“Hamilton” at the MLA

, Spencer Irvine, 1 Comment

“Hamilton,” a popular Broadway hip-hop musical, has now made it into the Modern Language Association consciousness. At the 2017 convention held in Philadelphia, one professor dissected the significance of the musical for minorities in America.

Scott Poulson-Bryant, an assistant professor at Fordham University who teaches African-American literature in the 20th century, pop culture, gender and sexuality studies, said that there is a “history of blackness in the theater space.” He pointed out that “hip-hop music is based on the beat” and it often can “convey a heavy blend of…bravado.” In “Hamilton,” it aims “to give us the story of an American immigrant, destined for revolution,” said Poulson-Bryant. One of the most significant lines to him was the line, “What’s your name” and it is a “recurring question” throughout the musical.

He praised “Hamilton” because “it dares to cast black and Latino performers as America’s Founding Fathers.” His immediate concern isn’t about “this cross-racial casting of the musical,” but rather how the blackness of “Hamilton” resonated with him. He pointed out how black musical talent was appreciated on Broadway, “The appreciation of the pop standards between the 1920s and 1960s” illustrated how “African-American talent…[was] not just an increasing erasure of black performers from the Broadway stages.”

To him, “a white-washing of jazz music” was already underway and unfortunately, “this cohort of musical reviews” tried to do some “restorisizing” of black American music. One would assume that he meant the restoration of black American music. However, he alleged that “there is often very little mention of them [black musicians like Fats Waller and Duke Ellington] next to Gershwin and [Irving] Berlin.” He said, “Few [black musicians] are awarded ‘greatness’ as is afforded white musicians.” Poulson-Bryant said that retelling the story of black music is “a reclamation project…for these composers.” He aimed “to correct the erasure…to enshrine [black musicians] as a building block of Broadway music.” In his mind, he “saw their cultural work, not in history, but… ‘as history.’”

Poulson-Bryant said that this is “heritage-sustaining cultural work [of] vocalization” and that he is “more interested in the sonic possibilities” of the “Hamilton” musical. Due to the “lack of written-down history for African-Americans,” he said that these kinds of “performances [are] a subversive” approach to teaching and keeping history. He is not pleased with the “cultural appropriations of Broadway” because of the “invisible” and “bereft” representation of black musicians in history. “These performances,” he said, “constitute history of themselves.” He praised rap and hip-hop music due to their “moment of cross-cultural exchange where personal narratives” can be focused on, and how “self-awareness” in “Hamilton” represents the self-awareness of hip-hop music as a whole.