On The Come Up

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.

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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.

The Hate U Give

Sixteen-year-old Starr lives in two worlds: the poor neighbourhood where she was born and raised and her posh high school in the suburbs. The uneasy balance between them is shattered when Starr is the only witness to the fatal shooting of her unarmed best friend, Khalil, by a police officer. Now what Starr says could destroy her community. It could also get her killed.

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“Listen! The Hate U – the letter U – Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody. T-H-U-G  L-I-F-E. Meaning what society give us as youth, it bites them in the ass when we wild out. Get it?”

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas is the book we all needed about an experience of blackness in America (and the UK, even though over here we like to pretend that racism is an American problem, like obesity and not knowing how to spell aluminium). Thomas’ raw and authentic story of the murder of an unarmed black teenager by a policeman and the ripple effect his death has on the lives of the protagonist and witness to the murder, Starr, her family (the Carters AKA my new favourite fictional family) and their community is hard not to fall in love with.

Starr is straddling two worlds. At home, she lives in a poor, majority black neighbourhood. Half the time the streets around her house are the centre of a gang war, and she spends a lot of evenings at home listening to the sound of nearby gunfire. At the private school she attends, she is one of the only black students. Surrounded by wealthy white people every day, Starr never feels she can truly be herself.

Seeing Starr exist in these two polar opposite environments shines a spotlight on the insidious and institutional racism that people of colour face every day. In Starr’s high school – as in much of society – whiteness is the norm. Starr, a black girl is ‘other’ and constantly preoccupied with being less so, with appearing agreeable, avoiding the stereotype of the ‘angry black woman’ and not speaking in a way her white peers might interpret as ‘ghetto’. To try to go outside of these social parameters is to be excluded from them. On one level, this is demonstrated by social exclusion – Starr’s friend Hailey, stops following her on tumblr after Starr starts posting material about black history and Black Lives Matter. At its most severe this exclusion is demonstrated by Khalil’s murder. Power is in the hands of the white people, and it is enforced by means from micro-aggression to murder.

The Hate U Give is a complex study of what it is to be black and poor. Through Khalil’s life and death, Starr sees how people in her community get trapped in cycles of poverty and violence. One of the aspects of Khalil’s life that the news pick up on after his death is that he was a drug dealer. As if this fact somehow justifies his death (it does not). Luckily for Starr, her father Big Mav is an advocate for Black Lives Matter and a passionate change maker within the community, so through a conversation with him – one of my favourite scenes in the book honestly. I adore Starr’s father – Starr looks at the aspects of Khalil’s life that forced him down the path that he took – “he got tired of choosing between lights and food.”

The wider reaction to Khalil’s murder is familiar and heart breaking. The news paint a picture of a drug dealer who had it coming, as the officer (murderer) in question as the true victim that night.  The opinion of so many is shown again in Starr’s ‘friend’, Hailey who, rather than being concerned with the unarmed boy who was murdered can only say of the police officer, his killer “His life matters too, you know?” No, Starr replies, that’s the problem: “his life matters more.”

All the pain and the violence forces Starr to find her voice. It makes her speak out, even when to do so is to put herself at risk of harm from the police and from the gangs in her neighbourhood. It is in equal parts inspiring and heart wrenching watching Starr’s anger transform into action.

“Once upon a time there was a hazel-eyed boy with dimples. I called him Khalil. The world called him a thug. He lived, but not nearly long enough, and for the rest of my life I’ll remember how he died. Fairy tale? No. But I’m not giving up on a better ending.”

Believe the hype. The Hate U Give is an extraordinary book. It’s raw, emotional and vital to our current political discourse. It also has some of the most wonderful characters you’re likely to read for a while. Starr’s family have shot right to the top of my favourite fictional families list. Her parents are complex and passionate individuals, and the strength of their relationship is Starr’s foundation. Seven is the big brother we all wish we had and Sekani is just adorable. I loved spending time with these people.

The Hate U Give is an emotional and political ride. Starr is a complex, funny, and smart character of the kind young black girls have needed for so long. The book dissects privilege and oppression, and why #alllivesmatter is not actually a thing in the face of a world where some lives are treated like they matter less.

You must read The Hate U Give. I can’t think of a more relevant novel right now.