The musical Dreamgirls ran for four years on Broadway in the early 1980s, and, among its other interventions, made what might seem now like a very unsurprising breakthrough—it used rap. The moment comes about two-thirds of the way through the play, in a nascent hip-hop, funk-derived number called “Jimmy’s Rap,” or simply “The Rap,” depending on which recording you’re listening to. Breaking free from sadness, the character Jimmy takes on what seems like a suppressed James Brown persona, coming into the bravado and more explicit sexuality his previous performing role had neutered with the “sad songs” he’d sung earlier (at the end of the rap, Jimmy drops his pants in front of a full theater audience). In the 2006 film production of the musical, the writers added the line: “sooner or later the time comes around / for a man to be a man and take back his sound.” Jimmy, played by Eddie Murphy, takes back his sound, and his manhood, by releasing himself from the emotional work of a longingly sung apology, bursting instead into a rapped celebration of self.
Through the 1990s, a few hip-hop theater companies cohered (like Puremovement in Philadelphia and Full Circle Productions in New York), bringing shows about and for hip-hop culture to off-Broadway theaters, and touring nationally and even globally. In 1996, the hip-hop tap dance musical Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk (with music by the legendary Ann Duquesnay) lost in the Best Musical category of the 50th Tony Awards to Rent, which is sometimes credited with “popularizing” rap in musicals for its approximately two minutes of rapped sound. But hip-hop remained on the musical theater margins until Lin-Manuel Miranda’s 2005 off-Broadway In The Heights moved it toward the mainstream.
In the summer of 2020, fresh off a pretty heartbreaking departure from the city where I’d had my own thirteen-year run, I sat down with my sisters and their kids to watch Miranda’s 2015 musical, Hamilton. And then sat down approximately fifteen more times to rewatch it, again and again, gleefully singing along and fielding questions like “how could you not have seen this when you were living in New York?” from my thirteen-year-old niece.
I said I couldn’t afford the tickets, which was true, but it was shocking to me, too, that I’d managed to keep my head well enough under a manhole cover to know very little about the show (Beyoncé and the pandemic broke me). Each viewing brought delighted shrieking at the virtuosic performances and the sheer electrifying pulse of the production, even outside of the live format, even inside our cabin-feverish homes.
It didn’t take repeat viewings, though, to notice that the gender dynamics of the musical are less than thrilling—a point that has gotten a little lost alongside other critiques, like the play’s skirting of slavery, or that it was much more difficult, in the raging days of the forty-fifth presidency and persistent economic and racial injustice, to watch something that uses a celebratory template of American history, albeit slightly reimagined, as its artistic departure point.
The women of Hamilton don’t really talk to each other, and are given basically no development outside of their longing love relationships to our male main character. One of the most memorable and repeated musical hooks is from the Schuyler sisters’ announcement that they are “Helpless!” to Hamilton’s wiles. But what stood out to me most was that, for a revolutionary rap musical, the women don’t really rap.
There is a very successful comedic play on this unspoken expectation in the second act, when Eliza Schuyler (Phillipa Soo), wife of Hamilton, breaks into a beatbox to accompany her son Phillip’s original birthday rap. The audience erupts in laughter, a clap of clarity that a woman participating in rap is a comedic departure from the norms the play sets up and incorporates.
Rap is rare in commercial musical theater to begin with, but for all the opening up of terrain, all of the reimagining that Hamilton did, the gender imaginary is extremely tight and familiar. Even a rather conservative gender move, like borrowing an operatic convention and casting a woman in a pants role, would have suggested that the “America now” of Miranda’s imagining had even a smidgen of room for broken gender norms.
But the success of the musical in this form also reveals a kind of stickiness of gender and vocality across commercial musical work—the stubbornness of how certain bodies are expected to express, and the roles they are given to inhabit with their voices. This is not a problem Miranda invented, but Hamilton provides an opportunity to think about what different kinds of vocality mean, and why singing or speaking in a certain way seems to belong to some bodies and identities, and not to others.
There are many moments of gender panic throughout pop music history, where we find gender tethered to the way one uses one’s voice, and worry about what a performer is doing if they break the established, though often tacit, confines. American Studies scholar Allison McCracken writes about how, in the late 1920s, when the microphone brought the listening ear into closer contact with the singing body, there was considerable anxiety over what it meant for male “crooners” (a term used pejoratively at the time) like Rudy Vallee to inhabit this gentle, soft, intimate sound, to plainly and unguardedly express words and sounds that many associated with romantic vulnerability and unmanly emotionality. Up until that point, this sort of sung emotionality was often performed by white men in blackface, the emotions threatening the manhood of the fictionalized and ventriloquized Black male body, but leaving the manhood qua emotional evenness of the ideological white male intact.
More recently, when T-Pain and other “Auto-Tune rappers” of the mid-aughts introduced a melodic style of hip-hop vocality, rapper Jay-Z addressed this new “problem” with his song “D.O.A.: Death of Auto-Tune.” His instructions are to “pull your skirt back down / grow a set, man,” because rappers are “singing too much / get back to rap, you T-Painin’ too much.” You could read that as the rap world’s moment of panic about the feminized pseudo-singing voice, and an almost explicit claim that singing is women’s work.
We see this in the cultural imaginary as well—rap as a man’s sound, a man’s game. Many readers can probably rattle off a list of male rap “pioneers,” but must scratch their heads a little before remembering a female one. Late ‘70s and early ‘80s MCs like Sha-Rock, The Sequence, and Roxanne Shante are all but forgotten in comparison to, say, DJ Kool Herc or The Sugarhill Gang. Genealogical hip-hop trees that get reprinted on T-shirts and dorm room posters often leave the women out altogether. Even more well-known names like Queen Latifah, Da Brat, and Missy Elliot get sidelined for Tupac and Dr. Dre, boy geniuses. And it has long been the case that female rappers lag behind the commercial success of their male counterparts. Though this is admittedly a very exciting moment for the success of female rappers, it’s hard not to feel like we’ve been here before, and that past progress didn’t stick.
It’s possible that Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B’s hit “W.A.P.” will help to turn the tide, but not without some protest. In the space of bourgeois and conservative values, the anxiety about hearing Black women superlatively inhabit a sound and sexuality assumed to be male (the rap voice) looms at least as large as any concern about the ethical implications of getting your “tuition paid” with your pussy. The number of lewd, explicit songs penned by men seems not to have dulled the discomfort (even if it’s quiet) of a real hit rapped by women about female genitalia. White women, too, when they sing about horniness or the power of their bodies, get a pass so long as they put it in more polite (art) pop packages. The discomfort of “W.A.P.” is about what the voices say, but it’s also about the voices saying it, and how they sound while they do it.
The single instance of a woman rapping in Hamilton comes in the first act, when Angelica Schuyler (Renée Elise Goldsberry) raps for a virtuosic thirty seconds in the middle of her sister’s wedding. Yet she does so in the alternative space of remembrance, addressing herself, unheard by any other character. She stops and then rewinds time to speak, to declare her secret love for Hamilton in one of the most aesthetically gripping moments of the play. But once she returns to history’s forward timeline, once she exits her daydream and rejoins society, she doesn’t rap again. In the real world afforded to her, women sing.
We think a lot about the work women do to carry on things that might otherwise be lost, to stitch societies together in moments of crisis—the kinds of labor we know are grossly undervalued. We see this devaluing reflected in what we pay people to teach, be home health aids, provide child and elder care, clean workspaces and homes, and in the lack of legitimacy and worker protection for sex work—all things we have suddenly, again, realized the importance of. Much of the time, this labor provides a sense of comforting emotional continuity not unrelated to the continuity of the species itself. Labor in the form of the essential things—cooking and feeding, sex, loving, nurturing, tending—we like to see them repeated in form, we are comforted when they take the same shape—the emotional work that fuels and repairs the narrative.
Eliza’s husband eventually cheats on her in a very public fashion. She and Alexander reconcile, then she loses her son to the patriarchal practice of defending your honor with bullets, and ultimately loses her husband this way, too. Eliza’s restoration at the end of the play, her seizing of the narrative in the final song, emphasizes her accomplishments, interviewing every soldier who fought by Hamilton’s side and establishing New York City’s first private orphanage. If Hamilton’s is a project of rupture, achievement, newness in the form of a new nation, Eliza’s is a project of continuity, lives recorded, lives tended, praises sung. And in Hamilton, this labor holds on to Broadway’s familiar sound.