Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1068
Expression, Individuality, and Freedom of Speech
On the Come Up follows 16-year-old Bri Jackson, whose main goal in life is to become a successful rapper, following in the footsteps of her late father. In a broader sense, Bri's character can be seen to represent all underprivileged young people who want their voices to be heard and acknowledged. Schools often teach about the importance of culture and freedom of speech; however, they rarely mention that freedom of speech can sometimes be an unattainable privilege, especially for those who struggle to survive in an unjust and unforgiving society. Thus, Thomas masterfully captures the essence of youth and black culture, and explains what it means to be a woman desperately trying to prove herself and help her family out of poverty.
I mean, it's one thing to wanna do something. It's another to think it's possible. Rapping has been my dream forever, but dreams aren't real. You wake up from them or reality makes them seem stupid. Trust, every time my fridge is almost empty, all of my dreams seem stupid.
After uploading a video of her rapping online, Bri finally gets the recognition she wants and deserves—but she also realizes that fame can be a very tricky business. Her immense talent and lyricism help her establish a name in the Garden Heights rap scene, and she's finally able to freely express herself. Unfortunately, though, the more she challenges the system, the more society begins to see her as a stereotype: a tough, violent, and aggressive black girl from the hood.
Thousands of people just heard me act like that. Millions more may see the video. They won't care that my life is a mess and I had every right to be mad. They'll just see an angry black girl from the ghetto, acting like they expected me to act. Supreme laughs to himself. "You played the role," he says. "Goddamn, you played the role." Problem is, I wasn't playing. That's what I've become.
Interestingly enough, her late father's manager, Supreme, tells her that this image might actually help her with her career and advises her to keep it, as it will definitely earn her more money. Thus, Bri is forced to make a choice: she will either embrace the fake persona of the fearless "gangster" and focus on making money and becoming popular, or she will write music about what she believes is right and be proud of who she is and where she comes from. In the end, she chooses the latter.
That’s what we call our goal, the come up.
The Value of Family, Friendship, and Loyalty
Bri is loyal and cares deeply for her friends and family, even though she sometimes has trouble connecting with people. There are many instances throughout the novel in which we can see that the majority of the characters, especially the main ones, always try to put their family and friends first. For instance, one of the main reasons why Bri wants to become a rapper in the first place is because of her wishes to both provide for her family and honor and continue her father's musical legacy. Even Bri's mother and aunt, despite their obvious vices relating to drugs, do everything they can to keep the family together.
Sometimes she babies me, like it's her way of making up for when she wasn't around. I let her do it, too. I wonder though if she only sees me as her baby girl who used to snuggle up with her until I fell asleep. I don't know if the snuggles are for who I am now. This time, I think the snuggles are for her.
The ups and downs that Bri and her family experience (both before and after her fame) greatly influence her decisions, behavior, and personality. In the end, Bri's past—impacted as it is by trauma, fear, and being forced to grow up too soon—inspires her to make the right choice.
Social Justice and Equality
Bri and the rest of her friends and classmates of color are often bullied and discriminated against by the school's security guards, and no one does anything to stop the blatant racism and bigotry. Thomas alludes to the fact that those who are not born into privilege are much more likely to fail in life no matter what they do. There will always be people who will find a reason to hate on others, just because they fear those who are different from them.
Thus, even hard-working and well-educated people like Bri's brother, Trey, will often be treated unfairly and unjustly. They will face prejudice based on their race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, social status, religion, and even psychical appearance; they may be forced to give up on their dreams and ambitions—not by choice, but because society failed to give them the opportunity to showcase their abilities, talents, and knowledge. As a result, many who live in poverty are left with no other choice but to indulge in various illegal activities, as this is the only profitable way to provide the basic necessities for living and put food on the table. Bri's Aunt Pooh is a prime example of this systemic problem. Bri meditates at one point on the differences between Trey and Aunt Pooh:
He graduated with honors. Worked his ass off to get there in the first place, only to have to come back to the hood and work in a pizza shop. It's bullshit, and it scares me, because if Trey can't make it by doing everything "right," who can?
It is kinda messed up. Here my brother is, doing everything right, and nothing's coming from it. Meanwhile, Aunt Pooh's doing everything we've been told not to do, and she's giving us food when we need it. That's how it goes though. The drug dealers in my neighborhood aren't struggling. Everybody else is.
Additionally, Thomas also addresses the double standards in (and stigma surrounding) the hip hop and rap scene. As a young black woman who's struggling to become successful in a male-dominated industry, Bri often hears crude and sexist jokes, and constantly deals with people who try to invalidate her talent and identity. Fortunately, she manages to prove that when it comes to success, gender and race are peripheral factors, and the most important components are talent, hard work, and a little bit of luck.