73 pages 2 hours read

Angie Thomas

On the Come Up

Fiction | Novel | YA | Published in 2019

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Summary and Study Guide


On the Come Up, published in 2019, is the second novel by acclaimed young adult author Angie Thomas. It takes place in the same neighborhood as Thomas’s first novel, The Hate U Give (2017), but aside from occasional references to the murder and riots in Garden Heights, On the Come Up features a new cast of characters. The book received numerous awards, including the American Library Association’s Top Ten Books for Young Adults, and it was nominated for the Carnegie Medal for Young Adult Fiction.

Like in The Hate U Give and its prequel, Concrete Rose (2021), Thomas explores themes of racism, identity, and activism, but with the added component of the music industry as the backdrop of this modern tale.

The version used for this guide is the ebook of the Balzer + Bray imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

Plot Summary

Brianna “Bri” Jackson, a 16-year-old girl who lives in Garden Heights, dreams of being a rapper like her late father, Lawless. Bri’s mother struggled with drug addiction after Lawless was murdered, and Bri and her brother Trey were left to be raised by her grandparents for several years while her mother was caught up in her addiction. Bri has been living with her mother for the past five years, and because of her mother’s tough past, she has trouble finding steady work that pays well. At the beginning of the story, Bri’s mother loses her job due to budget cuts, and she spends most of the novel looking for work. Even with Bri’s older brother living at home and working at a pizza shop, the family struggles to make ends meet, and they often have to go without food, electricity, or heat.

Bri dreams of making it big, so she decides to battle in the Ring, an underground hip-hop venue. The next day at her predominately white school, Bri, one of the few Black students, is singled out and tackled to the ground by security guards. The experience leaves her angry and shaken about how she is treated as a young Black woman. Bri’s performance in the Ring earns the attention of a producer, who schedules her into the recording studio. Bri writes and performs a song documenting the details of her run-in with the school security guards and playing into the stereotypes people see her as. She talks about gangbanging and gun violence, even though she isn’t involved in either.

Bri’s song has unexpected consequences as it spreads. A protest at her school turns into a riot when students start to chant the lyrics, and the media blames the song’s inflammatory lyrics for sparking violence. Bri is robbed at gunpoint by a gang that takes issue with one of the lines in the song. Although her song is meant to call out people who make assumptions about her, some of Bri’s friends and family worry that the song will give people the wrong idea about her. As she becomes wrapped up in the controversy, Bri starts to change, consumed by anger and motivated by money to provide for her family.

With her family’s financial situation worsening, Bri’s mother struggles to keep the family afloat. Bri watches as her mother is still treated like a drug addict after being clean for eight years. Jay is subjected to scrutiny from Bri’s grandparents, potential employers, and even Bri herself, who still struggles to trust her mother after being abandoned by her years ago. Jay admits to her mistakes from the past, but she has done her very best to take care of her children and keep her life together for the past eight years. Bri has to overcome her distrust to mend the relationship with her mother, and she is inspired by her mother’s strong sense of self-worth and determination in the face of adversity.

Bri’s manager, Supreme, encourages her to be disingenuous about who she is. He tells her that if she becomes a stereotype of an “angry Black girl from the ghetto,” her career will take off. But Bri realizes that she doesn’t want to make it big if she can’t be herself, and she doesn’t want to lose herself in a role to achieve fame like her father did. Bri performs in the Ring once more, and she declares that she isn’t just another stereotype. She is her own person with big dreams and a loving family.

Although Bri loses the interest of her manager and a record executive, she earns the adoration of the crowd and even gains the attention of a celebrity who wants to work with her. Bri realizes that her words have the power to shape her life, empower her community, and give people hope.

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