Review

Rap and racism through the eyes of a black teen

ON THE COME UP By Angie Thomas
ON THE COME UP By Angie Thomas

YOUNG ADULT

ON THE COME UP

By Angie Thomas

Walker Books/ Paperback/ 439 pages/ $16.91/Major bookstores

4 stars

"I might have to kill somebody tonight," says 16-year-old Brianna Jackson in the first line of On The Come Up.

She doesn't mean it literally - she plans to slay her opponent verbally in a rap battle - but that uncertainty, a double meaning made slippery in a world where stereotypes shape fates, fuels American author Angie Thomas's fearless, whip-smart novel about rap and racism.

On The Come Up is set in Garden Heights, the same fictional neighbourhood as Thomas's powerful debut The Hate U Give (2017).

This time, the protagonist is Bri, who dreams of being the greatest rapper of all time - like her father would have been, had he not been gunned down before he hit the big time. But Bri has other problems: Her mother has lost her job and is struggling to find another because of her past as a drug addict; her aunt deals drugs for a local gang; and Bri herself is being racially profiled by security guards at her school, where she is one of a handful of black students.

Sick of the stereotypes, she writes a song in which she appears as the unruly thug society expects her to be: "Strapped like backpacks, I pull triggers/All the clips on my hips change my figure."

Unfortunately, such nuance is lost when the song goes viral. Bri is offered a chance at fame and easing her family's financial situation - but at the cost of playing a damaging persona that she is no longer sure she can distinguish from her real self.

The breezy verve of Thomas' prose, laden with teenage comebacks and Black Panther references, is at the same time a sensitive, complex take on racial stereotyping and what that does to a young person.

Bri resists the circulation of a video that will prove her victimisation "because all of a sudden, even more people will try to justify what happened to me, and it'll get so loud that I may start thinking that I deserved it to begin with".

Thomas' passion for hip-hop shows in how she breaks down Bri's craft in inner monologues, but does not cloud her critical gaze towards the glamorising of street violence and misogyny.

When Bri lashes out on air at a DJ for insinuating she has a ghost-writer, he cites pre-menstrual syndrome and plays a laugh track.

Fierce and funny, this is the sort of book that will ring true for young readers, yet transcends the label of "young adult".

If you like this, read: Rani Patel In Full Effect by Sonia Patel (Cinco Puntos, 2016, $18.24, Books Kinokuniya). Rani, a Gujarati Indian teenager on the Hawaiian island of Moloka'i, reacts to a family trauma by shaving her head and joining an underground hip-hop crew as her alter-ego MC Sutra.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 19, 2019, with the headline 'Rap and racism through the eyes of a black teen'. Print Edition | Subscribe