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Hamilton: Riff Off or Rip Off?

A cacophony of celebratory praise and criticisms have surrounded Hamilton upon its broadway debut in 2015, and now its premiere on Disney Plus. The billion dollar franchise, directed and starred in by Nuyorican, Lin Manuel Miranda, employs hip-hop and a diverse cast to tell the story of the founding fathers through the perspective of Alexander Hamilton. 

The praises given to Hamilton, with critical thought, become the points in which one may identify the exact downfalls of a show ultimately serving to present a sanitized review of history, favoring capitalism and colonialism. The praise allocated to Lin Manuel Miranda himself neglects to challenge his celebrity status and mass profit in context to the liberatory tradition of artists in the diaspora.

As pointed out by journalist Ed Morales and historian Annette Gordon-Reed, the image of Hamilton as an immigrant who gets the job done and abolitionist is misaligned with documented truth. In a CNN opinion piece, Morales reminds viewers that Hamilton attended elite schools paid for by trade companies, and placed property rights over the rights of Black people, signing off on the new Constitution which asserted that Black people are three-fifths of a person. 

Reed hones in on these aspects stating in an interview with the Harvard Gazette that “[Hamilton] was not an abolitionist, he bought and sold slaves for his in-laws and opposing slavery was never at the forefront of his agenda.” Reed continues to say that Hamilton “was not a champion of the little guy, like the show portrays. He was elitist. He was in favor of having a president for life.” 

In recognizing the history of Hamilton, viewers are left to reconcile if it is then possible to consume the play as fantasy when the play operates as cultural propaganda, drawing in mass profit, exploiting people of color’s hunger for representation and shaping politics.

In Disrupt the Chaos, a weekly panel held by the renowned Afro-Puerto Rican political commentator, educator and journalist, Rosa Clemente dug into these concepts. Clemente opens by frankly stating, “you have to ask yourself why are you riding so hard for one person, why are you riding so hard for a play that made over a million dollars?” 

Illustration: Rosa Colón Guerra is a comic artist and illustrator living in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Her work has been published in The Nib, The Believer, The Lily, and in the Eisner Winner Puerto Rico Strong by Lion Forge. Twitter/Instagram: @sodapopcomics

She then moves to articulate how Hamilton pacifies the desire for representation of people of color, especially Black and Afro-Latinx folks. “I think part of it is we hardly ever get to see Puerto Ricans be visible and be so-called accepted. Barack Obama loved the play and Oprah loved the play… but what was the play about? Who was Hamilton? Of course it can be fictionalized, but if it is fictionalized then don’t bring it into politics.” 

Unbeknownst to the wider public, in 2016 Lin Manuel Miranda wielded his celebrity status, as well as the cultural power of Hamilton, to advocate for the passing of PROMESA, despite the warnings of Boricuas and Nuyoricans alike who warned of future consequences. 

The bipartisan passing of PROMESA introduced a colonial legislation now responsible in part for the diminishment of social services, mass closings of schools, the raking in of profit from privatization and subsequent exodus of Puerto Ricans, who can not thrive in their home. 

Adding to the tensions is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s father, Luis A. Miranda, Jr., a powerful New York political consultant who is known by his disaster capitalism and has often employed the help of his son for business desires. Disney paid $75 million for the rights to Hamilton, adding to Lin Manuel Miranda’s $105,000 in weekly royalties from the musical. 

The juxtaposition between the harmful actions of the Miranda’s coupled by their intoxicating Puerto Rican pride reveals a disconnect frequent amongst Puerto Rican’s in the diaspora whose proximity to whiteness, allows them to reap benefits beneficial to themselves only. 

The summation of this dichotomy is articulated by Vanessa Perez Rosario, in her book “Becoming Julia de Burgos.”

“The current celebrity status of a few latino/as masks the racism, economic and political disenfranchisement of most members of the community,” Rosario writes. “However writers and artists have remembered, reinvented and riffed off Burgos in their efforts on behalf of inclusion, recognition and equal rights.”

A call in to accountability is required and can be centered in this longstanding tradition of liberatory art in the diaspora, which summons forth the memories of those who came before and reimagines the future.

Examples are found in Julia de Burgos, an Afro-Puerto Rican poet and activist during the 1930s whose prophetic work explored intersectional feminism, transnational solidarity, imperialism as well as colonialism; The Black youth of the early 70s in the Bronx, who created Hip-Hop as expression and resistance; Dominican poet, Sherezada (Chiqui) Vicoso, and Mexican visual artist Andrea Arroyo, whose works call attention to the gentrification of Latinx neighborhoods and further explore themes of social justice. 

The list of names and body of works continue forward, serving to confront Lin Manuel Miranda as he moves forward to decide whether he will riff-off or rip-off the tradition of liberation in the arts. 

Until Lin Manuel Miranda makes his decision, the responsibility falls on the viewer to assess the content one consumes per its implications. In the current racial reckoning, the truth of a nation’s past and present must be told, said best by author and journalist Roberto Lovato. “If we can liberate our political imaginations of things like Hamilton, we will start building even more imaginatory movements, liberatory movements.” 

#AbajoHamilton. Sign the petition today. 

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