Few first novelists have the kind of success Angie Thomas saw with “The Hate U Give,” which has spent 100 weeks on the Times Best-Seller list and been made into an equally acclaimed movie. Perhaps even fewer write a second novel that gets as many advance raves as Thomas’s “On the Come Up,” which will be published this month. It’s set in the same fictional community, Garden Heights, as “The Hate U Give,” but Thomas turns her attention away from Starr (the protagonist in her first novel) to the world of hip-hop, and Brianna, a talented teenager who lives and breathes it. I asked her to talk about how the book came into being. These are excerpts from our conversation.
When did you start writing “On the Come Up”?
Even before I wrote “The Hate U Give,” I knew I wanted to write a novel that paid homage to hip-hop. For me, as a teenager, hip-hop was how I saw myself when I didn’t see myself in books. And I could never seem to find books that gave hip-hop its due. A lot of times in Young Adult books, hip-hop is only used when the characters are at parties — otherwise they’re more into indie rock. But for so many kids, hip-hop is their music, hip-hop is their culture, it speaks to them when other things don’t. I mean, white suburban kids are the biggest consumers of hip-hop.
I had this character, Bri, and I knew she had to be a rapper, but that’s all. I got the idea for the plot after “The Hate U Give,” when I began to deal with challenges to the novel, people trying to censor it. A police union in South Carolina spoke out against the book being on a summer reading list. The union was concerned that it created anti-police sentiments. And it was challenged by some school districts, because of the language. Of course, if they paid attention to what their students were saying in the hallways they would hear many more f-bombs than I could ever write. I knew it wasn’t really about the language, it was the subject matter.
So when I was dealing with my own censorship, I thought of the rappers who had meant so much to me, like Tupac, Biggie, Lauryn Hill and Nas, and how they went through it. I was raised knowing that when hip-hop spoke up, it was always challenged. So often when rappers speak, they’re criticized for how they do it, as opposed to what they actually say.