Wednesday, September 30, 2015

How Eloquence Made History Class Cool Again

On May 12, 2009, the White House hosted an evening of poetry, music, and the spoken word. Lin-Manuel Miranda, a lyricist, musician, actor, and recent Tony Award winner, was invited to the event to share a little project he had been working on. Miranda, who is known for his fast paced and witty hip-hop songs, got up onstage and said, "I'm thrilled the White House called me here tonight because I'm actually working on a hip-hop album. It's a concept album about the life of someone I think embodies hip-hop: Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton." His idea was met with a bought of laughter from the audience, including President Obama. Of course the idea seemed silly. Who would ever associate our founding fathers with the musical influence of Eminem or John Legend? Miranda continued his presentation and stumbled through a rap that chronicled the early life of Secretary Hamilton. The audience occasionally erupted into laughter at the absurdity of the concept, but Miranda was rewarded with a warm applause as he left the stage. 
Lin-Manuel Miranda at the White House in 2009
Since that night at the White House, Miranda has performed his award winning musical "In The Heights" hundreds of times, and has been thrown into numerous projects in the performing world. The Hamilton album seemed to become Miranda's background project. Yet, here we are six years later, and Miranda has not given the world a Hamilton album, but rather the most envied ticket on Broadway. Behind the scenes all these years, Miranda turned his concept album into a full blown musical, and no one is laughing at him now. The musical, entitled "Hamilton", is completely sold out at the Richard Rodgers theater until January 2016. Luckily, a cast album was released on NPR a few weeks ago. And as much as it pains me to say it, NPR just dropped the hottest mixtape of the year. Tumblr is exploding with praise for the album and the internet is already predicting "Hamilton"s inevitable Tony Award sweep. I sat down and listened to the entire album in one day and was completely blown away by its brilliance. However, I couldn't help but notice that the opening number of the show is nearly word for word what Miranda performed at the White House in 2009. This made me wonder why he was met with laughter in 2009 and nothing but sincere praise now. I listened to Miranda, who plays the role of Hamilton, eloquently share the story of the founding of our nation and realized eloquence was exactly why the show was receiving such accolades. Miranda chose to tell a story that has great significance to every American with "nearly Shakespearean" eloquence. The patriotic pathos, theatrical magic pathos, and beautiful wordplay make the music almost irresistible. My attention was immediately captured with the line, "The ten dollar founding father without a father got a lot farther by working a lot harder by being a lot smarter by being a self-starter. By fourteen, they placed him in charge of a trading charter." This is only the beginning of two hours of fantastically crafted lines, but I loved how the assonance and anaphora grabbed my attention before I even realized those figures were being used.

In class, we discussed how rap and hip-hop are some of the most common forms of eloquence today. Miranda's musical is the perfect example of this and I think it is also a perfect way to bring American history directly to high school students. The show's fierce political rap battles between Thomas Jefferson and Hamilton resonate wonderfully with the current culture of teenagers. Miranda even retweeted a video last week of a class of students attempting to rap along with him. By taking a piece of history and rewording it into art that catches attention, engages the mind, and stirs up emotion, Miranda has efficiently used rhetoric to prove that a hip-hop musical about our founding fathers is anything but ridiculous. Below I have embedded the opening song from the musical as well as one of the rap battles that exhibits both Miranda's eloquence and the actual rhetoric used by the original members of president Washington's cabinet.

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