In ‘On the Come Up,’ Angie Thomas shows us that freedom of speech isn’t free for some girls

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In this Oct. 10, 2018 photograph, Angie Thomas, a Jackson, Miss., resident whose book, “The Hate U Give,” had been on a national young adult best-seller list for over 80 weeks, speaks to reporters after signing copies of her book prior to a reception in Jackson, Miss. 

How do you replicate the powerhouse debut novel, “The Hate U Give?” You don’t. Or at least Angie Thomas didn’t. She took a different and, arguably, more personal path for her second novel, “On the Come Up.”

Where T.H.U.G.’s Starr taught young people they have a voice, Bri Jackson, our “Come up” protagonist, will help them amplify it — literally. Bri is a rapper who sees her dream of hip-hop greatness — her “come up”— as a chance to feed and protect her family. She’s also a 16-year-old who’s worried about boys, friends and showing off her knowledge of the Black Panther Marvel comic and Star Wars (look for mounds of other pop culture references that make parts of the book feel like its own gold-paved stroll down a hip-hop Hollywood Walk of Fame).

Bri knows she’s got the heart and skill to make it, but she also lives in the shadow of her local legend father who was murdered when she was a toddler and deals with the near-constant anxiety of her mom’s tenuous addiction recovery. For Bri, rapping is both a mental escape from grief and a way out of a neighborhood filled with painful memories. But as her rap career soars, she realizes success comes with strings attached.

If T.H.U.G. introduced us to Thomas, “On the Come Up” is where we really get to know her. Thomas too rapped for a time before she switched gears to writing novels, but has said it was writing and spitting rhymes that helped her realize, to borrow a line from Outkast, that she had something to say.

Thomas writes about the lived experience of grief in a way only someone who intimately knows loss can. When it comes to grief and its dimensions, Thomas gets it. Like grief itself, her prose offers the reader ebbs and flows, pervading the gray space between sorrow and growth, hitting you like an unexpected wave and knocking you off your path.

And somehow, despite it all, you keep going — and keep reading.

HaperCollins

The jacket of Angie Thomas’ second novel.

“On the Come Up” echoes themes prevalent in Thomas’ first book, but on a smaller scale and shows us how one of our culture’s bedrock principles, that young people should be free to express themselves, doesn’t always apply to young women like Bri. For her, music is a way to make sense of and find a way out of the cycle of poverty, violence and addiction that has ravaged her family and many others around her. But to the authority figures in her life, it’s just violent noise that needs to be silenced.

For Bri, the harder she fights for the freedom to express herself, the further she falls into the “angry black girl” stereotype, as society decided that free expression is not a right afforded to poor girls from the hood, Thomas told the New York Times.

The novel also pays homage to Thomas’ hometown of Jackson — from the scenes take place at Midtown Arts High School and Sal’s pizza spot, which could refer to a neighborhood and popular eatery in the capital city, to the protagonist’s surname.

Other references to Mississippi are more sobering, reflecting some of the time’s most heated debates. Bri’s attempts to navigate a mostly white charter school highlights the school-choice debate while the book also touches on the social and environmental determinants of health, the social safety net, educational disparities and racial profiling.

And Bri’s neighborhood Garden Heights ( also the setting for T.H.U.G), is not dissimilar from where Thomas grew up in Jackson’s Georgetown neighborhood, which she told us last year, is “unfortunately known for all the wrong reasons” for the prevalence of drugs and gang activity.

Thomas reminds us to contextualize our surroundings, lift up our people and never let anybody reduce your agency. And for young women of color who feel looked over or lumped in, she sees you and knows you.

You got this.

“On the Come Up” (HarperCollins, $19) will be released Tuesday, Feb. 5. Lemuria Books in Jackson has scheduled a reading by Thomas for Feb. 28th, but has not announced the location.