Book Review: On the Come Up

I just finished On the Come Up by Angie Thomas and think there needs to be a sequel to the book. It is that good. I read her novel The Hate U Give about a year ago and devoured it within a few days. For those who haven’t yet read the book, The Hate U Give is about a young black woman named Starr who loses her childhood friend when a police officer kills him. Star, over the course of the novel, learns to transform her grief into a call for everyone to protest racial profiling. This novel earned Angie Thomas a spot on The New York Times bestseller list and a movie starring Amandla Stenberg as Starr.

On the Come Up is also incredibly good. It is about a young black woman named Brianna (nicknamed “Bri”) Jackson who lives with her mom and her brother after the murder of her father, who was a prominent rapper. Bri, like her family, is struggling to make ends meet while aspiring to be a famous rapper, but then her Aunt Pooh encourages her to enter a rapping battle to get a record deal with Supreme, a prominent rapper who was in competition with Bri’s dad. Bri enters the battle even though her mom and teachers want her to focus on studying for the ACT so she can get into college, and she ends up roasting her rival, Supreme’s son Milez. Her song goes viral and everyone at school now knows who she is, but the further immersed she gets into her career as a rapper, the deeper in trouble Bri gets with her family and her friends. Jayda (nicknamed Jay), Bri’s mom was able to recover from her substance abuse and get a job at the local church, but when she gets laid off, she struggles to provide for herself, Bri and her son, Trey. Bri’s fame becomes the talk of the community, and not in a good way. One day, two police officers profile Bri and accuse her of having drugs in her backpack when she actually has candy she is selling to make money. Everyone at the school sings Bri’s hit, but a lot of people also criticize her because the lyrics seem to the public to glorify drug use, gun violence and money. Supreme tries to sell Bri out, but Bri eventually realizes how, in the end, the money and fame doesn’t matter if it jeopardizes your safety and the safety of your friends and family. She realizes that one can still be a rapper and not have to play into people’s mainstream ideas of who rappers are. In fact, rap can be used as a means of fostering community and addressing social injustice.

This book really spoke to me, especially with Trey’s character. Trey went to college, got straight A’s in high school, and got a degree in psychology. However, he couldn’t find jobs in his field, so he got a job working at a pizza restaurant to support the family while he looked for a better job and applying to graduate school. His grandfather pities him for having a college degree and working in food service, but Trey’s situation is a real reality that speaks to a lot of us millennials who get these college degrees but don’t have many opportunities after college to use these degrees in the real world. However, even though Trey doesn’t directly use his psychology degree in a job-market sense, he still uses it to his advantage when helping out Bri. In one scene, Bri cries because she is overwhelmed with the unwanted attention she is getting at school for getting her music out there, with her family’s financial situation, and with the death of her father. She gets on a radio show and calls out Hype, the interviewer, when he belittles her music and makes her out to be this violent person when she’s really just trying to survive, and she gets backlash from it. It is overwhelming, and she thinks she is weak for crying in front of Trey, but he tells her that crying doesn’t make you weak and that “admitting that you’re weak is one of the strongest things you can do.” (Thomas, p. 362)

This made me think of the film Moonlight, which is about Chiron, a young black gay man growing up at a time where no one other than a few people would accept him for who he is. In one scene, Chiron cries in the principal’s office because Kevin, the guy he fell in love with, beats him up after a homophobic school bully pressures him to do so. The principal tries to convince him that he should have told someone that he was being bullied, but Chiron tells her that she doesn’t know how hard it is for him to do that. In another scene, we see Juan, a drug dealer who supports Chiron when his mom doesn’t, break down and cry at the dinner table because Chiron is living this painful reality where kids at school are calling him slurs and his mom also neglects him at home, and he just doesn’t know what to tell this little kid when Juan himself is just trying to survive. This movie shows that crying is human, but that Hollywood hasn’t always been good about just letting black individuals, especially black men, have space to just release their pain through tears. I totally agree with Trey that crying doesn’t make you weak, even though our society has historically stigmatized the shedding of tears. Crying shows that you are willing to admit that something is wrong, and it is a powerful way to communicate. Of course, crying too much is not always a good thing (I’m an empath, trust me, I know). So even though it seems Trey’s degree is useless, it actually helps him read people and know what they are going through. This is how I feel with philosophy and Africana Studies. As much as people love to bash philosophy majors, our degree really isn’t useless because regardless of whether you pursue economics, STEM or the arts and humanities, you need a solid philosophy on which to base your studies, otherwise you’re just doing all this research with no purpose. Even when working all these different jobs not related to my major, I learned how to think and act like a philosopher. As a philosophy major I learned how to question everything: What is the purpose of being a creative? What is my purpose of life? Are there perks to being a perfectionist? I have applied philosophy to everything: when I listen to music, when I write, when I watch movies, when I go to my job every day, when I interact with my fellow human beings, when I perform music. I live philosophy every day even though I don’t get to sit in my dorm room and re-read Descartes’ Meditations ten times like I did in college.

The Mask Stereotype

Even though my second degree, Africana Studies, didn’t get me a job working at the Smithsonian (I still need to just get a ticket and go visit the National Museum of African American History), I have used my training as a philosophy major to think more deeply about the deep roots of black pain in our country’s history and how we can continue to address these roots through music, writing and other mediums of expression. When Bri’s song becomes a hit, Supreme goads her to do more music with lyrics about gun violence, but after understanding the risk that producing this music has on her loved ones, Bri realizes that Supreme is using her as a pawn to beef up his already successful career. When she goes into the studio expecting to rap her own lyrics, Supreme says Dee-Nice, another rapper, already wrote the song for her. She reads the lyrics and finds that it’s the same subject matter she rapped about in her hit: possessing guns and killing other people in the community if they criticize her. James, an older white man who is friends with Supreme at the record label, only has this single perception of the black community: problems. Everywhere problems. Drugs, gangs, violence, prison, unemployment. He doesn’t know rap’s potential to address the institutional inequality that caused these problems in the first place. But because James only cares about making a profit from Bri, he thinks that all she wants to rap about is “sassy black-girl sh*t” (Thomas 381) and that pigeonholing her will make the record label richer. However, as an outsider, Bri can see through their nonsense even though she has gained access to this rich powerful boys club of music producers, so she speaks to Supreme in private and tells him she’s got her own music and won’t rap what Dee-Nice wrote. Supreme tells her that she can’t worry about all that because she is in the music business and “this is about making money” because James has the money they don’t have to succeed in the business. In reality, if Bri were to keep making songs that didn’t personally speak to her, she would just keep getting paid less than a profit while James and Supreme enjoyed most of the money without really doing any of the real work themselves (aka writing the music from their hearts). The real work of an artist comes from actually doing the work, and that’s what record labels should value, not the constant promotion, touring or anything that doesn’t really help the artist make money.

Bri says this moment when Supreme is threatening to end her career reminds her of when she went to the zoo, and these little kids were making faces at the animals in the exhibit and trying to get them to come up to the glass or make sounds, solely for the sake of entertainment. Even though these animals didn’t obviously pay attention to these kids, Bri remembers feeling bad for the animals, and after giving in to Supreme and rapping the song Dee-Nice wrote, she feels like she’s “in an exhibit, and there’s a room full of people waiting for me to entertain them. I have to say what they want me to say. Be what they want me to hear” (Thomas 384). There is a concept I learned about in one of my Africana Studies classes, and that was “putting on the mask“, or what happens when black individuals feel like they are always performing for the public eye. Black individuals have diverse identities and experiences: straight, gay, trans, Democrat, Libertarian, Republican, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, biracial, multiracial, rich, poor, middle class, the list of identities goes on. However, race is about perception, and how people were brought up to view blackness can condition how one wants to see black people behave, and often these perceptions of blackness are not very well-founded. James operates from a position where he feels it’s okay to belittle Bri, her dad and other black citizens, because he promises her money and fame if she lets him say all these bigoted things about black individuals. Instead of feeling like she can be free with her music, Bri feels trapped in the industry and is trying to hold on to her sense of self, but when her mom finds out what happened, she asks Bri who she really is and Bri can’t answer on the spot because she has other people telling her who she is. She realizes that she can still kill it as a female rapper without catering to macho big-wigs who couldn’t care less about her humanity.

This book reminded me so much of the film Dope. In the film Malcolm, Diggy and Jib are three high school “geeks” living in Inglewood who love ’90s hip-hop, want to go to college and play in a punk band called Awreeoh. The school bullies pick on them for loving these things, and when a drug dealer named Dom invites him and his friends to a party, Dom and the other partygoers at first make fun of them, but then when Malcolm finds out that Dom put a gun and cocaine in his backpack and Malcolm and his friends sell the cocaine on the black market, they suddenly become popular very fast. But when they get further enmeshed into the pickle of selling the cocaine, Malcolm’s ego gets in the way and I worried his friends were going to desert him. But Jib and Diggy stick with him through the whole thing even if it nearly costs them their future dreams. The friendship between Jib, Diggy and Malcolm reminded me of the friendship between Bri and her friends Sonny and Malik. They give each other the Wakanda handshake from the film Black Panther :

and they also love quoting Yoda from Star Wars. Their friendship is tight, and even when Bri’s hit goes viral and gets her backlash, they stick through with her all the way. I also liked how Bri and Malik never make Sonny feel different from them just because he is gay. Similarly, Jib and Malcolm love Diggy for who she is even when other people make fun of her for being a lesbian. As a queer POC, I was really happy that the rare gay characters were well-represented in Dope and On the Come Up.

While reading the book, I couldn’t help but plead in my mind: pleeeasse let there be a movie for this. And sure enough, I Googled “on the come up movie” and Variety had just published a piece a couple of months ago about Fox purchasing the rights to produce the upcoming film based on the novel. I cannot begin to emphasize how important it is that we teach The Hate U Give and On the Come Up in our high school English classes (then again, I am light-years removed from high school, so I don’t know how the curriculum is nowadays). We need to give kids of all races, especially young Black and Latino kids, an opportunity to read books where they feel well-represented. I remember we read the occasional Gwendolyn Brooks poem for English class and Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street, but for the most part the books we read had few to no POC characters with rich backstories and character development, and a lot of the authors were, frankly speaking, dead white men. After taking Africana Studies and reading literature by writers such as Teju Cole, Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie and Nell Larsen, I at first got angry because I never got to read these writers in school, but then came to appreciate in the end my college education and understand how much of a privilege it was to have access to even just knowing these writers exist and that they published these deeply personal written works for us to read. Not everyone knows these works exist, and English teachers who just have their students only read books such asThe Great Gatsby, Huckleberry Finn and Julius Caesar aren’t giving their students a chance to know that narratives like those of Star and Brianna exist. On the Come Up is especially powerful because it encourages kids who might want to be rappers or other musicians that, while it’s okay to make money from your art to pay your bills and put bread on the table, music should also speak to social inequalities and musicians not be afraid of speaking up when something is wrong or people are taking advantage of their well-being. Brianna later uses her music to address the sexism she has encountered as a female rapper and people’s expectations for her to be someone she isn’t. As a musician who doesn’t say much, Bri’s story was inspiring for me because as an introvert she uses her music to express her anger. At this point, after watching so much news, it’s hard for me to express how overwhelming it is. I could just shut it off and not think about it, but I feel inspired after reading On the Come Up to use my music to address racial injustice, climate change, sexism, domestic violence and other forms of injustice. I recently came across this powerful performance of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings by a cellist named Cremaine Booker, and in the video description he dedicates the performance to the late Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, two unarmed black men who died at the hands of police in 2016. After seeing the performance I gained the confidence to use my music to address things that make me angry but that I don’t have the words to express my anger about. I have seen orchestras on YouTube perform this beautiful solemn piece, but Cremaine’s was the first version I have seen that was directly dedicated to addressing social injustice.

The Power of Communication in the Book

The novel also addresses language’s power to both heal and hurt people. I was at lunch with some coworkers a few weeks ago, and one of my white coworkers said to us aloud that she was annoyed with all the “hood-rats” texting and flirting with her son. I was sitting right next to her, and wish I had spoken up, but I didn’t because I was so worried that somehow me speaking up would sour our relationship (then again, it’s probably advisable to not get overly chummy with your coworkers). This comment haunted me, but instead of speaking up, I got up and left to get a snack, leaving them to keep talking and trying to get my mind off of it. The scene that gave me the confidence to speak up if anything like that happens again was when Hype is interviewing Bri about her song and he basically calls her the term “hood-rat.” She shreds him to pieces (and rightfully so) for calling her that term because if you know anything about the term “hood-rat”, it’s derogatory towards poor black women, even if pop culture likes to make it seem like an endearing term, and even though people like my coworker think it’s okay to just throw the term around. In retrospect, she could have used “girls” or “kids” to refer to the young ladies texting her son, and yet to be funny or seem cool, she chose to use “hood rat” to describe the young ladies. I remember feeling the sting of her using that word, and yet I was trying to protect myself by not speaking up. As someone with class privilege I especially felt bad about not speaking up, especially because we were in a rather wealthy area and all of us were to some degree privileged. But reading On the Come Up gave me the confidence to bring out my inner philosopher and ask people next time they use terms like “ghetto” or “hood rat” or “ratchet” loosely: what does it mean? why do you think it is okay to say that term? Can you use an alternative? Of course, I also need to check myself, too, because it’s easy to talk a lot without thinking about what one is saying or whether one is in the position to define something to someone else, and a lot of times I forget that. But this is the point of dialogue; you have to initiate tough discussions and ask questions, and it’s not necessarily to change someone’s mind immediately, but even just talking about it is a starter. Bri learns to use music as a means of communicating her feelings, but she also develops a stronger sense of self after openly communicating with her mother and brother. She learns that genuine heart-to-heart dialogue can’t always be found in a large boxing ring or a flashy studio and that to initiate dialogue starts with our own willingness to come out of our shells and have honest open communication. I myself am gradually working on this but have come to embrace open dialogue while also embracing my identity as a quiet person.

Excellent novel. I wouldn’t mind reading it again. Truly a blessing to read another awesome work by Angie Thomas! 🙂

On the Come Up. Angie Thomas. 452 pp. 2019.

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