Long before his Flash-like rhyming as the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson in the Lin-Manuel Miranda-penned Broadway sensation earned him a Tony Award nod, Diggs was semi-homeless in New York.
After graduating from Brown University with a degree in theater in 2004, the Oakland-born rapper-thespian, 34, moved to New York. By day, he would go on every audition he could find, and at night, he would couch-surf among his friends’ apartments or sleep on the subway. (He preferred the 2 train) In hindsight, living like that was hard, but it didn’t feel like that at the time.
“I was young and had a lot of friends and was having adventures in New York,” Diggs tells PEOPLE. “I was pursuing things I wanted to do.”
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For Diggs, that time was a learning experience that set him on the road to his current successes because he realized he had to actively chase his dreams and stop “waiting for somebody to let me be an artist.”
“I kept asking to be in this thing, to be in somebody’s thing. And you can’t do that,” he says. “Artists make art, and if nobody is putting you in a thing, you have to make it yourself.”
With that in mind, Diggs moved back to the Bay Area and started focusing on his rap career, writing scripts with his friends and teaching poetry classes, which he found inspiring because of his students. He also joined the experimental rap group Clipping.
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With the success of Hamilton, Diggs has had the opportunity to hang out with some of his favorite rappers like Busta Rhymes and Chance the Rapper (he was in the studio when Chance was working on Coloring Book). Diggs is also starring in Baz Luhrmann‘s upcoming Netflix drama about the birth of hip-hop in New York, The Get Down.
“I’m very grateful for it and to have this platform, and I’m really grateful to be recognized amongst my peers,” he says.
And while he’s enjoying the accolades and opportunities, he’s making sure he doesn’t grow complacent. “This could go away tomorrow and I could go right back to eating ramen and couch surfing,” he says. “What nobody’s ever going to take away from me is the experience I’ve had creating this show.”
“I go home and in the hour of free time I have right now, I work on songs, doing the things that I know how to do and that make me happy,” says Diggs. “All of this is lovely, but at the end of the day, I’m just going to go back to making art the way I always have.”