Last Updated on November 7, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 908
Brianna "Bri" Jackson
Bri, the novel's protagonist, is a sixteen-year-old aspiring rapper who struggles to grow beyond her lack of self-confidence in order to actualize her dreams of being a performer. She consistently faces turmoil, both through her internal conflicts and through the realities of navigating poverty, racism, and alienation as an economically poor black woman in a predominantly white, wealthy school. When Bri begins to receive attention for her talent as a rapper, she enters a world of exploitation and is manipulated by her late father's old manager, Supreme. Though newfound fame and Supreme's influence initially lead Bri astray, her inner strength and sense of self ultimately prevail.
Trey is Bri's twenty-two-year-old brother, and his compassionate mentorship sharply contrasts with Supreme's. Though he obtained a bachelor's degree in psychology, Trey remains trapped in the cycle of poverty that afflicts his family. Trey's character, perhaps more so than any others in the novel, represents the reality that poverty and racism are complex, systemic forces of oppression that exist in stark contrast to "bootstrap" theories of individual success. Despite adhering exactly to what middle-class society deems successful and respectable, Trey knows that he can never really escape the inherently racist effects of capitalism while his family still struggles, and he works tirelessly to financially support his struggling family.
Jay is Bri and Trey's mother. Jay shoulders the guilt of having abandoned her children while she struggled with the death of her husband and a burgeoning cocaine addiction; when Jay returns to them, she tries to be the solid, resilient mother that she was unable to be for them when they were very young. In an attempt to ensure that her daughter's life is easier than her own, Jay is a strict mother. She does not support her daughter's dream to become a rapper and tries to convince Bri to pursue a more reliable career path. Eventually, though, Jay encourages Bri to live her life on her own terms—particularly after Bri begins to realize the harm she causes by prioritizing objects and fame over family and friends.
Lawless, Bri and Trey's late father, was killed when Trey was ten and Bri was just four. Lawless's legacy as an underground rapper haunts Bri as she attempts to enter the world of music that he once traversed. Bri often feels caught between her wish to honor her father and her desire to carve out her own space in the world.
Aunt Pooh is Bri and Trey's maternal aunt. Pooh is able to financially contribute to Bri's family through her cocaine dealing and involvement with the Garden Disciples. Bri understands that, though Pooh's methods are illegal, the money Pooh contributes to the family is necessary to make ends meet. Pooh is ultimately jailed after being caught with cocaine during a police raid. Only ten years older than Bri, Pooh represents a potential path for Bri—but one that Bri does not take.
Sonny is one of Bri's best friends. Sonny, Bri, and their friend Malik's mothers were pregnant with all three of them at the same time: because of their habit of kicking simultaneously, they came to be called the "Unholy Trinity." Like Bri, Sonny desperately desires to escape the dead-end options of his neighborhood; he hopes to obtain this freedom through college. As a black, gay teen in an impoverished area, Sonny must deal with poverty, racism, and homophobia all at once. When he falls for a black, gay artist, Miles, Sonny must navigate the difficult terrain of wanting to be with Miles while also prioritizing studying for his SATs and trying to escape the neighborhood of Garden Heights.
Malik, like Sonny and Bri, is a member of the "Unholy Trinity." Malik holds a clear and sharp understanding of racism and social injustice. Malik documents the racism that he and his friends must endure while navigating their white school and the white section of town, Midtown. Rather than blaming others for his inability to achieve financial success or "escape" oppression, Malik seeks to directly confront the systemic forces that weigh him and his loved ones down. Malik's relationship with Bri vacillates throughout the novel; at times, he and Bri come into conflict over conflicting priorities and loyalties, as well as their hidden feelings for one another.
Curtis goes to Bri's school, and the two eventually start dating. At first, Bri dislikes Curtis, whom she interprets as egotistic and hyperbolic. However, after Curtis provides support when Bri is the victim of a racist attack by the guards at school, Bri begins to develop feelings for him. Curtis listens to Bri in a way that many of the other characters do not. While several of the key characters in the novel attempt to shape and mold Bri in one way or the other, Curtis is a supportive, comforting, and encouraging figure for Bri.
A manager in the music industry, Supreme once represented Lawless and serves as Bri's manager for a period of time. A manipulative and selfish man, Supreme uses Bri's talent to increases his own wealth. He not only coerces his son, Miles, into being a rapper, but also forces Miles to pretend to be straight in order to be successful in the industry. Though Bri shares Supreme's desire for material wealth and fame, Supreme proves himself to be two-dimensional and incapable of growth. Bri, on the other hand, is able to transcend Supreme's influences and change for the better.