Review by Emily-Anne Mikos
Balzer + Bray, HarperCollins, February 2019
464 pages, hardcover $23.99 CAD, 978-0-06-249856-4
Ages 14-16, Grades 9-11
Young Adult, Contemporary Realism
“They’ve posted Bri’s song,” Curtis says.
I must’ve heard him wrong. There is no way. “Come again?”
Curtis opens the site on his phone. “See?”
There I am, on the front page of Blackout. They posted a picture from when I was in the Ring. The headline? “Teen Daughter of Murdered Underground Rap Legend Lawless Just Killed Us Her Damn Self with This New Heat!”
Side note: Do I have a name or nah? It’s short enough that it could’ve fit, too.
I’m willing to overlook that sexist BS for now. Right below the picture is an embedded player for “On The Come Up,” straight from my Dat Cloud page. According to the listeners count…
“Twenty thousand streams!” I shout. “I got twenty thousand streams!”
Every eye in the hall lands on me. Dr. Rhodes is a few feet away, and looks at me over her glasses.
Yeah, I’m loud. I don’t care.
In The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas helped readers find their voice. Now, in her second novel On the Come Up, she tells readers it’s time to use that voice to make some noise.
On The Come Up follows sixteen-year-old Bri Jackson, a high school student trying to balance racial-profiling security guards, ACT prep, her mother losing her job, and her long time dream of becoming the greatest rapper of all time. Struggling under the shadow of her father, an underground hip hop legend who died before he could make it, Bri must decide who she is against a world of people who would try to decide that for her. Hoodlum, drug dealer, gang member—people turn Bri into whoever they want in order to make her and her music fit into their own narrative. In a time where women of colour are told to keep their heads down and their words kind, Angie Thomas delivers us the gift of Bri: a headstrong, loud, and unfiltered girl who demands her voice to be heard.
The novel explores the complex nature of what it means to truly “be yourself” in a world that wants you to be someone else. Bri is the most herself when she is making her music, and speaking (or rapping) her truth as loud as she can, but is constantly pushed away from that lifestyle by authority figures in her life as well as the media. In her everyday life, Bri’s insistence to voice her opinions and not silence herself often results in her getting in trouble, pushing this narrative. She is regularly sent to the principal’s office and even suspended. To her white teachers, Bri is considered “argumentative” and “unruly.” To her friends, she’s just their nosy-but-lovable Bri. Similarly in her online life, Bri uploads several videos through Twitter and Instragram throughout the novel of her rapping or protesting in anger. While this helps her music and gives her a platform to build her career on, it skews her public perception cultivating in her getting shoved to the ground by her school security guards and being accused of drug dealing; all because two white security guards saw her rap online and didn’t like what they heard. Instead of the girl who wears a Pikachu onesie and sells candy to buy a pair of Timberlands, the media turns Bri into a black caricature: the “ratchet hood rat” that they expect and want her to be.
Although the presence of media throughout the novel creates a realistic feel that brings the story to life, the use of rapping throughout the narrative is what really makes On The Come Up stand out. Angie Thomas’s use of rhyme and Bri’s undeniable voice brings the raps to life, making the reader hear them as if they were listening the music itself. While there isn’t as much rapping in the novel as readers may expect, what is there is powerful and important.
On The Come Up is one of those stories that stay with you, long after you read it. Bri’s undeniable voice and character inspires me to find the power in my own voice. For any reader out there looking for a strong, female protagonist who isn’t afraid to speak up, Angie Thomas’s On The Come Up is the book for you.
Emily-Anne Mikos is a graduating student from the UBC Creative Writing BFA. She is currently writing her own novel and hopes to continue writing stories about women that don’t involve saviour complexes. She has decidedly abandoned real life for fictional worlds where bees are still thriving. #Savethebees.