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I grew up never worrying the power was going to be cut off, never worried about rent. Brianna lives in a poor suburb, and her mum has lost her job, which sees the gas, the electricity and the rent in arrears. My life up to age 16 is about as different from Brianna’s as it is possible to be. That is why I read, and why I have always read widely.
‘We can’t have any power, either… All these people I’ve never met have way more control over my life than I’ve ever had. If some Crown hadn’t killed my dad, he’d be a big rap star and money wouldn’t be an issue. If some drug dealer hadn’t sold my mom her first hit, she would’ve got her degree already and would have a good job.’
Bri lives in the Garden, where the recent shooting of an unarmed African-American boy saw their part of town erupt in riots, resulting in a destroyed suburb centre. She reflects, ‘I’m a hoodlum from a whole bunch of nothing.’ She is 16, and meant to be studying for her SATs, but she’s a talented rapper who can’t help seeing a career in hip-hop as a way out for her family. Her mum Jay is an ex-drug addict who is doing college classes to help her get ahead, and her brother Trey graduated college but hasn’t yet got a decent job. Her Aunt Pooh is the biggest supporter of her dreams, getting her a breakthrough invite to The Ring, where Bri battles another rapper to be the best.
Angie Thomas has evoked setting and characters effortlessly. Bri’s habit of thinking in rhyme, in couplets fills in her life for us. Her relationships with best friends Malik and Sonny, as well as with her brother, help us understand her motivations. One day, at school, she is slammed on the ground by a pair of racist security guards. Soon after, faced with the chance to write a song for a beat with a small-time music producer her Aunt knows, she wrote about her experience, then some – ‘Strapped like backpacks, I pull triggers; all the clips on my hips change my figure.’
Despite those who know her well urging caution – that’s not the life she lives – she uploads it, and her dad’s former manager Supreme picks up the song and sends it viral. Soon enough, she realises she has made a mistake, as kids follow her, rapping those lines; and as kids sing her song before a riot begins. Bri’s journey towards understanding herself and what she wants from the world of hip-hop is the centre of On the Come Up. The tension is real as she navigates racism, false expectations and infamy, as well as her own rage and frustration, to own her own narrative.
One of the other themes of the book is friendship & romance. Sixteen is an age at which friendships begin to either intensify or wane. Bri thinks she is in love with her best friend Malik, but Malik gets a girlfriend. The fallout from this barrier drives a wedge between she and Malik and their friend Sonny, who is gay and in love with someone else entirely. This is a universal theme, complicated by circumstances. ‘I know your mum works hard and y’all aren’t rich, but you’ve got it better than me. We didn’t have lights for awhile, Malik. We’ve barely had food some days… My freaking shoes fell apart, bruh.’
Thomas has not shied away from using social media and its impact on young lives as a theme in the book; she also uses teenage language so fluidly I’d swear she was a teen. I’ve seen so many authors now set their books in an earlier period, simply to avoid these ways of communicating that they don’t understand. Thomas gets it, and not only that, she was a teen rapper herself – though if you’ve heard her name, it’s probably thanks to her smash hit debut novel The Hate U Give.
Read this book if you enjoy gripping, real YA. It’s a story that needs to be heard, from a part of America that is ignored and disempowered on a daily basis.
Reviewed by Sarah Forster
On the Come Up
by Angie Thomas
Published by Walker Books