Power, Poison, Pain, and Joy

Sitting atop a police car beneath an oversized American flag, Kendrick Lamar opened the 2015 BET awards with his single “Alright.” “We hate the po-po ...

Sitting atop a police car beneath an oversized American flag, Kendrick Lamar opened the 2015 BET awards with his single “Alright.” “We hate the po-po, wanna kill us dead in the street fo sho,” he rapped. “We gon’ be alright.” Fox News reporter Geraldo Rivera called the performance “irresponsible,” concluding that “hip hop has done more damage to young African Americans than racism in recent years.” Lamar easily could have ignored this incendiary statement; instead, he took Rivera’s words and turned them into fuel. Lamar argued that Rivera had fundamentally misunderstood. He asked, “How can you take a song that’s about hope and turn it into hatred?” He sampled Rivera’s sound bite on two songs on his next album, DAMN., which went on to become the first rap album in history to win a Pulitzer Prize.

The second song on the album, “DNA.,” features that sound bite as an interlude. Triumphant and unwavering, Lamar raps on either side of Rivera’s words, painting a picture of the racism he so callously downplayed. “Born inside the beast, my expertise checked out in second grade / When I was 9, on cell, motel, we didn’t have nowhere to stay.” This racism, he insists, has spawned a multitude of experiences and many shades of violence: “Shit I’ve been through prolly offend you, this is Paula’s oldest son / I know murder, conviction / Burners, boosters, burglars, ballers, dead, redemption / Scholars, fathers dead with kids / And I wish I was fed forgiveness.” Lamar powerfully asserts that rap has the capacity to make visible social inequality and institutional violence, and also that the black experience is complex and holds many contradictions within it: “I got power, poison, pain and joy inside my DNA.” Using rap as his mode of dissent, he retorts that hip hop is not the problem; racism is.

These same assertions drive Angie Thomas’s second novel, On the Come Up, which takes the reader back to Garden Heights—the fictional city where Thomas’s award-winning first novel, The Hate U Give, was set. Garden Heights is difficult to place regionally, and that is precisely the point: Thomas crafted an urban setting that could be anywhere, from Newark to Jackson to Stockton, signaling continuities in the experiences of young black people across the country. But The Hate U Give and On the Come Up are not only linked by geography. Together, they trace a clear pipeline from street to school to prison across the two story lines. (Indeed, the very structure of On the Come Up invites such a reading, as it begins in a classroom and concludes in a jail.) Thomas highlights young black people’s responses to the institutional violence they experience and observe. For Bri Jackson, On the Come Up’s 16-year-old protagonist, hip hop becomes a key medium of resistance.

Bri is an aspiring MC trying to find her voice amid difficult circumstances. She is bused from her home to a predominantly white public school in Midtown. She exists in the shadow of her late father, Lawless, a legendary rapper who was “rapping about the streets” and got “caught up in them.” Her mother is eight years sober from a drug addiction, but Bri does not yet fully trust her, evidenced by the fact that she calls her by her first name, Jay. The Jacksons, like all of their Garden Heights neighbors, are black; like many of them, they are poor. Bri is acutely aware of their poverty as they lose utilities, fend off their landlord, ration groceries, and seek support from both the government and their community. She and her older brother, Trey, are motivated to do something about it. For Bri, rapping is not only something she is good at; it is her family’s ticket to security.

The reader follows Bri as she navigates questions that have troubled hip hop more broadly: Does she want to make music that sells, or music that is true to who she is? Which audience does she most care about appealing to? How does she balance the intention behind her words with how listeners may interpret them? What messages do her songs send to younger kids? And what does it mean to be a young woman rapper in a male-dominated genre?

Together, “The Hate U Give” and “On the Come Up” trace a clear pipeline from street to school to prison across the two story lines.

We are introduced to Bri’s rhyming prowess at the beginning of the narrative, but her true breakthrough as an artist is precipitated by an incident a few chapters later. After she clears the metal detectors as she walks into school one morning, a security guard instructs her to hand over her bag. Bri’s backpack is filled with candy, which she has been selling to save up for a pair of Timbs to replace her tattered knock-offs. Bri knows that it is against school policy to bring such “contraband” on Midtown’s campus, but she also knows that the officer has no cause to search her bag. She refuses, and before she knows it she is pinned to the ground with plastic cuffs tight around her wrists. “He’s not a cop,” she reminds herself, the officer’s knee in her back. “He doesn’t have a gun. But I don’t wanna end up like that boy.”

“That boy” refers to Khalil, the unarmed 16-year-old killed by a police officer at the beginning of The Hate U Give. Though Bri did not know him personally, the circumstances of his death haunt her and her peers. The streets Bri walks on are still ravaged from the uprisings following the murder, and her pastor is the same one who laid Khalil to rest. By establishing a connection between Khalil’s murder at the hands of a police officer and Bri’s assault by school security, Thomas insists that black women and girls are not exempt from police violence and encourages us to think about these two catalyzing incidents as points on the racist web of surveillance and discipline that Michel Foucault termed the “carceral continuum.”

Importantly, Thomas locates the school as a key site of this continuum. Bri describes both Midtown and Garden Heights high schools as prisons, and meditates on what scholars Monique Morris and Kimberlé Crenshaw refer to as the “pushout” effect, which disproportionately affects black girls. Morris and Crenshaw have argued that school discipline policies such as out-of-school suspension and zero-tolerance expulsion create “pathways to confinement” for black girls, who are six times more likely to be suspended than their white counterparts.1 Bri is very aware of these punitive disparities. “Aggressive is used to describe me a lot,” she reflects. “It’s supposed to mean threatening, but I’ve never threatened anybody.”

It is tempting to read Bri alongside the protagonist of The Hate U Give, Starr Carter. It is through their eyes, after all, that the reader becomes familiar with the world of Garden Heights and the particularities of being a black girl within it. In some ways, however, Bri’s story is more aligned with Khalil’s, because of similarities in their upbringings and the parallel violence they experience. But whereas the reader of The Hate U Give only learns about Khalil and the incident that ended his life indirectly, On the Come Up offers a glimpse into the mind of a young person who has been told that their life does not matter. The most palpable takeaway is rage: Bri is angry—and why wouldn’t she be?


Empathy Is Not Enough

By Marah Gubar

“Anger” is a deeply racialized and gendered word. It is hurled as an insult, spun into stereotypes that offer black women and girls a limited range of acceptable feelings and behavior. But racism, the writer and activist Audre Lorde insists, breeds anger—“of exclusion, of unquestioned privilege, of racial distortions, of silence, ill-use, stereotyping, defensiveness, misnaming, betrayal, and coopting.” Black women live “with that anger, beneath that anger, on top of that anger, ignoring that anger, feeding upon that anger, learning to use that anger.”2 Bri’s anger is manifold: she is angry about the profound challenges of being a black girl from a poor family, the loss she has experienced, the adult burdens she has had to shoulder from a young age, and how she is perceived by most everyone around her.

Thomas continues to intervene in the body of young adult literature, not only by centering black women and girls but also by painting black girlhood in a way that is nuanced and affords her characters a full spectrum of emotions. And though she takes great care to show readers the world through Bri’s eyes, she leaves open the possibility that not all readers will be able to sympathize with Bri in the way they may have been able to with Starr. Not all readers will understand her anger and her pain—and that is okay.

In addition to calling attention to the range of emotional responses to police violence, Thomas highlights the varying strategies of resistance young black people employ. Starr is not the only Garden Heights teen who found her voice in the aftermath of Khalil’s death. For Starr, that voice takes the shape of public testimony and dissent. Bri’s friend Malik turns to history books to educate himself about the Black Power movement, earning the nickname “Malik X.” Bri’s outlet comes through rap. Rhymes dance around in her head as she processes the pervasive racism and inequality that her white classmates do not experience.

Bri’s first single—her official debut as a rapper—is inspired by her arrest. Freestyling from a makeshift studio, she riffs on the phrase “on the come up” until it spawns a verse, which grows into a chorus, and eventually into an anthem:

You can’t stop me on the come up.

You can’t stop me, nope, nope.

Echoing N.W.A.’s iconic “Fuck the Police,” Bri critiques police presence in Garden Heights and the presumed criminality of its residents:

Boys in Blue rolling all through my neighborhood,

’Cause I guess that they think that we ain’t no good.

We fight back, we’ve attacked, then they say they should

Send in troops wearing boots for the greater good.

Immediately following Bri’s arrest, her mother gives her the talk black parents and children know too well. “Do whatever they tell you to do,” Bri recalls her mom saying. “I’m starting to think it doesn’t matter what I do,” Bri reflects. “I’ll still be whatever people think I am.” This sentiment drives other verses of the song as she wrestles with what feels like a futile task of resisting stereotypes.

This Glock, yeah, I cock it and aim it.

That’s what you expect, bitch, ain’t it?

The picture you painted, I frame it.

Verses like these expose Bri to a range of responses similar to those Kendrick Lamar faced after his performance of “Alright.” Some people criticize her for claiming a lifestyle she’s never actually lived. Echoing Geraldo Rivera, one particularly vocal white woman accuses Bri of condoning violence, especially against police officers. Lawless’s former manager reminds her that she can “act like a … hoodlum and not be one,” encouraging her to lean in to the stereotype because it sells. Jay fears that Bri’s references to guns and gangs will jeopardize her safety, as it did her father’s. “It’s about playing into their assumptions,” Bri retorts, echoing the picture frame analogy from her song. “You don’t get that luxury, Briana,” her mother responds. “We don’t! They never think we’re just playing!” And yet, “On the Come Up” racks up thousands of streams on Dat Cloud and pours out of car windows around her, clearly speaking truth to something her listeners are feeling.

This debate represents the central tension in the novel, which is organized in three sections named for major eras of hip hop: Old School, Golden Age, and New School. This formal choice on Thomas’s part suggests that the questions that haunt Bri as she struggles to find her voice as a rapper resound beyond her. From Tupac to J. Cole, police brutality, racialized violence, and disproportionate incarceration are themes that have long fueled hip hop.

As Bri seeks to confront the social injustice she sees and experiences through rap, Thomas presents difficult questions about art and its relationship to justice.

By mapping Bri’s character development onto a genealogy of hip hop, Thomas urges us to consider her within this lineage—an important intervention given the genre’s male dominance and masculinist tropes. Bri is aware that she is following in the footsteps of women rappers before her. She mentions Cardi B and Nicki Minaj explicitly, noting that she refuses to pick a side in their feud. Though there is a long history of women in hip hop from Lil’ Kim to Lizzo, women remain underrepresented and sidelined in the industry, the modifier “female” following them around like a shadow.

While Bri is quick to call out sexism when she feels it, the reader is left wondering whether and how “On the Come Up” would have been received differently had she been a young man. Like black men, black women are disproportionately criminalized and incarcerated, forced to insist at every turn that their lives matter. And yet they are also marginalized within the world of hip hop, which makes it harder to use the medium as an outlet in the way that male rappers have historically.

Despite the chorus of naysayers, Bri’s conviction in her song is unwavering until she realizes that younger fans are taking it at face value. “You be blasting niggas, Bri,” seven-year-old Jojo says. “Don’t you?” This conversation brings the stakes of Bri’s artistry into sharp relief. Taking her mother’s challenge to heart, she decides to reflect on who she is. “My brother called me a gift. My mom calls me her miracle. If I’m nothing else, I’m her daughter, and I’m Trey’s sister. Sister. A lot of words can rhyme with that if delivered a certain way. Even something like ‘mirror.’ Mirror. Maybe that’s what I am to Jojo.” Her final performance, bookending the novel with another freestyle, honors these realizations before a roaring crowd.

You see, I’m somebody’s daughter, I’m somebody’s


I’m somebody’s hope. And I’m somebody’s mirror.

I’m a genius, I’m a star, call me all of the above,

But you’ll never call me a sellout, and you’ll never call

me thug.

In the Garden kids are starving, hearts are hardened,

beg my pardon,

But fuck the system. Your assumptions? They just

show just where your heart is.

You see, they figure I’m a nigga that’s gon’ rap ’bout

pulling triggers,

Just to make their pockets bigger while the world

yells I’m a sinner.

Here’s the kicker, they get richer, only if we take that


As the truth, and as us. It’s not just rap, this shit is


But they blame hip-hop. Yet we just speak on what we


But I’m gon’ speak on what I see and never claim it to

be me.

In just a few verses, Bri critiques the abject racism and inequality she has experienced while also responding to both critics of hip hop and those who are trying to capitalize on an art form that does not belong to them. At the same time, she asserts the fullness of her personhood by situating herself in a family and in a community. In contrast to her defeated position at the beginning of the novel—“I’m starting to think it doesn’t matter what I do”—Bri claims a sense of self-determination and an awareness that her voice and actions do matter. Through some four hundred pages, she struggles, in the words of Audre Lorde, to live with, beneath, and on top of her anger, to ignore it, and to feed off of it. By her final performance, she is beginning to learn how to use it.


A Tapestry of Black Lives

By Josef Sorett

A testament to Angie Thomas’s tact as an author, this conclusion does not read as prescriptive. Rather, On the Come Up advances a conversation about performance, about the possibility of multiple selves and realities of being, about others’ perceptions and what they invoke. Thomas is unwavering in her indictment of school discipline policies and of the unique ways black girls are criminalized. By offering a window into the life of one such black girl, Thomas illuminates the emotional effects of these policies, as well as the creativity and resistance they can elicit. As Bri seeks to confront the social injustice she sees and experiences through rap, Thomas presents difficult questions about art and its relationship to justice. She allows us to struggle, alongside Bri and her world of friends, loved ones, enemies, and followers, with finding answers. Showing the many sides of Bri and the layers of meaning in her lyrics, Thomas proposes that there is not one truth; it is possible that they can all be true: power, poison, pain, and joy. Art, like truth, is complex. The beauty, Thomas suggests, is in that complexity.


This article was commissioned by Marah Gubar. icon

  1. Monique Morris, Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in School (New Press, 2015), pp. 1–14; Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, “Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced and Underprotected” (African American Policy Forum, 2015), p. 16.
  2. Audre Lorde, “The Uses of Anger,” Women’s Studies Quarterly, no. 1/2 (1997), p. 278.
Featured image: March for Racial Justice (2017). Photograph by Miki Jourdan / Flickr