Bri Jackson is the 16-year-old daughter of the late "Lawless," a rising star in the hip-hop world, killed when Bri was only five years old. Bri aspires to be a rapper, not so much following in her father's footsteps as finding her own voice and forging her own path. She has a shot at starting on that path when she is chosen to be in rap battle at "The Ring." She quickly demonstrates that she has a talent for freestyle rapping and immediately begins to receive attention.
At her school, a high school for the arts, Bri is targeted during routine security screening, and the incident quickly escalates and leads to an unfair suspension. Bri pours her frustration and anger into lyrics for her first rap song, "On the Come Up," which her Aunt Pooh arranges for her to record. Once she has the courage to upload and share her song, it quickly gains popularity.
When the song is used for a spontaneous protest against the security guards at school, and her lyrics are interpreted in ways Bri never meant, she soon becomes uneasy about the potential power of words. Meanwhile, she feels intense pressure to establish a career, because her mother is out of work and struggling to keep the lights and heat on. The pressure includes a possible record deal, but does that require playing a role and rapping words that aren't her own?
I highly recommend this book. Readers who have read The Hate You Give will recognize certain references to events in that book, though On the Come Up is not a sequel. Like Starr Carter in the earlier book, Bri lives in the Garden Heights neighborhood. But she does not know Starr or any of the other characters that Starr associates with.
Starr Carter feels as though she's divided into to selves. There is the Starr she is in her inner-city community and the "Williamson Starr" she is at the private school she attends. At school, she chooses her words and behaviors carefully to avoid being seen as "ghetto."
One night, leaving a neighborhood party after shots are fired in the house where it is being held, Starr and her friend Khalil are pulled over by a police officer. The encounter with the officer goes wrong, ending with Khalil fatally shot and dying in Starr's arms.
The shooting becomes national news, and wildly differing accounts of what happened and why are quickly circulating. Starr must make decisions about who can know she was "the witness" and what role(s) she should play.
This book is powerful and serves up equal parts drama and wit. The characters are nuanced and feel very real. The story moves along in a compelling way and doesn't try to end in a too-tidy manner.