Back in 2015, Daveed Diggs made his breakout performance in the Broadway musical and cultural phenomenon “Hamilton.” Diggs had met Lin-Manuel Miranda in an improv hip-hop group called Freestyle Love Supreme, and the “Hamilton” creator would later have Diggs read for a part. Diggs originated the roles of Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson in the off-Broadway production and he continued those parts when the show was moved to Broadway. Since then, Diggs has achieved a great deal of success in both music and film, but with the release of the “Hamilton” film on Disney+, his performance is receiving new attention.
The narrative surrounding “Hamilton” has quickly shifted. With many watching the production for the first time it has become increasingly difficult to ignore the oversights taken in service of celebrating the Founding Fathers. In 2020, “Hamilton” feels even more like the last gasp of the “post-racial” rhetoric pushed during the Obama administration. It is the “I would have voted for him a third term if I could” of Broadway shows. But the talent on display is undeniable and Diggs’ performance stands out among the best.
From his first appearance on stage, it is clear that Diggs is a thoroughly magnetic performer. He moves with a stunning physicality and, while the cast is made up of some respectable rappers, he is in a tier of his own. Unfortunately, “Hamilton” has become so culturally pervasive that Diggs is commonly referred to as “Thomas Jefferson” or “that guy from Hamilton,” despite being involved in a wide variety of artistic feats. “Hamilton” may have been Diggs’ breakout performance but what he’s done outside of it is far more impressive.
Diggs grew up in Oakland, California, with a Black father and a Jewish mother. He was scouted by Brown University for track and proceeded to break various records for the school while pursuing a degree in theater. It was around then that Diggs began competing in slam poetry competitions.
“When I started, it was a way to present my ideas in a way that people would listen to,” he told The Guardian. “I was a poor Black kid from east Oakland; nobody had any reason to listen to me. Historically, no one listened to me. But all of a sudden with this trick of making it sound pretty, everybody was not only hearing you but excited to hear what you were going to say next. That’s a very powerful thing for a kid to learn.”
In 2010 he joined producers William Hutson and Johnathan Snipes as the writer and vocalist for the experimental rap group clipping. The group has released two mixtapes and three albums since Diggs joined. Over the last decade, clipping. has created a distinct blend of electronic, noise music and hip-hop and acts as a tightly crafted vessel for Diggs’ creativity and technical ability.
On their 2019 release, “There Existed an Addiction to Blood,” Diggs glides over horror-inspired industrial beats like a sci-fi obsessed Andre 3000. The album has been described as “a transmutation of horrorcore,” a niche genre of rap music inspired by horror films, and showcases Diggs’ unique talent for storytelling. Hutson and Snipes pull sounds from every imaginable source, including fire, nocturnal insects and Blacksploitation vampire movies. The album ends with an 18-minute-long track titled “Piano Burning,” which is quite literally just the sound of a piano burning.
Diggs is never at a loss of creativity. The group’s previous album, “Splendor and Misery,” is an Afrofuturist space opera that was nominated for the 2017 Hugo Awards in the category of best dramatic presentation (short form). The plot follows a slave that breaks free on a spaceship, told from the perspective of the ship’s artificial intelligence. The ship may fall in love with him at some point (it’s complicated).
Between writing, acting, rapping and producing, Diggs has become an extremely productive multi-hyphenate. On being an artist, Diggs told The Guardian, “I think you have to make choices about what your needs are. I realized pretty early on that I needed a certain degree of creative fulfillment in my life. I was not happy and also not functional without it. I was the worst person in the world, so that led me to trying to figure out how to maximize the amount of time I could spend on art with the minimum amount of income.”
After “Hamilton,” Diggs produced, wrote and starred in the 2018 film “Blindspotting,” which takes place in his native Oakland. The film features Diggs as Collin, a man trying to live out the final three days of his parole without getting into trouble, despite the pressures of his volatile best friend. This is made especially difficult after Collin witnesses a police officer shoot an unarmed Black man in the back. The film loosely draws from Diggs’ upbringing in Oakland and his experience being Black in America.
“I got pulled over the first time, five days after I got my driver’s licence, I was 16,” says Diggs. “My car was surrounded by four police cars, one of them walking up to the door with his hand on his gun. Because I had forgotten to turn my lights on and I was driving at night.” Diggs also recounted to the Guardian an experience that happened to him just before he started “Hamilton.” “Two days before I left LA to move to New York to work on Hamilton, I got pulled off of my bike and thrown up against a fence by police officers who thought I fitted a description. These events keep happening. It doesn’t change. And so you live with it.”
Most recently, Daveed Diggs starred in the television adaptation of Bong Joon-ho’s 2013 thriller, “Snowpiercer,” and has lent his voice to the Apple TV animated comedy “Central Park.” Later this year Diggs will play a role in Disney Pixar’s next film, “Soul,” and will play Fredrick Douglass in the Ethan Hawke-led miniseries “The Good Lord Bird.”