Brianna Jackson has dreams of rap stardom. The daughter of a famous underground rapper, Brianna also has the sheer chops to achieve those dreams. But after her mother loses her job and material pressures close in around her, Brianna become more focused on her family staying afloat in Garden Heights than on getting out of Garden Heights.
For author Angie Thomas, Brianna's story is a personal one. "I know Briannas. I myself was a Brianna," Thomas told Refinery29 in a phone interview. For On the Come Up, Thomas' highly anticipated follow-up to her blockbuster novel The Hate U Give, also set in Garden Heights, Thomas channeled her experiences growing up poor in Mississippi. “I had to think about my own big tragedy when I was a teenager. Fortunately for me, I didn’t experience what Starr experienced in The Hate U Give. My big tragedy when I was a teen was when my mom lost her job. It really changed my life. It put my family into crisis mode," Thomas said.
Thomas wrote On the Come Up for her younger self — the girl who wanted to be a rapper, the girl who saw herself in hip hop, not books. In doing so, she speaks to other kids like her. "I understood that desire to do something that seems so impossible at times but at other times feels possible. It was important for me to talk to those kids and validate those kids," she said. Like The Hate U Give, On the Come Up is destined for major cultural impact – a movie deal with Fox was just announced. We spoke to Thomas about the connections between The Hate U Give and On the Come Up, whether Bri and Starr would be friends, and leaving Mississippi.
Refinery29: The Hate U Give became an instant classic. With that in mind, what was it like sitting down to write a follow up?
Angie Thomas: "It was really hard. At first it felt like there were a thousand eyes looking over my shoulder at every line that I wrote. It was as if they were saying, ‘Starr wouldn’t say that.’ I had to get in the mindset of, ‘Well, Brianna would say it.’ I had to follow the advice that I give aspiring writers all the time: 'Write for yourself, first and foremost. Not for potential readers, not for a movie. Write it because it’s the book you want to walk into a bookstore and read one day.' I had a lot of people saying, ‘Oh, it’s set in Garden Heights! That means we’ll get to see Starr.’ I had to get to the point of saying, ‘No. Since it’s not something I want to do, I'm not going to do it.’ I tell my readers all the time: 'I wasn’t thinking about y’all. I love y’all, but I wasn't think about y’all. I had to write it for me.'”
The two books are connected, though. How did you gauge how far you were willing to take the little easter eggs that reference The Hate U Give?
“I made a conscious decision not to have any characters from The Hate U Give come in. But so much that happened in The Hate U Give would affect not just Garden Heights but Bri’s life, too, inevitably. They set her big tragedy into motion. There are little bits and pieces where you can see the connection between books — like the church and Brianna's landlord. It was hard not to throw some stuff in, I can’t lie. I had to really restrain myself. But I feel like it was worth it. Because if nothing else it forced me to not be lazy.”
Like Starr, Brianna finds herself in the middle of a racially charged situation, for which she’s reluctant to become a poster child. But ultimately, they’re really different people. How would you compare the girls?
“I often compare Brianna and Starr to Biggie and Tupac. Not with the beef, though. Starr is more community oriented like Pac was, and Brianna is more about trying to ‘make it’ like Biggie was. They’re two sides of the same coin. These are two young girls who have voices and come to understand that those voices are powerful. If nothing else, they both care about others beyond themselves so much that they’re willing to put themselves out there in ways that could put them at risk.”
Do you think Starr and Brianna would ever meet and get along?
“Yeah. I could see Starr listening to Bri’s music and Bri listening to Starr’s activism. I could see them clashing a little bit because Starr would be concerned about how the things that Brianna raps about how affect young people in their neighbourhood. With Bri, I think she’d say, ‘Is anybody really caring about what’s happening to people in our neighbourhood beyond the Khalil tragedy?’ That’s where they’d have to come to some sort of understanding.”
Put together, the books have such striking images. Did you work at all with the design team to create Brianna?
“I wanted her to look victorious. That was really important to me. Even though she’s turned away from the camera, she’s looking back at us — the reader — as if to say, ‘I’m here, you’re going to listen to me, I’m a force to be reckoned with.’ I wanted her to own that cover. When you put the covers together side-by-side, you see these two black girls who are confronting you. They’re not shying away from you.”
As you mentioned, you were a rapper when you were a teenager. How your past experience as a rapper tie in to when you sit down and write a novel? Do you use the same part of your brain?
“I often say I want to write the way that rappers rap. One thing young people love so much about hip-hop is that it’s real and raw and doesn’t hold back. They don't want people to hold back with them. As a writer, I don’t want to hold back. I don’t want to be phony. I want to be real with kids even when it makes people uncomfortable. That’s what hip-hop taught me.
“As for my whole experience as a rapper...I didn’t make it far at all. One thing I unfortunately had to learn early was that it’s a man's game. That’s something Brianna dealt with: You have to work twice as hard to be considered half as good. That’s also something that I take with me as a writer of colour entering publishing, which is mostly white. I have to work twice as hard to be considered half as good."
This book gave you an opportunity to actually write raps. What was that like?
“It was hard. I’m rusty. I realised early on, 'What the heck am I doing? Why did I decide to write raps?' As someone who respects the art form so much, I didn’t want to come up short. My biggest hope is that this book will be a gateway to poetry for young people. I know teachers will be using it in their classrooms. If they read the raps in On the Come Up, they can pick up a Nikki Giovanni book and read her poetry. Maybe educators will see hip-hop as a means of educating poetry and hopefully bring a little more respect to it in the classroom.”
Have you performed the raps?
“Just for myself. I did them for my friends a bit. And every now and then when I’m at events talking about the book.”
That’ll be part of your tour.
“I’m sure I’ll be rapping a lot on this tour. When I write dialogue, I say everything out loud to make sure they sound like things people would actually say. I do the same things with the raps to make sure they flow well and every word hit where it needed to.”
As someone who didn’t see yourself in books growing up, what are the power of books in a child's life? How might your life been different had you seen yourself in books?
“I think often of something a professor by the name of Rudine Sims Bishop. She said that books are either mirrors, windows, or sliding glass doors. It’s important for kids to have all three. Had I gotten those mirrors I would’ve saw myself even clearer. Had other kids gotten a window into the lives of kids like mine, it would’ve helped them understand. And those sliding glass doors would’ve given them some empathy. I focus on creating those mirrors a lot. I think about what those mirrors would’ve meant for me. When you see yourself in stories, that’s the world’s way of telling you that you’re worthy of being a hero as well. If nothing else, I would’ve known that I could’ve been the hero of my own story too.”
How has your experience of living in Mississippi changed since your windfall?
"I once saw this Facebook post where someone described Mississippi as being this parent who can at times be emotionally abusive but you struggle with the fact that deep down you still love them. You know they don't have your best interest at heart. You wish they could do better. You wish that they love you better. But you still love them for some reason, and you struggle with the fact that you love them. That is Mississippi for me. I have so much love for this state, but I love what this state could be, and not what it is. Knowing that we recently elected a woman to Senate who made jokes about a public hanging and then had our governor endorse her for that, that was frustrating. I’m at the point of like, ‘I’m leaving.’"
So you’re leaving.
"That’s the plan. I had to come to the decision. I don’t want my tax dollars funding someone who would make jokes about lynching. For a while that’s what they were doing. Bragging about the fact that I lived there. I don’t want to give them that anymore."
Interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.