How Hip-Hop Inspired Angie Thomas' New Novel

Posted by Marie on January 30, 2019
Angie Thomas rocked the world with her bestselling and award-winning debut, The Hate U Give. Following this first act is her latest YA novel, On the Come Up, which tells the story of a young girl named Bri and her dream of becoming one of the greatest rappers of all time.

"It's one of those stories that's always been in me," says Thomas. "It was just a matter of making sure I had the right characters, the right timing, the right setting, and the right heat point so that it was still an homage to the roots of hip-hop."

The trauma of poverty also plays a role in the novel, thwarting many of Bri's aspirations. "When I decided to write On the Come Up, I had to think about my biggest tragedy as a teenager," says Thomas. "For me, my big tragedy was when my mom lost her job and how that changed my life. We had to get on food stamps, and people tried to demean my mom for asking for help. That was the thing that really fueled me to want to pursue something greater and to change my family's circumstances."

Thomas spoke to Goodreads Editor Marie Pabelonio by phone to discuss the challenges of writing her second novel, what sparks Bri's drive and passion, and how hip-hop artists were a major influence in her life. "I often say I want to write the way my favorite rappers rap," says Thomas. "My favorite rappers make people think, they make them laugh, they make them cry, they make them uncomfortable, they make them angry. I want to do all of that with my book."

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Goodreads: Last year the Goodreads Choice Awards included a special Best of the Best category, which featured all past winners from the last ten years—and The Hate U Give won. First of all, congratulations! How does it feel?

Angie Thomas: You know, when I found out the book was up for the Best of the Best, I was like, "Oh, cool!" Then I saw the other books it was up against and was like, "Oh, there's no way. Girl, don't embarrass yourself. There is no way. Just be thankful you're even on the list."

I was actually up late playing video games when I checked my Twitter and my Australian publishers said, "Congrats, Angie! You won the Best of the Best!" And I was like, "WHAT?!" I could not believe it! I actually woke up my mom and said, "Mom! Guess what? I won!" And she was like, "Get out of here! Leave me alone." [Laughs]

So I'm honored. I'm still stunned. To know that so many people not only loved the book but decided to vote for it among how many other incredible books—that's humbling. I'm so thankful for it, and I'm wearing that proudly. That is a huge feat.

GR: The Hate U Give was also adapted last year for the big screen. What was it like seeing something you wrote come to life?

AT: It's been an amazing experience. I'll never forget my first day on set. I actually made the six-hour drive from Mississippi to Atlanta in, like, my little Toyota Camry (I am so not Hollywood). I had a car full of snacks and stuff. My mom was with me. It was the least glamorous thing ever.

We decided to go straight to the set, and it was a hot day. At the time, they were filming the scene of Khalil's funeral and—as readers will know—after the funeral, there's a protest. So we're driving in Atlanta with my windows down, and in the distance I hear hundreds of people chanting, "Justice for Khalil! Justice for Khalil!"

I pulled over and I sobbed. I'm tearing up even now! I was hearing all these people say words that I wrote. It was the most surreal thing. That moment right there, to me, describes the entire process. Knowing that so many talented people came together, people who I admire so much, to bring this book to life because they loved this story and these characters—that was the most humbling thing to me.

GR: Let's talk about your upcoming book, On the Come Up. You've mentioned feeling the pressure of writing a sophomore novel. How do you block out that negativity?

AT: You know, it was tough at first. I had to go back to what made me write The Hate U Give and why I decided to write it. So with On the Come Up, I had to mentally go back into that place of writing this for myself and for the kids in my neighborhood who needed to see themselves in books.

I also had to look at it from a parental standpoint. I'm not a parent yet, but I look at my books as my kids. As a parent, you can't compare your children. I mean, you can, but you shouldn't. I had to look at The Hate U Give as if Starr was out of the nest. She's flying, she's doing great, she doesn't need me like that—she's good. But Brianna needed me to get her ready to fly out of the nest. So it really came down to me thinking about her as my second kid. I know she's going to be all right; I just have to give her what she needs and not worry about what everybody else thinks.

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GR: You've described On the Come Up as an homage to hip-hop. How has hip-hop been a major influence in your life?

AT: Hip-hop has definitely been one of my biggest influences, specifically as a storyteller. When I was a kid, I loved reading. But when I was a teenager, I hated it because it was rare for me to find books that were speaking to me. There were only a few authors I knew of who wrote books for kids like me, and the unfortunate thing was those books weren't being pushed into my hands.

Hip-hop was really where I learned about storytelling. Rappers were telling the stories I saw myself in, and they were speaking to me and to my circumstances, and they were telling me that I was OK just as I was. They were giving me hope. I wish more of us would give hip-hop credit for being a form of storytelling and for being a mirror for so many kids.

GR: Of course, rapping is a huge part of the book. Can you rap yourself?

AT: [Laughs] You know, when I was a teenager, I wanted to do it. I can rap other people's songs. I don't know if that counts. If I sit down and really think about them, I can write them. But I would say I'm not good at rapping because it takes me so long. Some of the best rappers out there can write a song in ten minutes—I could never.

It took me forever to write those different verses in On the Come Up. Even the title song took me a week. If I had to, I could. But I would not classify myself as a rapper. I would say I have a skill set, but I'm not a professional by any means.

GR: Who are your favorite rappers?

AT: Off the top of my head, of course Tupac. I think that's a given [Editor's Note: The title of "The Hate U Give" is a reference to his THUG LIFE tattoo.] I love Lauryn Hill. There's also a female rapper by the name of Rapsody, who I absolutely adore. She recently followed me on Instagram and I totally freaked out. I also love Nas, Jay-Z, and of course Biggie. It’s hard for me to narrow it down, so I would have to say those are the very top of the list for me. I'm sure after we hang up, I will think of someone else! I have to say all of them are very great storytellers. The way they use their words, the way they use rhymes, and their flow—it's bar none.

GR: Let's circle back to Bri. Tell us how your "second child" appeared to you and why you wanted to write her story.

AT: I think that Bri is the result of me seeing different girls around my neighborhood. Those young girls who were often labeled as troublemakers. We talk about that with black boys a lot and how black boys are stereotyped, but black girls are too. They're racially profiled as well, and they're often called aggressive or loud, or ghetto, or ratchet, and all of these words are thrown at them without people ever really taking a chance to get to know them and see who they really are. For me, Bri is a love letter to those girls who are often seen as being someone they're not, who are also often seen as aggressive, when really they're just passionate.

GR: What was the most challenging thing about writing Bri?

AT: Well, the biggest challenge was making sure she sounded different from Starr. It was challenging just nailing her personality down and making sure she was just as I wanted her to be. I really wanted to nail her voice and make sure she sounded like her own person. She's a bit of a hothead.

Also, as a woman—and I hate this—I'm always afraid of female characters coming off as unlikable because they're brash. I had to get to the point where I was like, "You know what? Screw it. If people think Bri’s unlikable, I don't even care." I had to tell myself, "Forget it. Bri's going to speak her mind at times. She's going to say things that make people uncomfortable. She's going to be her authentic self." And if people think that's unlikable, that's on them, not on her, and not on me as a writer. Bri's going to say what she wants to say.

GR: Poverty plays a huge role in Bri's story. What do you want readers who might not have experienced the challenges of poverty to take away from this book?

AT: One, I hope they start humanizing people who are living in poverty. We're living in an interesting time right now where it seems like so many of our leaders are demonizing those who need help; they're demonizing those who simply want a better life. And that bothers me.

So I hope people walk away from the book seeing that poverty isn't always what it looks like. I wish people, too, would stop saying people who live in poverty need to try harder or that they're just lazy. There are so many factors that put people in different situations and we don't talk about enough. We need to stop stripping people of their dignity just because of their circumstances. I hope that, if nothing else, people read the book and also realize how easy it is to end up in a situation like that.

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GR: On the Come Up is set in Garden Heights, which is the same neighborhood in The Hate U Give. Will fans see any cameos?

AT: There are little references here and there, so if you're really paying attention, you'll pick up on them. I will say the big thing that leads to Bri's tragedy in the book is directly caused by things that happened in The Hate U Give. So what happened to Khalil in that book is what really turns Bri’s life upside down. So there's definitely that connection!

But I purposely didn't have any characters from The Hate U Give appear. I even put Bri in a different part of the neighborhood because I wanted it to be her world, not her and Starr's world, so that we could see it through her eyes and see how different her circumstances are.

GR: Have you always wanted to write a book that was an homage to hip-hop? Maybe even before The Hate U Give?

AT: It was definitely something I've always wanted to do. I haven't seen a lot of books—specifically, YA books—about hip-hop or rappers. I can only think of maybe one or two. I always wondered why, especially since it's a form of music that speaks to more young people than any other. And not just black kids. Some of the biggest consumers of hip-hop are white kids. So why hasn't anyone done a story about that? I think that's a great way to speak to young people and get them to read even more.

GR: Being a huge YA fan yourself, which books would you recommend to those readers?

AT: There's another hip-hop book coming out that I cannot wait to read: It's called Let Me Hear a Rhyme by Tiffany D. Jackson. It's set in the '90s and takes place in Brooklyn, and it's so good. Also, Opposite of Always by Justin A. Reynolds. I would say that it's Everything, Everything and Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda meets Back to the Future.

There's also a middle-grade novel that I love. It's called A Good Kind of Trouble by Lisa Ramee. I would say it's a younger version of The Hate U Give, and it's about a young girl who finds her voice and activism after deciding to support Black Lives Matter at her school where she's challenged by the administration. It's one of the best middle-grade novels I've read. I would honestly say that it will be this generation's Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. It's that good.

Of course, I have to give a shout-out to my siblings, Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera with What if It’s Us? I also recommend Odd One Out by Nic Stone. That is a phenomenal book, and I need more people to read it. It's about queer kids of color, and we don’t get that a lot. So definitely check that out!

Angie Thomas' On the Come Up will be available on February 5. Don't forget to add it to your Want to Read shelf! Be sure to also read more of our exclusive author interviews and get more great book recommendations.

Comments Showing 1-21 of 21 (21 new)

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message 1: by Elizabeth (new)

Elizabeth I just finished The Hate U Give and absolutely loved it. I even recommended to my friends, an aunt and two sisters. The main character, Starr, is special and so well-drawn. This book shares real-life trauma, the warmth of family, teen angst and made me want to cheer. A unique experience! One of the best books I have read in years...

message 2: by Dev (new)

Dev I loved The Hate U Give and I really wanna read On the come up

message 3: by Lara (new)

Lara Goldstein Such a fantastic review. Thanks for doing this!

message 4: by Robin (new)

Robin Summers Awesome interview Angie! I can not wait to read your latest book.. On the Come Up,

message 5: by Anna (new)

Anna Loder Can’t wait to read Bri’s story!!!

message 6: by Nicole (new)

Nicole Hathaway I’m so excited for the new book! Can’t wait!

message 7: by Helia (new)

Helia Rethmann Thanks for being such a fantastic writer, Angie Thomas. My 23-year-old daughter gave me “The Hate U Give” for my 55th birthday and I called in sick to finish it. It deserves every accolade and award it’s gotten and more. There’s no over-stating the impact powerful art – fiction, rap, even pop culture – has on making the world a little less racist. Thanks for using your gifts to do your part, and thank you for remaining relatable, approachable, and kind. The world needs more of you. Bri’s story next!

message 8: by Deb (new)

Deb A must read if you loved, The Hate You Give, I can’t wait!

message 9: by Michael (new)

Michael Obiora Great interview! Looking forward to reading Her second novel. I went to the screening of The Hate U Give at Bafta in London, and I was lucky enough to be there on the day there was a Q&A with Angie, and some of the actors and creative team. Much respect to all.

message 10: by S (new)

S Reignite *Lauryn Hill

message 11: by Jen (new)

Jen Deepa Huge fan of Angie's. Cannot wait to read this!!

message 12: by Jan (new)

Jan The Hate You Give was one of my favorites. I loved it so much I gave it to each of my children Jan Wuthrich

message 13: by Ana (new)

Ana Hoppe I’m already look forward to read this book! Angie it’s a necessary writer to our days. ❤️

message 14: by Marcia (new)

Marcia Wonderful to read this interview and to hear more about the fuel for both books. So looking forward to reading your next book, Angie!

message 15: by Nakia (new)

Nakia Kabia Looking forward to read this book

message 16: by Rosemarie (new)

Rosemarie Hamilton This was such a fantastic interview, thank you for all the insights into the On Come Up. I love The Hate U Give, and can't wait to read On the Come up.

message 17: by Dre (new)

Dre I loved The Hate U Give so much, I pre-ordered On The Come Up so fast! I can't wait to get into it this weekend. Thanks for sharing this awesome interview, Marie!

Also, I think it's dope that Angie Thomas and I share many of the same favorite rappers--even Rapsody (NC, stand up!)! I'm over-the-moon hype about meeting Bri and devouring On The Come Up 📚

message 18: by Ladonna (new)

Ladonna Maiden I really enjoyed The Hate U Give. Can’t wait to read your second baby. I’m in a book club so I’ll have to sneak time in. I’ve chosen my book already in January. ✌🏾

message 19: by T (new)

T Grace Thanks for this thoughtful and enlightening interview. Angie Thomas is an amazing author, her characters leap off the page and make you love them and her last novel was impossible to put down. I look forward to reading On the Come Up!

message 20: by Jada-Marie (new)

Jada-Marie Pino Im so excited for this book to come out!!! I can't wait any longer
THUG is one of my favourites and I think one day it's gonna be called a Classic

message 21: by Samuel Franco (new)

Samuel Franco Hi

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