With a filmed 2016 performance of Hamilton making its way to streaming via Disney Plus this week, we revisit this BlackBook story from that same year, in which we interviewed Rutgers History Professor Lyra D. Monteiro—who had, shall we say, the “courage” to actually criticize its intellectual, historical and “woke” credentials. It has not been updated, because it remains accurate. Enjoy.
Now, let’s be clear: no one would argue that Lin-Manuel Miranda’s wildly successful musical about Alexander Hamilton isn’t great Broadway entertainment. And the comic-geek-level fandom was actually rather amusing for awhile. Yet the show has been incessantly hailed as “revolutionary.” But is it…really?
Hamilton dominated The Tonys this past Sunday night, racking up 11 of them—as if it were even possible that it would not have. So what better time for a reassessment then?
It must be said first, that by the very nature of the context, Broadway musicals are simply subject to more innocuous standards of “radicalism” (We’ve heard it before: “Spring Awakening: a groundbreaking musical!”) And the critical establishment has been effusively gushing about Hamilton’s so-called daring integration of hip-hop influences. But come now—actors were rapping in Liquid Tide laundry detergent commercials 25 years ago, so Miranda is embarrassingly late to that revolution.
A few dissenting voices have been heard, though arguably buried amidst all the fevered hype. New Yorker Contributing Editor Jay Caspian Kang challenged the order back in September by tweeting, “I felt like I was watching an overzealous first year social studies teacher rap her lesson plan at her horrified students.” In December, Hamilton Nolan started a thread on Gawker titled, This Hamilton Shit Has Gone Too Far, prompting a reader to tweet, “I’m looking forward to Miranda’s trip-hop fueled play about Millard Fillmore.”
More recently Alex Balk, co-founder of The Awl, sneered, “On those rare occasions when you get someone wondering whether Hamilton might not be the greatest thing that ever happened in 50,000 years of culture, do you find yourself stunned, surprised or fearful for the heretic’s safety?” And, perhaps not at all concerned for her safety, earlier this month Laurie Anderson, after seeing Hamilton, lamented to The Atlantic’s David A. Graham, “I left, you know, halfway. It’s not that different. It’s history lite, and musical lite, and it’s just…it’s horrible.”
Certainly more significantly, academic critiques have begun to surface. To wit, Nancy Isenberg, author of Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr, wrote a piece in March for the Dallas Morning News calling attention to Hamilton’s historical follies.
Another academically accredited critic has been Lyra D. Monteiro, Assistant Professor of History, who teaches in the graduate program of American Studies at Rutgers University. She’s also a Create Change Fellow with NYC’s Laundromat Project, and is currently working on a book, The Classical Legacy, about the role of concepts of “heritage” in the creation of the United States.
Post-Tonys, we engaged her on the subject of Hamilton.
There are no actual African American characters in Hamilton. Can you elaborate on the significance of that?
This is one of the main issues that I have with the play: despite its multiracial casting, the story that it tells is one that erases the presence of people of color—Africans and African Americans in particular, but also Native Americans—from the founding story of the United States. The bodies and labor of black men and women were quite literally the basis of the economy of the new country that the Founding Fathers created. Additionally, thousands fought or otherwise supported the efforts of both sides in the Revolutionary War. But were it not for a handful of references to slavery, one could come away from the show with the impression that people of color did not even exist in the America it depicts, or that they did nothing of importance or interest.
Does the play overly-mythologize Alexander Hamilton? He was actually an elitist slave-“renter”, and rejecter of democracy, in favor of monarchism, was he not?
Yes, he was all of those things. [The Founding Fathers] have always been overly venerated in this country, and they have become ‘cool’ as a result of this show.
Some have challenged the play’s so-called feminist credentials. How do women actually fare in the show?
Pretty poorly. With Hamilton at the center of the plot, the women only exist to support, entice, or be betrayed by him. I particularly take offense at the portrayal of Maria Reynolds as one-sidedly seducing him, and him being helpless to say ‘no’ to this. I have absolutely no doubt that she was not the only extramarital affair he had—she was simply the one case in which he got caught. The overall masculine, bro-y tone of the interactions of Hamilton, Mulligan, Burr and Lafayette are also pretty off-putting. That said, I think Angelica’s song at the wedding is one of the best in the show.
The assertion has been incessantly forwarded: it will inspire kids to learn about history. Do you think that’s true? Or is it mostly just another opportunity for a certain class of children to Instagram their privileged lives?
I don’t doubt that it inspires kids to learn about history—what concerns me is the hegemonic nature of the history that it shares with kids. I wish it were a truly revolutionary story, one that allowed them to see beyond the mythology surrounding the Founding Fathers.
The media have gushed about the show’s hip-hop musical foundation. Isn’t it a little late, though, to be considering hip-hop as a revolutionary force? Is Broadway simply judged by more milquetoast standards?
I think that’s a fair statement. I was both impressed and dumbfounded by the Wall Street Journal‘s recent representation of the rhyming structures in Hamilton—none of which are unusual for hip-hop, but which Miranda is suddenly getting so much credit for using…as if it’s a new thing. I think it’s more than a little offensive and appropriative that these [Founding Fathers] have had their words and personalities reborn in the form of hip-hop artists—an art form that grows from a history and legacy of disenfranchisement that can be traced directly to these same men.
What could Hamilton have done better?
Personally, I thought that [Miranda’s] In The Heights was a revolutionary show, in bringing the story of 21st-century working class immigrants to Broadway, using their own music. As for Hamilton, I do think it was a mistake to cut the cabinet rap battle that Miranda originally wrote about slavery. This would have been a responsible, respectful move considering how many of the cast members whose talents make the show what it is are descended from those very slaves. But perhaps I prefer to think about what Miranda himself could have done better, and that’s easy: he could have chosen to dedicate his talents to telling a more revolutionary story—one in which the lives and stories of people of color were foregrounded.
Since first appearing on the screen in 2002, English actor O-T Fagbenle has been perpetually busy with film and television projects, including starring roles in popular mini-series’ like The Interceptor and The Five. 2017 saw the premiere of the outrageous comedy Maxxx on E4 (now streaming on Hulu), for which he starred, produced, wrote and directed.
In that same year, of course, Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale debuted to widespread acclaim, followed by three wildly successful seasons, with a fourth on the way. In it, Fagbenle plays Luke Bankole, husband of Elisabeth Moss’ rebellious June Osborne—a role which made him a bonafide star in America. Later this year, he’ll appear alongside Scarlett Johansson and Rachel Weisz in Marvel’s much anticipated Black Widow.
At a time when racial divisions have come very much to the fore of the American conversation, he graciously offered to pen an essay on an entertainment industry “system” that is yet still doing a very poor job of offering good opportunities to black talent, both in front of and behind the camera—and how that situation can, and must be corrected.
O-T Fagbenle in The Handmaid’s Tale
On Giving Black Talent the Same Chances
I remember coming in for the table read for a big acting job. I went through hair, makeup, through the production office, I met the writers, the writers’ assistants, the producers, the producers’ assistants, I met catering and the drivers and on and on and I didn’t see a single black person. Not one.
I thought to myself… I wonder if anyone else sees this? Is it uncomfortable for anyone else that they can see that the company they work for hasn’t really hired black people behind the camera or any who are Heads of Department (HOD)? None in sound, or editing, or in the camera department and on and on.
For those of you in the industry, think back on the last job you were on and count how many black HODs there were, or the job before that. Take a moment.. it’s likely to be a quick exercise.
In my career of more than 50 productions (so well over 1000 HODs, writers and other positions of power) I’ve worked with about 10 black people who were HODs, executives or directors. I don’t think it’s for the most part because of racist bastards. I think it’s because:
1. The people in power don’t really notice.
2. They almost exclusively give first chances to white people.
3. They believe that there aren’t many black people qualified for the job.
They are there, but it takes extra effort to find them, often it means taking a risk and the job is already hard enough! It means forcing oneself to not go with the usual practices of hiring and it also means calling it out.
I wonder… why aren’t my white counterparts calling it out as outrageous when they walk around set and don’t see black people behind the camera or in a writing room or amongst the executives again and again? Why aren’t I consoling them as they say how fed up they are with it? Why don’t they insist that the same chances given to the first time white director, producer, DP are given to up and coming black people?
But then I look at myself and wonder why am I not more vocal about it? The truth is – as much as it bothers me, it’s because I’m afraid that there might be repercussions for speaking up. Mainly because well… no one wants to be the squeaky wheel on a team, much less be a lone black person bringing up race. Awks! I’m just trying to get along and be liked! I’m just trying to do my bit as a professional. But me not saying something is… well, a little racist. I’m not talking about the person but the inaction… Bear with me…
O-T Fagbenle in Maxxx
In a way it’s irrelevant if any person thinks they aren’t a racist. The question is, do we act in such a way that helps maintain racist patterns in society? In this instance, how am I – O-T – ineffectual in changing the hiring practices of the companies I work for? When I look at my company, or my team of agents, publicists, stylists, lawyers etc., how many black people did I hire? I have a company too. Am I a racist? No.
Do I contribute to racist systems if I’m not hiring/interviewing black people or making noise when I realise the companies I work for are doing the same? Yes.
I think it’s an important shift in thinking. It stops racism being “out there” done by ugly people we don’t know. It means that there is great work to be done combatting racism right here at home. Not amongst racist individuals, but in apathy against racist hiring patterns. How many black people did we interview for that assistant job (assistants often go on to be producers and series writers)? How many did we interview for the HOD job? I’m not talking about giving undeserved jobs. I’m just asking how many people got a chance to interview?
If you’re in the industry maybe you’re like me? Maybe you’ve noticed that the jobs you work on don’t have black HODs or execs or writers or producers… maybe they have one. Maybe you’ve noticed that the agency you work with doesn’t really have many black agents or assistants (because assistants become agents), or the fancy production company doesn’t have black executives.
I encourage you to see racism as a system that either you are actively confronting and working against, or allowing to be the status quo and then, in effect, supporting. Sure creating a mentoring program at your work is a good start. But I encourage you to:
Try harder to acquaint yourself with the great black professionals in the industry you don’t know.
Give an up and coming talented black person that first shot that every single person on set once got. A foot in the door that doesn’t hold the caveat “they got it because they were black” (you had no racial caveat to your foot in the door). Just give someone that same first shot that you were afforded and you may have already afforded others.
Madonna opened for them at Danceteria in 1982 before anyone knew who she was. And in the film 24 Hour Party People, Steve Coogan as Tony Wilson refers to them as “Joy Division, but with better clothes.”
In fact, A Certain Ratio were Factory Records’ beacon of cool, five stylish Manchester blokes who played wickedly biting Anglo-funk, which was also rife with lacerating socio-political commentary. Indeed, “Shack Up” even went after the outmoded institution of marriage itself (“You can talk about the wedding ceremony / And I know its just a phony”).
ACR returned to live activity in the early oughts, eventually releasing the 2008 album Mind Made Up. But Mute Records began re-issuing their early records in 2018—ironic, since the label was an early “rival” of Factory, especially philosophically.
But at long last, today comes the announcement that the now trio of Jez Kerr, Martin Moscrop and Donald Johnson will release a new album of material this autumn, their first in a dozen years. And we have the first single, “Always in Love,” which layers their trademarked languid ennui over what could surely best be described as a classic Madchester groove. It would be packing all the most in-the-know dancefloors this summer, if there were actually going to be any.
A Certain Ratio’s ACR Loco will be released via Mute on September 25. Touring, of course, will be subjected to the new post-pandemic guidelines.
Throughout history, monumental shifts in society have often led to revolutions in art. This moment is no different. The worldwide response to the murder of George Floyd, and countless other innocent Black people, taken alongside the growing global Black Lives Matter movement, has awakened the spirit of artists in the U.S. and abroad.
While the Black Lives Matter installations in New York City (with one mural brilliantly positioned directly across from Trump Tower) are among the most talked about, creators across the continents are producing powerful work to foster solidarity and spur conversation in their own countries.
Indeed, Scotland’s reckoning with its own deeply-rooted history of slavery, colonialism, and imperialism propelled Edinburgh-based creative producer Wezi Mhura, a specialist in large-scale events, to organize its artistic talent to realize the country’s first Black Lives Matter Mural Trail.
Mhura worked with a wide range of Scotland’s Black, Asian, and minority ethnic artists, and partnered with venues and arts organizations across the country to launch the exhibition within a week. Currently, displays are featured on more than a dozen spaces and sites across Edinburgh, Glasgow and Inverness, with more planned to follow.
Dode Allen, Neon Requiem – The Teacher
The artworks, colorful, challenging, moving, powerful, and diverse, were inspired by the themes of “I Can’t Breathe” and BLM, and crossed mediums from painting to photography, video to digital art and beyond. The Scotland-based artists, all with unique frames of reference, represent a global perspective, and diverse origins such as Cape Verde, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Pakistan, and even the U.S.
Through its creation, Mhura intends to create a dialogue and debate about Scotland’s history and how it should be represented in the future—something America is viscerally grappling with via its own controversial and still standing monuments of oppression.
“The Scottish government says it recognizes the strength in its aspirations to a more equal and more diverse society going forward,” she explains with a sense of guarded optimism, “and we hope this Mural Trail will help to start the conversations that need to be happening now. It’s been amazing to connect with so many talented artists, with roots in so many different places, who have been so enthusiastic about getting behind this project.”
The Scottish BLM Mural Trail demonstrates how art can still be at the forefront of change—stimulating dialogue while also adding a new dynamic to currently dormant venues across the nation.
Rudy Kanhye, All Lies Matter; Steven Khan, The Theater
This past November, a headline in The Advocate read ‘Is Kalen Allen the New Gay King of Media’?
It was a perfectly reasonable question to ask, considering his two-million-plus-and-growing social media following. He first became a sensation via his hilarious Kalen Reacts video series, while his OMKalen pop culture news series remains wildly popular; on top of that, he’s become a regularly scheduled sidekick to Ellen Degeneres on her eponymous television show. He’s still just 24-years-old.
He’s singularly and very naturally funny. But in such trying and divisive times as these, he can also be profoundly serious.
And so BlackBook asked him to pen an essay explicating how he views all that has been going on around us over the last month, and how we managed to get here.
We Are Our Own Hero
Have you ever thought about the fact that from the moment we, black people, come out of the womb the weight of the world is on our shoulders? We may not feel it at first, but that heaviness is there.
From the very beginning, there is already a set of rules, regulations, and restrictions that we must follow for the rest of our lives. We are robbed of innocence before we even learn to ride a bike. It is troubling and unfortunate that we are in a never-ending battle with our existence.
A few days ago, I was watching a video of a little black boy playing basketball in his front yard. He glanced over and saw a police car driving down his street, and he ran to hide in fear. I started to think about when I was a child, having that same feeling when I would see a police officer driving through my neighborhood. My struggle is this: police are supposed to protect and serve, yet we fear them. In a world where we are the enemy, who will protect us? Who will save us from ourselves?
Not only do we not have the same privileges as our fellow Americans, we do not have equal rights. The way that we have to constantly monitor how we move through this world is exhausting. We can’t even try to breathe without our existence being questioned. We are walking around holding our breath, and not even realizing it, as it has been something we were inherently taught since birth. Over the course of the last few weeks, I have realized that we have to be our own heroes. We are strong, resilient, and will continue to make a way, out of no way. It is a bittersweet concept to come to terms with, and I don’t appreciate that we have no other options. However, we are natural-born survivalists no matter how taxing the day to day has become.
Recently, I’ve grown tired of saving myself, and I believe a lot of us are in the same boat. This exhaustion has caused me to think a lot about vulnerability, letting my guard down, and being completely exposed, whether that is emotionally or physically. It is a luxury to be vulnerable, and I have never fully known what it seems like to experience that freedom. None of us have. We are told as black people that we have to endure the pain of hiding, being questioned, and staying on the defense. We must endure that pain. We have to be tenacious, and the moments where we tense up will pass. It is almost as if the pain is in our DNA, we come from a lineage of quiet suffering.
Incredibly, we as a people have endured so much and yet we continue to persevere. Even though our resilience can occasionally feel like an obligation or a burden, we have to remind ourselves that we are living proof that there is nothing we cannot overcome, or bear. We must practice self-care, self-love, and allow ourselves to step away and take a break. Our mental health must be at the forefront of our priorities, as we navigate the next chapter in all of our lives. Get a therapist, start a journal, meditate, do things that bring you joy, even in the smallest ways.
To be one’s hero comes with a lot of responsibility, and some days, you may choose not to save the world, and that is OK. I believe we will see a day where we won’t have to persuade people to see our worth in this world, and that we will have the luxury of living a life of unashamed vulnerability. Until then, wear your cape proudly.
When we last heard from The Handmaid’s Tale (the Season 3 finale was in August of 2019), there was a credible unease that Donald Trump’s increasingly authoritarian America was mirroring some of the totalitarian ideology depicted in the show. Nearly a year later, the twin pandemics of COVID-19 and racial division have come decisively to the fore, while President 45 has come to look more like an aging clown who can’t remember how to tie an animal balloon.
Alas, Season 4 has been postponed until 2021, at which time we will likely either have a new president, or perhaps even…civil war? But the first trailer has arrived, and, as probably expected, it’s not pretty—though it is rife with determination. It opens with Elisabeth Moss’ Offred, wounded in the last episode, defiantly reciting, “I can’t rest. My child deserves better. We all deserve better. Change never comes easy.”—which seems to eerily mirror conversations we’ve been having in real life. Are we soon to become a quasi-Gilead?
And indeed, as armed soldiers advance, we can hear Ofrobet fervently insisting, “It’s not safe anywhere, we should just leave.” Recent violent scenes of tear-gassed protestors outside the White House, and heavily armed police marching through Buffalo come immediately to mind.
The imagery this coming season, as ever, is monumental, unsettling, and frighteningly vivid. It’s a dystopia you can’t take your eyes off of. And it’s a struggle that we have to see through to the end with Offred and her fellow handmaids—even if we have to wait until 2021 for it to resume.
And make no mistake, as Ann Dowd’s fearful Aunt Lydia howls of Offred, “She’s out there planning who knows what kind of atrocities, to visit upon our righteous nation,” it sounds absolutely, shudderingly Trumpian.
This year Pride Month looked and felt different across the globe. Normally a time when generations of the LGBTQIA+ gather in streets and social venues to celebrate gay culture and history, the pandemic has otherwise spawned virtual events, enabling people around the world to join the festivities online instead. And while 2020 marks the 50th anniversary of the very first Gay Pride March in New York City, social distancing of course forced the cancellation of the March itself; so RXM Creative, the digital creative group behind Virtual Cheers, has created a Virtual Pride March, with custom avatars generated through Instagram.
The goal of the project is to enable the LGBTQ community to see themselves on a virtual street, with the possibility to choose the styling and messaging for their own avatar…and, importantly, to support The Trevor Project.
Here is how the program works: you make a charitable donation to The Trevor Project, a leading organization supporting young LGBTQ+ people with numerous life-saving resource—such as an 24-hour suicide hotline, educational workshops and more. Once the donation has been confirmed, you direct-message @virtualpridemarch on Instagram to have an avatar created of yourself. The avatar becomes part of an extended Pride March through the Instagram feeds of all supporters.
As Pride Month is winding down, Virtual Pride March is a great way of bringing the LGBTQ+ community and allies together with a fun, interactive, custom, and we must say, adorable, online experience. Join the virtual parade to be seen with the likes of Ariana Grande, Lady Gaga, Amanda Lepore, and Alok and give to a charity that needs our help more than ever during these economically uncertain times.
It’s been a difficult few months, of course. And much as reality has allowed us a few glimpses of hope these last couple of weeks, it’s always one step forward, 3/4 of a step back.
So you’ll understand our excitement at the arrival of a mind-bending new video by one Jónsi Birgisson, otherwise known as the multidisciplinary artist and frontman of Icelandic musical enigma Sigur Rós. And indeed, the hyper-sensory clip for his latest single “Swill” is a fascinating escape into a hallucinatory world, where an emotional tumult plays out against a stark black background, an ostensible battle between beauty and anguish…no clear winner emerging. With direction by Barnaby Roper and animation courtesy of Pandagunda, the dreamlike imagery begs a thousand interpretations.
The hymn-like track itself is punctuated with jarringly visceral sonic dynamics, surely reflecting the ambiguity of the lyrics.
“I’ll go to war with me
You see me walking around in slow motion like a ghost
You’re right, of course, the blood in my brain”
The release comes on the heels of his first solo exhibition at LA’s Tanya Bonakdar Gallery in late 2019—and is a teaser for Jónsi’s first solo album in more than a decade. Due out in October, Shiver (XL Recordings) will feature guest appearances by both Robyn and Liz Fraser…so obviously we’re, um, shivering with anticipation.
Though galleries and museums are cautiously opening across Europe, a new zeal for digital strategies has decisively taken over the business of art, and will likely be permanently transforming it. Of course, another casualty of the pandemic (following Art Basel Hong Kong and Frieze New York) was Art Basel in Basel, the original fair which turned 50 this month in a sadly less-than-ceremonious way.
One innovative initiative brings the June Art Fair together with ArtReview and art powerhouse Hauser & Wirth, for a digital viewing experience that will take place August 20-31. The former—collaboratively founded by galleries VI, VII of Oslo and Christian Andersen of Copenhagen—burst onto the scene during Basel Art Week 2019, setting up in a concrete bunker turned exhibit space designed by Herzog & De Meuron. Rather than just adding to the din of the fair, June was instead a more exclusive, even secretive, in-the-know affair, meant to re-focus attention on established but perhaps under-appreciated artists, as well as promoting a well-curated program of emerging talent.
But with Basel Art Week shifting online, so has the June Art Fair, only at a later date.
“We are super excited to be collaborating with ArtReview in supporting June Art Fair this summer,” enthuses Hauser & Wirth Partner Neil Wenman. “By hosting the fair on our digital platform we aim to increase the exposure and audience for the participating galleries. New digital endeavors are challenging the art landscape and redefining how we can all connect.”
Participating galleries will also include Croy Nielsen, Vienna; Document, Chicago; Embajada, San Juan; Empty Gallery, Hong Kong; Green Art Gallery, Dubai; Misako & Rosen, Tokyo; Neue Alte Brücke, Frankfurt; and Stigter van Doesburg, Amsterdam XYZ. So it will yet be a genuinely international affair, brought together by contemporary technology.
“We are very grateful to Hauser & Wirth and ArtReview for supporting our first digital initiative,” says June co-founder Esperanza Rosales. “The inaugural edition of June was a proposal for new models, and continuing along that trajectory, we are thrilled to be able to experiment in finding ways to support artists in new and dynamic ways—this time online.”