What made you fall in love with hip-hop?
Sometimes I say my biggest literary influences are rappers, which catches people off guard. When I didn’t see myself in books, I saw myself in hip-hop. When I was young, the two big series were Twilight and The Hunger Games. I had nothing against them, but I couldn’t connect. Rappers would tell me stories about kids like me.
Who were your icons?
One of my biggest influences is TLC. They used their voices in such a powerful way. I will never forget back in ’96 at the Grammys when they called out [unfair contracts] for making them broke. That was incredible for me to see as a kid in Jackson. It showed me that they understood that they had power, and maybe some of that same power was in me. I got to talk to Left Eye when I was a teenager. She helped save my life.
I was bullied. One day I locked myself in the bathroom with every intention of taking my own life. I had my Walkman, and “Waterfalls” came on. She has a line: “Dreams are hopeless aspirations, in hopes of coming true/ Believe in yourself, the rest is up to me and you.” I thought, I have hopes and dreams, but I can’t see them happen if I take my life. So I decided not to. I told my mom, who found the phone number for a studio. I was watching TV and my mom says, “Someone wants to talk to you.” She said, “This is Left Eye.” I screamed and dropped the phone. Finally I got myself together and she said, “Your mom told me what’s been happening to you. Do you want to talk about it?” This woman had never met me — she was a member of one of the biggest girl groups in the world. She took the time to listen and said, “I’ve never met you, but I’ve got a feeling you can do something great one day, and you can’t do it if you take your life.” That kept me going through the rest of my teenage years. Even now I think back to that conversation when things get hard. I’m so thankful that I had the chance to talk to her, because she died just a few months later.
You had a teen rap career. What was that like?
It was a way to express myself, but it was also, I thought, one of the only ways someone like me could make it. I didn’t see doctors and lawyers from my neighborhood who were successful. But the local rappers were doing well. I remember begging my cousin to lend me money so I could go to a studio.
How did your upbringing inform your worldview?
Mississippi is known for two things, racism and writing, and I happen to be a writer who wrote about racism. I grew up knowing that our government would say racist things and people would try to explain it away. I grew up in the same neighborhood Medgar Evers lived. My mom was listening to the gunshots from the night he was killed. But my mom was very community-oriented. She was always speaking out about things that happened in the neighborhood. So even with poverty and violence and drugs in the neighborhood, I recognized that there was power within me to not only make myself heard, but also to change the way kids like me were seen.
Bri’s story in On the Come Up — her love of rap, the trauma of poverty — sounds like your life. Is this book more auto-biographical than The Hate U Give?
It is. There’s always that fear of, Am I giving too much of my life story away? But when it feels vulnerable, I remind myself there’s some kid out there who’s going to pick this up and feel less alone.
We’re over five years into Black Lives Matter. How do you think the movement is doing?
The movement itself and the people who are involved in the movement are still doing amazing work. The problem right now is that America is distracted. We have a circus in our politics that can take up every single headline. People aren’t talking about unarmed black people being killed nearly as much as they’re talking about football players being served cold fast food. It’s disheartening to know so many of our stories are being pushed to the side.
The Hate U Give, which was made into a movie last year, was celebrated but also met with some resistance. Why do you think that is?
It’s been challenged in school districts — usually by people who haven’t read the book. When people don’t take the time, it’s because they’re afraid of what their minds could open up to. But we’ve had police officers that sponsored movie viewings to improve relations. I met a 90-year-old white lady who passes copies out to kids. I wrote it with black kids in mind, but that does not mean other people can’t connect with it.
What would you say to a young person struggling to find her voice?
What my mom always told me: you’re afraid to speak up because you’re afraid of what people will think. They weren’t afraid of how you felt, so why should you be afraid of how they feel when you speak up?
Why do you write for teens?
The teens I write for now are going to be politicians with Twitter accounts tomorrow. If some of our leaders read books about black kids as teenagers, we wouldn’t have to say Black Lives Matter — it would be understood. If they read about Latino kids, we wouldn’t be discussing walls. People assume I want to put a political agenda into kids’ heads. No. I want to instill empathy in them.