By Leilani Marie Labong
Judging from my Spotify playlists, densely populated with Broadway’s greatest hits, you’d never know that many moons ago, at another beloved publication, I was unofficially known as the “hip-hop editor.” Mere breaths after singing Mary Magdalene’s “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” from Jesus Christ Superstar, I could recite obscure lyrics from Beastie Boys B sides. I could spit Pharcyde rhymes in the shower, only to cue up Phantom of the Opera while I was getting dressed. And when Flavor Flav was looking for love from bootylicious proto-twerkers on VH1, I could only shake my head, disappointed in the fame-driven decline of such a rap pioneer—after all, from his lips came “Fight the Power,” the hard-hitting anthem from the revolutionary group Public Enemy. To counteract my disenchantment, I’d slide in a Rent DVD.
All of this is to say that when Oakland actor and rapper Daveed Diggs entered my musical purview, I had one of those “Where have you been all my life?” moments. Not just because he’s adorable (that smile! Those curls!) or that his abs are textbook washboard (hummuna hummuna) or that his rapid-fire rhymes seem effortless and everlasting or that his larger-than-life presence belies a thoughtful, soft-spoken spirit. My quick fandom is due to how deftly Diggs—a member of both the LA-based rap trio Clipping and the New York sketch comedy troupe Freestyle Love Supreme—plays a dual role as President Thomas Jefferson and the French-aristocrat-slash-American-military-officer Marquis de Lafayette in Hamilton, the off-Broadway smash that opens on Broadway at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on August 8. The historical dramedy, which recounts the American Revolution as Alexander Hamilton—the country’s first secretary of the treasury—experienced it, marries my two favorite music genres into a new, too-legit-to-quit hybrid: the rap musical.
Since historical productions have the same effect on me as Ambien, hearing Thomas Jefferson rap his liberty-loving rhetoric is akin to a spoonful of sugar. This type of lyrical flow has long been a hallmark of firebrands, after all. “All of [the founding fathers]were really great writers and really smart . . . and witty in the way rappers are,” Diggs has said. “So setting these guys up as guys who are good with words makes sense.”