I have to admit up front that I know very little about rap and hip hop. So writing about Angie Thomas’ new book, On the Come Up, is a bit of a challenge for me. At first, I felt like maybe my lack of first-hand knowledge of this musical style and the community that Thomas writes about made me a poor representative to speak for its message, but I was so impressed by the book that I don’t want to miss out on sharing it with educators.
In On the Come Up, Bri is a sixteen-year-old who has big dreams of becoming a rapper. Her father was a rapper and was shot by members of a gang when Bri was very young. But Bri doesn’t want to be defined by her father’s legacy. While she is very proud of who he was, she wants to be a unique individual with her own message to send to listeners. At the beginning of the book, we learn that Bri is bused from her low-income neighborhood to a school for the arts in a nearby, much wealthier, community. Bri, along with her fellow bus riders, is black and is targeted by the security guards at her school for random searches upon arrival. When Bri is violently searched, she decides to rap about the experience and about how people from her community are stereotyped. It doesn’t take long for Bri’s song to be heard and to be misinterpreted by those who already hold negative views about people from Bri’s neighborhood.
As a white woman living in a suburban neighborhood in Iowa, I have lived a very different life than Bri. However, I am able to relate to her conflicting feelings of pride and disappointment in the ways that her community is viewed. She is proud of the strength and determination of so many of the people in her community while also feeling let down by the choices that a few make. Of course, people outside of her community often choose to focus on those negative choices when they talk about her neighborhood publicly. I can relate to some of these feelings. I am proud of the many people in my community who are trying to make Iowa a more inclusive and diverse place for the next generation while also being disappointed that we are still seen as flyover country by so many.
Bri’s message of hope and pride in her community and in her dreams is one that every student can relate to and that every high school classroom should promote. There are lots of opportunities to use this book to talk about the power of language and music to express deep feelings.
Diversity 10: I understand that diversity includes the impact of unequal power relations on the development of group identities and cultures.
Justice 11: I relate to all people as individuals rather than representatives of groups and can identify stereotypes when I see or hear them.
RL.2- Determine two or more themes or central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to produce a complex account; provide an objective summary of the text.
RL.3- Analyze the impact of the author’s choices regarding how to develop and relate elements of a story or drama (e.g., where a story is set, how the action is ordered, how the characters are introduced and developed).
RL.4- Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, including words with multiple meanings or language that is particularly fresh, engaging, or beautiful.
RL.6- Analyze a case in which grasping a point of view requires distinguishing what is directly stated in a text from what is really meant (e.g., satire, sarcasm, irony, or understatement).