In 2021, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s work seems more cancerous than ever: a remaking of the American myth as an excuse to elide the bloodshed upon which it was founded.
Midway through the second act of Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda sings, “In the eye of a hurricane, there is quiet.” While Miranda’s voice is hilariously off-key and his lyrics goofily on the nose, there’s a truth in those words. Not about the way tropical storms operate. Not about Alexander Hamilton’s decision to publish his sexual indiscretions in the infamous Reynolds Pamphlet, but in the impotence of Lin-Manuel Miranda as a writer and a cultural figure.
It’s suitable that Miranda’s only worthwhile insight into himself and the world would come accidentally, but considering that his blockbuster musical about this nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury came about in such a period of political turmoil and said so little that it united Dick Cheney and Barack Obama in fandom speaks to the danger of Miranda’s rather worthless vision of art and history that as somehow enraptured so many.
This is a long way of saying that Lin-Manuel Miranda sucks ass — not only because his art sucks ass, although it very much does in my opinion, he also sucks because he uses his sucky art as a sort of progressive shield, and often gets away with it. He seems to like the medium of hip-hop and rap because it’s cool and trendy, and therefore he automatically gets cool and trendy points from white liberals who are too scared to venture into any real grittiness that Black hip-hop actually affords. In early June, Buzzfeed published an article asking how Miranda’s image flipped from “cool” to “corny” in the last year, acting as though criticisms of the Hamilton mastermind were new. Not only is this an insult to those who have been spotlighting the dangerous and disingenuous image that Miranda has created for himself for over half a decade, but it misses the point. Yes, Miranda is corny, but that’s not the problem. Yes, Miranda bites his lip like an alien imposter coaxing you to do “human intimacy things,” but that’s not the issue. Absolutely, Lin-Manuel Miranda couldn’t sing to save his life (or Alexander Hamilton’s) but that’s not what makes his work and his weaponization of that work’s faux-wokeness so insidious.
It would be easy, and I think correct, to call Lin-Manuel Miranda’s work minstrelsy. In fact, Hamilton is the ugliest form of minstrelsy: a remaking of the violent colonization and anti-Blackness upon which this country was built as a neoliberal bit of pageantry. And since he only has one song structure he can write for, his desire to turn Black and Afro-Latinx identity into a grotesque shuck and jive is undermined in that he can only write for jive over and over, while forcing his audience to imagine and worship the shuck, and happily so.
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s understanding of Washington Heights is similar to how someone who rents a house in Nantucket understands the experience of the fisherman for whom the ocean and the island is a means of survival. While Miranda grew up in Washington Heights, he fails to acknowledge what part of the neighborhood in which he spent his childhood. In The Heights, thus, feels like a sort of masturbatory tourism, a study in leering and self-serving adjacency. While Miranda depicts a character struggling with the dual identities of being an Ivy League student with working-class roots, this is fundamentally disingenuous coming from a Wesleyan graduate who had no such roots. After all, his mother was a clinical psychologist, and his father a long-time consultant for the Democratic party.
The struggle and dissonance he seems to deploy as a lampshade for his own academic privilege is bullshit upon bullshit, considering that the only dissonance he could possibly experience is between the reality of his upbringing and the myth in which he’s clothed himself. He’s a spectator even to the fake history he’s assigned to himself. His vision of the “real” Washington Heights can only exist on stage or screen because it’s a construction, a set, a creation, a self-indulgent simulacrum. It demands a suspension of disbelief that has not only allowed the songwriter to catapult himself into the modern pop-cultural pedagogy of the Americas and their history, but also to mask the tangible harm that he does off-stage, to those he purports to elevate.
Meanwhile, in the real world, his idea of bringing relief to the island of Puerto Rico was bringing home the story of how great America is. In the aftermath of the 2017 hurricanes that devastated the island, he thought that putting on a special showing of Hamilton would be the best bet at driving a tourism profit.
Coming from anyone else, this gesture would likely be seen as tone-deaf at most. But coming from him, it becomes a tool of imperialism. He is ostensibly raising awareness for a cause that’s close to his heart, the betterment and rebuilding of the island, but he is also wielding the idea of statehood in the faces of poor Puerto Ricans who just want the chance to decide what sovereignty looks like for them.
This gesture, by the way, came after he voiced his continuous support for PROMESA, an Obama-era bill signed into law after Puerto Rico fell into economic recession in 2006. Under PROMESA, a fiscal oversight and management board was established. The unelected members of this group were tasked with reducing Puerto Rico’s debt by any means necessary, which ultimately meant severe budget cuts in public services like health, infrastructure, and schooling across the island. Miranda took a page out of his “activist” daddy’s book with this lobbying venture, a move his father would later repay by trying to carry his newest campaign consulting firm on the success of Hamilton.
Miranda’s lineage is a key component of his work, especially because he goes out of his way to not acknowledge it. When Hamilton envisions Alexander Hamilton as an immigrant from the Caribbean who made good and shaped US history, what gets lost is the truth that the real-life Hamilton was a white man from a white family who migrated to the Caribbean due to European exploitation of the islands therein. Similarly, Miranda portrays himself as a new and exciting voice, disrupting the status quo despite being the child of two parents with incredible influence on the status quo. By obfuscating his comfort while emphasizing his immigrant narrative, he’s empowered the lie of meritocracy at the heart of the United States’ mythology. If only his attempt to reckon with American history had any honesty or merit.
In both Hamilton and In The Heights, Miranda gestures to the horror of the transatlantic slave trade, but as little more than set dressing for the story of the great American melting pot. In the opening of Hamilton—which fails to acknowledge Alexander Hamilton’s participation in slave auctions—the audience is told, “And every day while slaves were being slaughtered and carted away/Across the waves, he struggled and kept his guard up/Inside, he was longing for something to be a part of/The brother was ready to beg, steal, borrow, or barter” as though this could be treated as mere background for Alexander Hamilton’s journey. Sure, incredible violence is being inflicted on Black slaves, but look, Sally Hemings is gleefully fetching Thomas Jefferson’s mail—“Sally, be a lamb, darlin’ won’t cha open it?”—and doing a fun little shimmy back to her master/rapist.
Miranda’s willingness to casually invoke genocide as flavoring for his vision of the US as a haven for immigrants ranges from ahistorical to irresponsible to grotesque. Not only is grouping slaves with immigrants a disgusting bit of rhetorical violence, but the refusal to acknowledge the role of US imperialism in driving so many Latin American refugees to the hostile and hateful shores of this nation is just the sort of erasure that lets you know how detached Miranda is from the truth of the communities for which he has designated himself spokesperson, spokes-rapper, and atonal spokes-singer. The immigrant experience that he deems a melting pot is boiling people alive day by day, but Miranda is happy to see it as mere flavor for his otherwise bland and stale white supremacist dreck.
Later this year Miranda will make his directorial debut with a screen adaptation of Jonathan Larson’s Tick Tick…Boom! for Netflix. For the time being, it appears that Lin’s star continues to rise into the firmament of bullshit appraisal. It’s vital, however, for us all to ask ourselves how he got here, what the impact of his ascendency is, and the inescapable danger of his inescapably mediocre art. In a time where the allowances that liberalism bestows upon fascism are unavoidable, Miranda’s work seems more cancerous than ever: a remaking of the American myth as an excuse to elide the bloodshed upon which it was founded.
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