Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.

Hip hop

Throughout The Hate U Give, Starr references several hip hop tracks by name, revealing the deep connection between hip hop and life in black neighborhoods. Each track in the novel provides some level of catharsis for the characters. For instance, Seven reassures Starr that everything will be OK after Khalil’s death by playing Kendrick Lamar’s song “Alright.” Starr struggles to stay angry at Chris when he raps the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air theme song, a show that reflects Starr’s division between her black and white worlds. N.W.A.’s “F--- Tha Police” blasts during a Garden Heights riot following the grand jury’s decision not to indict One-Fifteen. The tracks fit the characters’ moods to emphasize how hip hop speaks to the emotional experiences of these characters. Many mainstream critics dismiss hip hop as a violent genre of music, and this generalization parallels how the media in The Hate U Give uses Khalil being from Garden Heights to stereotype him as dangerous. However, like Garden Heights, the hip hop genre has more happening below the surface. For instance, Tupac Shakur’s phrase “thug life” sounds as if it glorifies gang violence, but when analyzed, it actually comments on the circumstances that create violence in poor black communities. Hip hop is a mirror both for black experience and how white mainstream media dismisses that experience.

Read more about the motif of music in August Wilson’s Fences.

The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air

Starr often thinks about the nineties sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air because it presents a fantasy of getting to be her whole self at all times, no matter where she finds herself. On The Fresh Prince, the protagonist, Will, refuses to drop the speech and mannerisms from his West Philadelphia neighborhood—which resembles Garden Heights—when he moves in with his aunt and uncle in the affluent, primarily white Bel-Air neighborhood. As Starr struggles with hiding her Garden Heights roots at Williamson Prep, The Fresh Prince offers a powerful dream of being able to behave as her real self and not face social consequences. Chris calls Starr “Fresh Princess” as a way of promising that he will allow Starr to be herself without consequences. When they have conflicts in their relationship, Chris raps the theme song to remind Starr of this promise.

Harry Potter

The Hate U Give is full of Harry Potter references, and Starr’s love of Harry Potter highlights double standards between black and white heroes. Starr, Natasha, and Khalil called themselves the “hood trio” when they were younger, in reference to the trio of main characters in Harry Potter. Thomas’s mapping of Harry Potter characters onto her own characters draws a parallel between Rowling’s trio fighting for justice in the wizarding world and Starr fighting for justice in her own. While readers admire Harry and friends for their civil disobedience in the face of Voldemort’s wizarding world takeover, Starr—and real-life black teenagers like her—face smear campaigns, threats of arrest, and tear gas when they fight for justice. This disparity also appears in Maverick’s humorous interpretation of Hogwarts Houses as gangs. Thomas, through Maverick, challenges the reader to question why we may not think of the excessive house pride as being gang-like when we look at Harry Potter.

Read more about J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.