Angie Thomas’s bestselling 2017 debut The Hate U Give was the story of a 16-year-old who witnesses the police shooting of a friend. The follow-up focuses on another 16-year-old, Brianna “Bri” Jackson, who is trying to lift her family out of poverty with her rapping talent. Her life is a struggle. Her rapper father was shot dead 12 years previously by a rival gang. Her mother, Jay, has been clean of crack for eight years, but Bri constantly fears a relapse. Her beloved Aunty Pooh sells drugs, while her paternal grandmother is disdainful of Jay’s ability to care for Brianna and her brother, Trey. Often, the family has to choose between gas, electricity or food.
Bri has talent. She has the lyrics, the knowledge and the passion. When she raps “Strapped like backpacks, I pull triggers. All the clips on my hips change my figure” she is challenging the hoodlum stereotype, but the public see it as a boast. Soon she has gained notoriety as the dangerous, angry black girl from the projects – a persona that, according to her father’s old manager, could make her serious money.
The plot charts Bri’s rise alongside the gradual realisation of the consequences of her fame: violence, friendships lost and the hopes of her local community who want her, like her father, to show them a way out. For me, though, the novel’s strength lies in the way it explores the loves, fears and friendships of an African American community that is doing its best to survive under an increasingly hostile administration.
The book’s universe is the same as that in The Hate U Give, and the events of that novel resonate through this one. The sheer grind of prejudice, double standards and racism is an everyday feature in everybody’s lives. When level-headed, academically gifted Trey can only get a job in a pizza restaurant, is it surprising that 10-year-old Jojo can’t wait to be a gang member? The book doesn’t shy away from challenging Bri’s own community – the homophobia, pointless gang feuds and living up to thuggish Glock-toting stereotypes.
This makes On the Come Up sound worthy and heavy going, but it is actually joyous and very funny. Bri often acts without thinking, with potentially dangerous consequences, but she is deeply loyal and has a great repertoire of one liners, complaining that her “cornrows are so tight that I can feel my thoughts”. Her friendship with Sonny and Malik is exquisitely portrayed, echoing their mothers – when they go out to eat, ‘their butts will be sitting there laughing and talking until the restaurant closes’. It is also a celebration of African American cultural achievement in music, TV and film, bursting with references that feel like a gift to readers who don’t usually see their lives represented in this way.
• Patrice Lawrence’s Orangeboy (Hodder) won the YA book prize. On the Come Up is published by Walker. To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.
Source: The Guardian