Behind the Historical Meaning of ‘Hamilton’s’ “My Shot” by Lin-Manuel Miranda

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Want to know the definition of a phenomenon? Look no further than Lin-Manuel Miranda’s acclaimed Broadway musical, Hamilton.

Since its creation, the live stage performance has been the talk of New York City, not to mention music lovers, from the theatrical to the rapping. Since it graced the stage in the Big Apple in 2015, the performance has gone on to worldwide fame and smashed box office records.

And it made its creator, Miranda, a star among stars. Today, the multi-hyphenate artist is writing songs for Disney films like Encanto and more.

Hamilton, of course, is about one of America’s founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton, who used the power of the pen to earn fame—and notoriety—as the American revolution took hold and the country grew via its first trials, the writing of the Constitution, and more.

He was George Washington’s righthand man, and he fought with Thomas Jefferson. He famously battled with Aaron Burr in a dual and lost his life.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

One of the biggest songs from the musical was the track, “My Shot,” which has gone on to inspire many, from weekend joggers to world-class songwriters. Here, we will dive into the historical meaning and the great story behind the song, from Miranda writing verses on the subway to freestyling with friends to the track landing on the stage (and accompanying best-selling soundtrack) for millions to enjoy.

Origins and Meaning

The loquacious Miranda put a lot of words into the songs for his stage performance of Hamilton. At first, he conceptualized the songs for music, only. It was later that he decided to adapt them into a full-on stage offering.

“My Shot” is the third song from Act 1 of the musical. And like Eminem’s song, “Lose Yourself,” from the film he starred in, 8 Mile, the song is all about taking that one chance you have to make something of yourself in the wider world. Miranda wrote both the music and the lyrics to the track.

Hamilton, who was 19 years old at the time of the song’s performance, had just emigrated from the island of Nevis in the Caribbean to New York City, which itself was just rounding into early form. The year was 1776 and the cauldron of the United States was coming to a simmer.

In the song, Hamilton (played by Miranda) talks about how he, essentially, won’t take any of life’s “No’s” for an answer. Like a young 50 Cent, he will achieve success or die trying. Indeed, upon reading about Alexander Hamilton in Ron Chernow’s famous biography, one of the biggest revelations Miranda had about the founding father’s story was that it was unequivocally hip-hop.

An immigrant’s story, using language and fervor to gain ground in an unaccepting, difficult world.

In “My Shot,” Hamilton displays his lyrical prowess and his invigorating inspiration to other founding fathers, including Burr, Marquis de Lafayette, Hercules Mulligan, and John Laurens, who accept him early on as one of their own. He talks about his distaste for the colonizing British and his hope to be remembered throughout history.

Simply put, Hamilton sees an opening, and as he says, he’s not “throwing away my shot!”

Pushback

As Hamilton (Miranda) sings his intentions, he gets pushback from his new brothers. Who the heck is this guy? they wonder. Burr, who is Hamilton’s foil throughout life (and the musical) tells him to keep his mouth shut. That toeing the line, instead of choosing a side, is how one gets ahead in life.

Hamilton doesn’t agree, and keeps singing his intentions from the proverbial rooftop.

Writing Prowess

Throughout the entirety of Hamilton, Miranda continues to bring back lines and melodies from earlier songs, including “My Shot,” bits of which are heard in the songs “Right Hand Man,” “Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down)” and more.

Inspired by the legacy and lineage of hip-hop, as Hamilton’s life progresses, Miranda mirrors his progression with that of the genre of rap, itself. First, the songs begin more rudimentary, utilizing end rhymes, but as they progress, the rapping and rhyming become more complex.

“My Shot” includes interpolations of lyrics from songs like “Shook Ones (Part II)” by Moby Deep and “Going Back to Cali” by The Notorious B.I. G. It also contained a line from “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” by Rogers and Hammerstein from the work South Pacific. All of these sources are given credit in the 2020 filmed version of Hamilton, which aired during the pandemic on the Disney+ streaming service.

More of the Meaning

What’s more American—indeed, indicative of the American Dream—than seizing an opportunity and not letting go? It’s something any aspiring artist can relate to in the country of milk and honey. Hard work and hope can take you far—that’s the idea, anyway.

So, for Hamilton, who is working to turn his life from poor immigrant with no family into a legacy, the song becomes his mantra. Think: Don Draper meets Miranda, himself.

The White House, COVID ‘Fallon’ and ‘SNL’

Miranda performed the song at the White House in 2016 in March for the Obamas.

Later, he performed a parody of it during an episode of Saturday Night Live, which Miranda hosted, also in 2016. In another parody, the popular rap band, The Roots, offered a version on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon in 2017.

In March 2021, a group of doctors known as Vax’n 8 released a remix of the song and a video called, “My Shot: A COVID Vaccinate Adaptation” which was meant to inspire people to get the vaccination for the COVID-19 disease.

Speaking of The Roots, the group recorded a remix version that featured legendary rapper Busta Rhymes and some other lyricists. That track peaked at No. 16 on the R&B/Hip-Hop Digital Song Sales chart. It was also featured on the Disney+ version.

The Best Lyrics

As mentioned, Miranda wrote a lot of words for his songs, including “My Shot.” Below are some of the best rhymes in the track:

I’ma get a scholarship to King’s College
I probably shouldn’t brag, but dang, I amaze and astonish
The problem is I got a lot of brains but no polish
I gotta holler just to be heard
With every word, I drop knowledge
I’m a diamond in the rough, a shiny piece of coal
Tryna reach my goal my power of speech, unimpeachable
Only nineteen but my mind is older
These New York City streets get colder, I shoulder
Every burden, every disadvantage
I have learned to manage, I don’t have a gun to brandish
I walk these streets famished

A colony that runs independently
Meanwhile, Britain keeps shittin’ on us endlessly
Essentially, they tax us relentlessly
Then King George turns around, runs a spendin’ spree
He ain’t ever gonna set his descendants free
So there will be a revolution in this century
Enter me, he says in parentheses

And I am not throwin’ away my shot
I am not throwin’ away my shot
Hey yo, I’m just like my country
I’m young, scrappy and hungry
And I’m not throwin’ away my shot 

Final Thoughts

Like the entirety of the musical, the song “My Shot” is a propelling, historical, meaningful offering meant to both educate on the past and push those seeking toward the future.

It’s an impeccable song that’s made its way around the world. It will get your heart racing and your mind working—all while bringing a smile and entertainment to your soul.

Check out the track below.

Photo opening night of ‘Hamilton’ by Brent N. Clarke/Getty Images

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