeles, have done a similar thing.

Hamilton provides a impressive example of contextualizing a message. “Miranda wanted to connect America then with America now.” Therefore, the leading roles, including those of the Founding Fathers, are played by black and Latino actors, only the British characters are portrayed by the traditional Broadway actor. Often, when Christians look to contextualize the message of the gospel, they struggle between two extremes: keeping the message the way they have always known it or completely changing the message to fit the context they are reaching. However, there is often a failure to understand that there must be a balance in contextualizing the message. Miranda did not write Hamilton overnight. In fact, it took him 7 years of research and writing to complete the musical. Christians must realize that, just like Hamilton was not written overnight, contextualizing the gospel does not happen overnight; there has to be time spent studying, not only the gospel, but the culture of the people to whom the gospel is going.

Through Hamilton, Miranda shows that there can be a balance in contextualizing a message. He manages to brilliantly take the story of Alexander Hamilton and relate it to a new generation through something that reaches them: hip-hop/rap.