On Hamilton, Hip Hop, and Steampunk

A few days ago, I stumbled across a link on Facebook to a segment from one of the late night television shows:  Carpool Karaoke. This episode was a preview to the Tony Awards and included a dude I’d never heard of before – one Lin Manuel Miranda. OK, I admit, it’s been a rough year and I’ve been hiding under a rock as the phenomenon called Hamilton took America by storm (for those under that same rock, Hamilton won Best Musical and ten other awards last Sunday, and is the story of founding father Alexander Hamilton’s life and death done in hip hop).

I am the first to admit to not being a rabid fan of rap or hip hop (chap hop is a completely different story – shout out to Professor Elemental…). I tend to like a song with a tune that I can sink my teeth into. But this was different. I listened to the pair of them (the host, James Corden, and Mr. Miranda) do a number called Guns and Ships whilst driving the streets of NYC, and, after a few minutes picking my jaw up off the floor, hopped over to Amazon and bought bot the book and the CD, and then streamed the whole soundtrack on Prime.

For two and a half hours, I sat and stared at my computer screen (not surfing – just staring at the streaming screen gobsmacked) listening to the most amazing thing I’d heard in a very long time. Mr. Miranda used the forms and rhythms of rap and hip hop to tell a story that originated two hundred years before they existed in their modern versions. And what he did was nothing short of a tour de force in language. The linguistics of the opening number alone made me drool.

When the book arrived two days later, I started reading along with the songs, and reading the annotations to the songs, the footnotes about the Easter eggs in the lyrics, about how he crafted each rhyme and each phrase. And as I sank into that glorious pool of words, I realized the techniques he used could apply just as easily to writing fiction as to a Broadway play.

So what have I learned so far? Here are the first two:

One:  Rhymes and rhythms don’t have to be static or married to one place or time.

Salsa, and hip hop, and lyrical poetry can tell stories that have nothing to do with the Caribbean, the inner city, or the drawing room. There’s a reason we had an oral history and bards and storytellers. We remember what we hear when it sings to us, not necessarily in music, but it feeling and in form. If a rhythm is infectious, it can do anything, anywhere, any time.

I caught a little bit of this sentiment when I started plotting The Superspy with the Clockwork Eye in Haiku, slowly realizing with each one that human speech naturally follows the pattern of the Haiku. And sometimes you run / Like your life depends on it / Because it really does works just as well as a Haiku as it does as a line of narration. Mr. Miranda understands this so well that it’s catching. I’ve even found myself thinking scenes and deadlines in his rhythms. Gotta get Chapter One. Done.

Two:  Diversity doesn’t have to be a slap you in the eyeballs message.

Our culture is a beautiful work of art without having to jump up and down and point and divide us to the point that we’re staring out across an infinite chasm at each other. When the ensemble cast in Hamilton is presented as a fait accompli, you feel it and go with it. Not once does the play make a point of Aaron Burr or George Washington or Thomas Jefferson being black, or Hamilton or Eliza Schuyler being Hapa, or there being three ethnicities among the three Schuyler sisters. The phenomenal actors walk out on stage and own each of those roles, with voice, with attitude, and with sheer magnificent presence. Each blows you away by being the best at what he or she does. With all the talent on that stage, I’m surprised the theater hasn’t gone supernova.

Steampunk can do the same. Granted a majority of the genre follows the more historical line with a bit of Vernian Process (pun intended – great band – give them a listen!) thrown in, but much of the diversity in Steampunk seems to be achieved by inserting or following a character who is out of place and forced to deal with the evil, misogynist, imperialist Victorian society. Why not imagine an alternate history where place doesn’t matter? Having grown up in Hawaii, that’s more what I’m used to; we are taught to value ohana before skin color, who you kiss, or what body parts you have. And that’s the steampunk I want to write. Where no one bats an eyelash at a female admiral, a Chinese Kaiser, or a kickass hero in a wheelchair, because what they are is not the focal point of the story; who they are is. You can keep the manners and aesthetic of steam without bowing to the rest of the baggage. it is steam PUNK after all.

And so, I learn a little more with every page and every play through. If I can achieve a fraction of the linguistic genius and wordsmithing that Mr. Miranda has in his left big toe sometime before I die (or be able to spit out the lyrics of Guns and Ships half as fast or as well as Daveed Diggs), I would be ecstatic.

Oh, and if you haven’t listened to the soundtrack yet… what are you waiting for? Do not throw away your shot!

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