Bri has so much she wants to say.
"My apologies, see, I forgot my manners
I get on the mic ‘cause it’s my life. You show off for girls and cameras. …
You talk about your clothes, about your shopping sprees
You talk about your Glock, about your i-c-e
But in this here ring, they all talking ‘bout me"
Sixteen-year-old Brianna wants to be a rapper. Rhyming distracts her from the ACT prep classes her mother insists she take at her magnet arts school and her feelings for longtime friend Malik. It’s an escape from the money troubles that mean there’s no heat at home and dwindling groceries in the fridge. And it gives her a megaphone to broadcast her reality, like when her wrists are zip-tied by a school security officer after she resists handing over her backpack.
Bri’s world is at the center of “On the Come Up” (Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins, $18.99) by Angie Thomas.
“This is not just music, it’s our culture," Thomas says.
"On the Come Up" is Thomas' topical, fascinating follow-up to her 2017 blockbuster debut “The Hate U Give.” That book inspired a film of the same name, and though this second novel hit shelves Feb. 5, the production team behind “Hate” already is on board for a film based on the new book. Thomas will be in Austin on Feb. 15 to read from "On the Come Up."
“This was an idea I had even before I had ‘Hate U Give.’" she says. "I always knew I wanted to write a book that paid homage to hip-hop. I had not seen that with young adult literature."
Bri lives in Garden Heights, the same fictional neighborhood inhabited by “Hate's” heroine Starr. But “Come Up” has a new cast of characters. There are Bri’s lifelong best friends, potential love interest Malik and studious Sonny. There’s Aunt Pooh, who deals drugs but also nurtures Bri’s rap career. There’s Bri’s brother, Trey, who graduated from high school and college with honors, and her mother, Jay, who lost years to addiction but is clean and trying to make it.
“We see a lot of stories about drug-addicted black mothers … but nobody talks about the once drug-addicted black mother who is still being judged by society, who is struggling through what society assumes about her,” Thomas says.
Shining a light on less-discussed topics is a passion of Thomas’, who explored police shootings of black teens in “Hate.” The book was longlisted for the National Book Award and has been on the New York Times best-seller list for more than 100 weeks. It was also among the top 10 books banned in 2017, according to the American Library Association: Katy ISD, for example, temporarily pulled the book from shelves after parent complaints.
“Come Up” raises more questions — about the nature of school policing, the depiction of African-Americans in media, and the double standard for girls and women, particularly those of color.
“If we're too loud or too passionate, suddenly we're ‘aggressive’ and ‘intimidating,’” Thomas says. “We make ourselves smaller to make others more comfortable. For black women, you have to do that even more so because of stereotypes. …
“Why is our anger a problem?” she asks. “Let's also remind people too that we're not just angry. Bri has her anger and her frustration, but that's not the only thing that she is. There’s nothing wrong with her being frustrated, considering the cards that have been dealt to her.
“What does it say about us as a society when we make black girls feel like there’s something wrong with them being angry or being passionate? If nothing else, I really want my book to help change the way people perceive black girls. They are more likely to be suspended than their white counterparts. They are more likely to get hits on their permanent record. I hope my book can change the way the people think about this, if it can get into people’s minds and give them a little bit of equity, allow them to be children.”
Like Bri, Thomas was an aspiring rapper as a teen. And like Bri, Thomas also saw firsthand how quickly poverty can consume a family. When Thomas was a teenager, her mother lost her job, and it plunged them into crisis. She says it was the most traumatic thing that has happened to her.
“One thing that I came to quickly realize is that, unfortunately, America punishes people for being poor, judges people for being poor,” she says. “You can see it in the policies so many of our politicians try to pass … there’s the whole stereotype of the 'welfare queen.' The majority of people on welfare don’t want to be on it. I hated being on food stamps. … Even to this day, I think about it. I can honestly say I am nowhere near poor … but there are still these moments that I get afraid that if anything goes wrong, it can all go away.
“One day can change everything. One thing can change your entire life. … I want to say to those kids who are dealing with this that I understand it, I get it, and I hope that in some ways I can give them a glimmer of hope to know that things can change.”