Immigration is one of the most controversial topics in American culture, mostly due to a host of political issues associated with it. Despite a significant amount of research done on the subject, the public perception of immigration remains polarized. While some U.S. residents believe that the phenomenon has severe adverse effects on the well-being of the nation, others suggest that the negative effects are mitigated by the advantages associated with it and that immigration is actually beneficial for the economic situation in the country. The following paper argues that the artistic and narrative choices of Hamilton musical convey an inclusive message by actualizing the role of immigrants in the American culture. The argument is supported by the selective analysis of the musical’s soundtrack.
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Immigration in the U.S.
The immigration controversy has resulted in a number of mutually exclusive policies and regulations both on state and federal levels. The latest change in the legal landscape related to the issue of immigration was initiated by President Donald Trump in 2017. As a part of policies on border security, interior enforcement, and refugees, Trump rescinded several programs that were meant to protect the children of immigrants and their parents (Felter and Renwick).
This move is the most significant deviation from the path towards the relief of legal, social, and economic burden pursued in recent years. The state and local authorities remain equally polarized on the issue, with some states providing assistance in terms of education and social benefits while others are remaining restrictive to immigrants by introducing regulations and policies intended to assist their deportation (Felter and Renwick).
Overall, substantial progress has been made in the recent decade, including the introduction of a comprehensive reform proposed by the Senate in 2013. Nevertheless, the public perception of the phenomenon remains controversial. According to some estimates, more than 70 percent of Americans agree that immigrants are ultimately beneficial for the country and support creating more favorable conditions for them. However, it should be understood that such results do not necessarily represent an objective picture due to a number of subconscious biases. In other words, despite the improvement, immigration is yet to be universally approved.
This problem is especially important, considering the diversified social and cultural landscape of the U.S. and the world in general. It is possible to suggest that articulating the issue in a meaningful way and communicating it to the public it will have a positive social impact in the long term.
Hamilton Soundtrack Analysis
Hamilton, a highly successful musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda, reframes several important issues in the American culture by offering a new perspective on the early days of the nation. The shift in perception is achieved mainly through a culturally diversified cast and a bold move to use rap, hip-hop, and R&B as primary musical genres.
While the musical does not directly address the issue of immigration, it contains a number of subtle references to the phenomenon that contributes to the viewer’s understanding of its role in the development of the country. At the same time, the choice of music and lyrics ensure that the issues brought up in the narrative, and, by extension, the entirety of the depicted events are perceived as relevant in the modern world.
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In order to advance the analysis of specific lyrics, it is first necessary to attain a bird-eye view of the events as depicted in the musical. The story presented in Hamilton is a historical account of the life of Alexander Hamilton, one of the less celebrated figures in the early days of the nation’s foundation, obscured by the fame of the individuals such as Abraham Lincoln and George Washington. It should be emphasized that the historical component of the musical is relatively accurate, with only minor deviations that are permissible considering its entertaining nature.
The narrative follows Hamilton throughout his life path, from the tensions with the British authorities to his position of George Washington’s right hand and Secretary of the Treasury, the scandal that destroyed his reputation and marked his downfall, and, eventually, death at the duel with his adversary, Aaron Burr. At this point, it is worth mentioning that Alexander Hamilton, as a historical figure, was himself an immigrant, which is likely unknown to a substantial part of the audience.
Admittedly, the musical does acknowledge this fact in the opening sequence (the first song of the soundtrack, Alexander Hamilton, mentions it as a part of the chain of events that set the stage for the play. Nevertheless, it is not in any way emphasized and is used as a historical backdrop rather than a key element. In other words, the background of the character is not explicitly connected to the theme of immigration as a defining component of the American culture, but is consistent with the overall theme and should thus be acknowledged.
One of the main aspects of the musical that capitalizes on the multicultural nature of society is its musical choices. As was mentioned above, Hamilton strays away from the historically accurate depiction of the music of the era and instead frames the entire narrative using hip-hop, R&B, and rap tunes. It is possible to assert that such a move is primarily meant for bridging the perception gap for modern viewers and ensure that they can relate to the characters and challenges they face.
Nevertheless, it is important to acknowledge that hip-hop, as a genre, was established and developed as a result of cultural exchange between people with highly diverse ethnic backgrounds. While today it is attributed primarily to African American residents of the United States, the input of the immigrants of the Caribbean and Latin American origins is not to be ignored.
It should also be pointed out that since its introduction in the latter decades of the twentieth century, hip-hop has transcended the notion of underground movement associated with immigrant counterculture and has become one of the defining features of American mainstream culture. In addition, while the selection of topics covered in rap and hip-hop songs has greatly diversified, it is still strongly associated with the reflection on the social, political, and economic aspects of the immigrants’ lives. In other words, the selected musical genre reinforces the multicultural aspect of the musical and, in a broader sense, the society in general.
The texts used in the soundtrack further enhance the described effect by introducing numerous parallels and allusions to modern hip-hop culture. For instance, the recurring “What’s your name” sequence that can be heard in the opening theme of the musical is widely used in both classical and contemporary hip-hop songs, including the works of Rihanna and Snoop Dogg. In a similar manner, Hamilton’s statement of having one shot at living another day can be considered an allusion to Lose Yourself, which remains one of the hallmarks of the genre.
Finally, the soundtrack relies heavily on subtle elements used by rap musicians. For instance, the protagonist describes his life journey as a rise from the bottom, which is a common theme in rap music and resonates with the challenges underwent by immigrants. In the same manner, some of the words used in the soundtrack are immediately recognizable as specific to the culture – for instance, the exclamations “Ladies!” and “What?” bear a noticeable resemblance to the manner used by hip-hop artists.
As can be seen from the information above, the musical and narrative elements of Hamilton’s soundtrack bridge the gap in perception of historical events by converting them into the accessible and familiar format of a hip-hop album. By incorporating the themes and subtle references to the modern music scene, Hamilton makes the events depicted in the plot recognizable to modern viewers and actualizes the motives of the characters.
The direction taken by the music creates a strong case in favor of immigrants as an important part of modern American society. While the majority of references are subtle and may not be identified without substantial knowledge of the genre, it is an important step in communicating the historical importance of immigration as a phenomenon that continues to shape the social, economic, and political landscape of the country.
Felter, Claire, and Danielle Renwick. “The U.S. Immigration Debate.” Council on Foreign Relations. 2018. Web.