Eleven years ago, in the summer of 2005, I was given an assignment: a cover story on Faith Evans. She had a new album dropping that had great buzz. She had also dropped a stunning amount of weight and the VIBE staff decided to bless her with another cover.
I was thrilled. I had loved Faith from her first album and felt a kinship because she's from Newark and I'm from East Orange, which is right next door. My brother ran with a lot of her friends and although I never met Faith, we had a ton of mutual friends.
These days, when you interview a celebrity, you're lucky to get an hour of their time in a record label conference room or in a recording studio or while they're in hair and makeup for the cover shoot.
But back then, the editor of your story would negotiate with the record label and make sure the writer and the editor had ample time to spend together. I actually heard of celebrity cover stories being outright cancelled because the celebrity wanted to just do a phone interview.
Nah son, you want the cover? You taking some time with this writer and letting them get to know you.
So it was decided that I would spend the day with Faith at BET’s 106&Park. She was releasing her first single, "Again" and I'd be a fly on the wall.
When I got there, she was preparing to hit the stage. Her husband was giving her tips and making sure her look was on point.
We hung out for the day. But that wasn't the end. Later that night, we met at Matsu Sushi and I turned on the recorder and did the formal interview.
(I'm embarrassed to admit that at 30 years old, I'd never had sushi in my life and Faith had to order for me and explain the basics.)
I liked Faith right away. She was forthright, open and honest about her past and her future.
To a point.
The year before, she and her husband had been arrested for drug possession and when I asked her about it, she talked around it. She said the police pulled them over unlawfully and that whatever was in the vehicle could have been left behind by the last person who had it.
I had to give her an internal side-eye but we kept it moving.
I don't know if people have to do secondaries in music journalism anymore but at the time, it was a requirement that I speak to people who knew Faith well for the story.
Usually, I don't ask the celebrity who I should contact. They'll always tell you to interview their hairdresser or their manager or anyone who won't accidentally spill any tea.
But for some reason, I asked Faith who I should interview for the story and she gave me the usual recommendations: no tea-spillers.
I asked if I could interview the aunt and uncle who raised her in the Newark. They still lived in the area, a ten-minute ride from my house, right near where I spent countless summer days sitting on my grandmother's front stoop.
She agreed but never made it happen. I asked the label and they were no help.
Now, I could have just skipped trying to get to her family and talked to the folks she wanted me to interview. But I knew my editor wouldn't be pleased.
And this is where things get sticky in celebrity journalism. When you establish a rapport with someone during the interview and then it's time to do something you know they might necessarily want you to do, it feels awkward.
I mean, me and Faith kee-keed a lot during our time together. She laughed out loud when I told her the story of my cousin getting chased down Hansbury Avenue by the neighborhood bully, (a girl she knew very well).
But no matter how well we'd gotten along, I wasn't writing the story for her and she wasn't writing the check. I was writing the story for VIBE. And I was expected to hand in a solid, balanced, reported story. Not a fluff piece with just her point of view.
Sidebar: It was VERY important that I nailed this interview. The editor-in-chief at the time was a woman named Mimi Valdes. And um, click here if you want to know why I really needed to impress Mimi.
I found out where her aunt and uncle lived. I drove to the house and parked across the street. I remember that they had Christmas ornaments and religious figurines in the front windows. I sat there for a moment, taking notes about the house. Then I got out and rang the doorbell.
Her uncle let me in though I could tell he knew he shouldn't. He didn't say much. Showed me all the pictures of Faith through the house, from babyhood to fame. I tried to ask him questions: Are you proud of her? Did you know she would become a celebrity?
He was wearing a one-piece workman’s suit. And he was organizing tools in a tool box. He just kept shaking his head and saying: I don't know what else to tell you. That's my baby and I love her.
I asked a few more questions and then he said: Maybe you should talk to my wife. He told me to come back later because she was teaching Sunday school.
And um… Y’all know I went straight to the church, right? The church was directly across the street from the house where my brother grew up and it was the church where a four-year-old Faith first sang.
Her aunt was teaching. I knocked on the door and she came out in the hallway, closing the door behind her. She told me she didn't have time for an interview but she still gave me ten minutes in the hallway.
I took that time to jump right into the good stuff. How did she feel when she found out Faith had married Big? What about the arrest last year? She spilled the tea I needed and I was on my way.
NOW I was ready to write my story. And I did and it was fair and balanced.
My editor was pleased but had one issue: the way she skirted the story of the arrest and the drug possession. He wanted me to call the police department, get the report and put the facts in the story.
That was a no-brainer. I would have done that with any other celebrity before I even met with them. I would have brought the police report with me to the interview, highlighted and ready for an explanation.
I already felt guilty about visiting Faith’s aunt and uncle without getting her explicit approval so the thought of not taking her word at face value about the arrest made me feel weird. I said I would do it but I dragged my feet about making the call, hoping the story would have to go to print without that information.
What I didn't know was that my editor made the calls on his own, interviewed the arresting officer, got the police report and added the facts to my story on his own.
Totally normal and it was his job to make the story stronger. Then he told me I'd have to get Faith back on the phone and ask her to speak to specific points in the police report that she hadn't mentioned in the interview.
Time was running out and the story had to go to press so I could have gotten away with saying I wasn’t able to get in touch with her. I called and left her a message and told her why I was calling. She didn’t call back.
And then, as I was continuing to fine-tune the story, I got a call from her husband/manager. He was pissed.
“Why would you visit her family? We didn’t say you could do that!”
“I know,” I said. “But I didn’t hear back from you guys on who I should—”
“And now you going around asking questions about some shit that happened last year? Why you wanna bring that up? I thought this was supposed to be a positive story.”
I tried to get a word in. But he wouldn’t let me. He said I was supposed to have more respect for Faith than to go behind her back and interview folks and get info on the arrest.
“We let you spend all that time with her and this is what you do?”
He hung up on me before I could say anything else. Which was fine because I don’t know what I could have said.
I remember thinking in that moment. Damn, I was kinda hoping me and Faith would be cool after this story. That’s a whack thought but if a journalist says they’ve never had that feeling, they’re lying. I wasn’t thinking we’d be hanging out and calling each other regularly. I just liked the idea of the girl from East Orange writing a story that Faith enjoyed and maybe we’d run into each other and it would be cool to see each other again. After that conversation with her husband I knew that wasn’t going to happen.
And then I remembered that Faith was known to beat ass. I didn’t think she’d be that pissed. But still, I knew for a fact, she’d beat down bitches for less. So.
I handed in my story. It ran. It was well received. Mimi sent me an email telling me she was proud of me and that it was a great story, which meant the world to me.
I never heard anything from Faith or her team. Which I expected. You don’t usually hear back from a celebrity after an interview unless they want to curse you out. So I took no contact from her as a good thing. (Although yes, I’d kinda hoped she’d call and tell me she liked the story.)
Years went by. Out of the blue in 2007, I got an email from Faith. (Yes, I still have it.)
“Hi Aliya, it’s Faith Evans. I hope all is well with you. Congrats on your marriage! I’m about to work on a book soon & I’ve been trying relentlessly to get some contact info on you. I was wondering if you’d be interested in collaborating on it with me. If this is your correct e-mail address, please respond with a contact #, so that we can speak soon.
After I got over my shock, I called her. She said she’d interviewed a few writers and wasn’t pleased. She told her agent. “I want Aliya S. King. She wrote the cover story on me for VIBE. Find her.” The agent said he couldn’t find me. So Faith used her own contacts to track down my email.
I didn’t think I was the right person to write Faith’s book. The book was going to be a major release from a large publisher and some big numbers were being thrown around for an advance. There was going to be an auction for the right to publish the book. Which means it’s a Big Book. What if I couldn’t deliver?
“I just want to tell you I’ve never been published before,” I said.
“So?” said Faith.
“Writing a book is more than writing a cover story. I’m not sure—”
“You don’t need to be sure,” Faith said. “I’m sure. You got this.”
“Y’know,” I said. “After the VIBE story came out and I interviewed your family without your permission, I have to say I’m surprised you want me for this.”
“That IS why I want you,” Faith said. “You wanted the best story, no matter what. So I know you’ll do the same for this book. I want someone who will pull out the best book, even if it makes me uncomfortable or I don’t want to talk about it.”
“I have another issue,” I said. “I’m sorta super pregnant right now so I might not be able to get started when they want us to.”
“Chile please,” said Faith with a laugh. “I’m pregnant too. We’ll pop these babies out and get started.”
The auction was held and the book was picked up by a major publisher. Our agents negotiated the terms of our agreement. We each popped our babies out, two weeks apart, and got started a few weeks later.
For over a year, I sat at my desk three times a week, talking to Faith about her life, sometimes while nursing my daughter.
She was honest—more honest than I thought that she should be.
Sometimes I would send her a chapter to review and she would call me and say, “Aliya, why did you leave out the part about XYZ? And I would say, "Oh, I just assumed you might not want that part in there.”
And she would say, “I want it ALL in there Aliya. This is my life and I’m not ashamed of any of it. When this book comes out, I don’t want ANYONE to be able to say, “Mmmhmm, I see she left out the part when she did XYZ.”
When I was done with interviewing her and it was time to write, I had panic attacks on the daily. Her story was so rich and that child had packed a lot of life in thirty years. I wanted to get it right. And the publisher damn sure wanted me to get it right.
I also knew that my professional career depended on this book. If I ever wanted to get another collaboration deal, this book would have to be good. No publisher would touch me if the reviews for this book weren’t good. And I knew I wanted to get into fiction at some point. Having this book under my belt would help me make that transition.
I had to call Faith for some pep talks more than once. (I don’t think that’s how that’s supposed to work but oh well). She said the same thing every time: Aliya, you got this! Aliya, You GOT this.
On September 4, 2008, Keep The Faith was published. It would be a week before we’d know anything about numbers. I spent that week rocking back and forth in a corner somewhere, chewing my nails.
Turns out Faith was right every time she said: You got this.
On September 11, the book, my very first, landed on the New York Times Bestellers List at #21.