By: Angie Haddock
Sixteen-year-old Bri wants to be one of the greatest rappers of all time. Or at least make it out of her neighborhood one day. As the daughter of an underground rap legend who died before he hit big, Bri’s got big shoes to fill. But now that her mom has unexpectedly lost her job, food banks and shutoff notices are as much a part of Bri’s life as beats and rhymes. With bills piling up and homelessness staring her family down, Bri no longer just wants to make it—she has to make it.
This one was on my shelf for a minute, and I’m so glad I finally got to it! Did I happen to finish it the same day the (streaming) movie came out, without even realizing they were making a movie? YES. But I’m not watching the movie version yet, so it won’t influence my review.
Our main character here is Bri, who lives with her mom and brother in a neighborhood called The Garden – the same neighborhood Thomas wrote about in “The Hate U Give.” The characters from these two books don’t directly intersect, but the events of that prior book still weigh on the residents of the neighborhood in this book.
Like all well-written characters, Bri has a lot going on – her home life and family, school stuff, and her hopes for someday being a famous rapper. Her dad was a rapper, too, but Bri gets tired of always being compared to him. She wants to make it on her own merits.
She and a few friends get bused into a different part of the city to go to an arts school. The school needs a certain percentage of minority students to get certain grants, but the school’s security guards (and some teachers) are used to treating black and brown kids with a little more suspicion than white kids. This leaves the BIPOC kids feeling like they are just “numbers” – like the school wants them for the dollars they bring in, but is not worried about them as actual people.
When this all boils over, it prompts Bri to write a song, titled “On the Come Up,” that talks about her being a thug. She’s not – but the point of the song was that people are going to see her that way no matter what she does. The song blows up – but also creates controversy. Some white moms want the song banned, pulled from streaming platforms, etc. because they don’t think it’s appropriate for kids to hear about toting guns. This brings up issues of censorship, of course, but also reiterates the points the kids are mad about at the school – like, which kids are worth protecting? Some parents think their kids shouldn’t even hear about this stuff, but some kids are actually living around it every day.
There are a few things I love about Thomas’ characters here. First, they are teens, and have some teen stuff going on in their lives – who likes who kind of stuff. But it’s not the focal point. It doesn’t even really affect the plot all that much. It’s present, but not the point. (Of course, you could make the argument that some kids have to “grow up” sooner than others, leading them to focus less on usual teen things.)
Also, there are a lot of big political issues here – but they are brought up through the interactions of these kids with their school, online critics, their own parents, or others in their environment. It’s not like Thomas has to go on some lengthy diatribe about censorship – Bri deals with it incrementally as the issue comes up in her life. And other issues of safety, cops in schools, etc. are brought up in similar fashions.
This is the second book by Angie Thomas that I’ve read, but if you’re at all interested in the YA genre, or books about black characters in America, I’d definitely recommend checking out her catalog.