Sixteen-year-old Bri wants to be one of the greatest rappers of all time. It’s hard to get your come up, though, when you’re labelled “trouble” at school and your fridge at home is empty after your mom loses her job. But Bri’s success is all that stands between her family and homelessness, so she doesn’t just want to make it – she has to. Even if it means becoming exactly what the public expects her to be.
Angie Thomas’s second novel, On The Come Up is one of my favourite teen coming-of-age stories in a very long time. Thomas writes characters that reach right out of the pages and into your heart, and Bri was no different. Bri is the kind of girl I always wished I was as a teen (as an adult too, if I’m being totally honest). She’s funny, smart, driven and unapologetically herself. This girl takes no shit, and even as her situation gets out of hand and her sense of self becomes complicated by her intense (and totally justified) desire for success, fast, there is a piece of her heart that she always keeps for herself.
In On The Come Up, Thomas once again places her black characters in majority white spaces, using high school as a base to explore the racism Bri experiences on a daily basis as a young black woman. Bri is every inch the typical teenager – loud and with some serious attitude. For a white student, these things are pretty much allowed and expected. But Bri is forever getting suspended, sent out of class and accused of “aggressive behaviour” for actions that would earn a white student little more than a glare from a teacher. She and her black friends are consistently harassed by school security with bag checks, pat downs, and – the event that becomes the catalyst for many of Bri’s actions during the novel – physical restraint. Bri is thrown to the floor and restrained by her school’s guards over nothing more than a rucksack full of “illicit” chocolate bars.
At school Bri is called “hoodlum”, and she fears this is all she’ll ever be seen as. In response she does the only thing she can – she keeps making her art. She writes a song – ‘On The Come Up’ – about her experiences with the guards, the violence in her neighbourhood and the stereotyping she fights against. She takes this idea of the “hoodlum” and she uses the song to play with that identity and unpick the expectations placed on her by white priviledge. ‘On The Come Up’ is a battle cry for self determination and a rejection of the “hoodlum” narrative – unfortunately it is interpreted as exactly the opposite.
As Bri advances her career, her identity is hijacked by forces that recognise the exact narrative Bri rails against as one that will make them the most money. Suddenly instead of being a space that is expansive, one where she can communicate herself and her experiences in a complex and nuanced way (AKA the thing that white artists take for granted), rap becomes another space in which Bri’s possibilities begin to shrink. The money and fame she so desires are accessible to her – but only if she plays to expectations based in racism and ignorance.
Bri is trapped. If she expresses her anger she is stereotyped as the ‘angry black woman’, the hoodlum by white bloggers who write of songs instigating violence side by side with posts about why they’ll never give up their guns – but silence is not in her nature. Nor should it be. What makes On The Come Up such a remarkable read is the amount of obstacles Bri encounters in trying to assert her own voice.
For Bri, claiming her identity in a world that imposes its ideas on her – both in words and through acts of violence – is a constant battle. And she gets tired – she gets exhausted – but she always gets back up.
If you’ve been around this blog for a while you’ll likely have noticed that identity is the focus of a lot of my reviews. I’m obsessed with the ways that people become themselves, and while On The Come Up is a story about that, it’s also so much more. If you’ve read The Hate U Give, you’ll know Angie Thomas knows how to write a family you want to immediately be adopted into, and Bri’s is no different. From her complex relationship with her mother to her lovely interactions with her brother, every family scene had my heart in my mouth. The love Bri’s family have for each other is real and tangible – it’s only when I read Thomas’s books that I reflect on how rare it is to read that narrative of family life.
On The Come Up is a remarkable novel, and however long I make this review its unlikely I’m ever going to do it justice. Angie Thomas is a force within YA literature, writing timely and necessary stories of complicated black lives we need to read.