Dear Aliya: I’m loving your stories about working in hip-hop journalism. The risks you took to get to where you wanted to be are really inspiring. Question: Are there career decisions you made where you still wonder if you made the right move?
–Kim, from Somewhere
Dear Kim: I’ve had more than just one moment where I had to make a move and wasn’t sure if it was the right one. I mean, I was the Entertainment Editor at EBONY up until just a few months ago when I returned to freelance writing full time. And while I’m loving it so far, every time a freelance check is late, I wonder if I made the right decision. But! In my early days, I found myself in a very prickly spot. Sit back and let me tell you all about it…
Last week, I talked about how I weaseled my way into a job at The Source. What I didn’t mention is what happened directly after my interview with the editor-in-chief. So what happened? Nothing. Weeks went by and he hadn’t made a decision. Which led to me finding myself in an awkward professional situation.
I started my journalism career in 1998, when I was hired as an editorial assistant at Billboard Magazine. I was geeked and excited. Billboard back then was very old school. It was run like a newspaper. And it was hard as hell to get a clip in there. My job was to answer the phones, file, distribute mail and write the table of contents each week. But I was antsy. I wanted to write.
One day, after I had been there about nine months, I approached the Managing Editor and told her I wanted to try to do more writing for the magazine.
“Maybe in another year or so,” she said with a smile.
A year? Or SO?
I started looking for another job immediately.
[Sidebar: ‘Nuff respect to my boss. She wanted me to take my time and learn all the tricks of the trade. And she did start to assign me small stories. But I had big dreams.]
In the meantime, I was freelancing for every magazine that would have me. I wrote pieces (for free) at Stress, a legendary hip-hop magazine. I wrote music reviews for XXL, short news stories for The Source and Honey. I was hustling. Hard.
My dream job was to work at The Source.
In 1998, it was the epicenter of hip-hop culture. The editor-in-chief was a man named Selwyn Seyfu Hinds, a Princeton grad with a penchant for pink oxfords and well-tailored suits. I’d met him a few times and he was always encouraging.
As we all know, I wrangled a meeting with Selwyn by lying stretching the truth about a story I had been assigned and then getting caught red-handed.
After the interview, Selwyn said he would call me soon with an answer. I left his office and floated back up to my cubicle at Billboard. I was going to work at The Source! Maybe. Yay!
A week went by. And then another. And then another. And I didn’t hear from Selwyn. I called his assistant each week. And the answer was always the same. He’ll get back to you.
After a month, it seemed like it just wasn’t going to happen.
And then, one morning at Billboard, I got a phone call.
“Aliya, this is ABC, from Blaze magazine.”
I remember turning my head to the right and signaling wildly to Dylan, my cubicle mate. She watched me intently as I spoke on the phone, my hands shaking.
Blaze was the new hip-hop magazine that the folks from VIBE had recently launched.
They were coming straight for The Source. The magazine had been out for a few months and had gone through a lot of turmoil, including a change in the editorial lineup.
Now the managing editor was asking me to come in for an interview.
I was shocked. I didn’t even think those people knew who I was. I’d done a few music reviews for Vibe and I considered Danyel Smith, the editor-in-chief of Vibe, to be a mentor. But still. They were thinking about little old me?
I went for the interview. The Managing Editor gave me a tour of the offices and explained to me the position they were looking for—Associate Editor—and what my responsibilities would be. There wasn’t a lot of writing involved. More editing. But still! A job! At Blaze?
At the end of the meeting, I met briefly with Mimi Valdés, the editor-in-chief of Blaze. I’d been reading Mimi’s byline for ages and ages. (I’d even watched her jump the masthead from Vibe to The Source when I was still in college. And then, a few issues later, her name was back on the masthead at Vibe. In my magazine notebook, I carefully noted: “Mimi back at Vibe.” The same way I did when I noticed Akiba Solomon’s byline had jumped from Jane to The Source.)
Mimi showed me the new issue of the magazine, fresh from the printer. On the cover was a young Lil Wayne with his infant daughter in his arms. (It’s hard to imagine now. But putting Lil Wayne on the cover was a very risky in-your-face move in 2000. He wasn’t nearly as big as he is now. )
I went back to Billboard, not sure if I would actually get the job at Blaze. I’d really wanted to be at The Source but since I still hadn’t heard anything, I was over the moon that I had another awesome option.
The next day, I put in a final call into Selwyn. I told his assistant to let him know that if I didn’t hear from him, I would be taking a job at Blaze, if it were offered to me. I didn’t hear back from Selwyn.
One Friday afternoon, I got a call from the Managing Editor at Blaze. I was officially offered the job as Associate Editor. I remember clapping my hands together and looking up at the ceiling at Billboard to keep tears from dropping down my face. One year. It had been one year since I stepped out on faith and left teaching. I fought way into an entry-level job at Billboard. And now I was moving on to one of the hottest hip-hop magazines on the stands. Fuck. Yeah.
I accepted the job and the next day I went down to sit in on a staff meeting, get a tour of the offices and talk about salary.
I was making $18,000 at Billboard. That’s not a typo. That’s exactly what I was making. I had left my teaching gig the year before, where I was making about 35,000. And now I was making half that at Billboard. I’m still proud of that young girl who took a risk and didn’t think about the money.
Blaze offered me $34,000. I didn’t even think about counter offing or negotiating. I could actually pay my student loans each month instead of deferring them! I could eat! And not just Ramen noodles! I could even maybe get an apartment! (After my two roommates left me stranded in a three bedroom apartment in Ft. Green when they moved in with their boyfriends, I moved all my belongings under my desk at Billboard, (and hid some in some never-used cabinets). I had been sofa crashing, (or sleeping on the floor under my desk), for several weeks.
Alas. The day after I accepted the job at Blaze, I got a call from Selwyn. You might remember what he said from the last installment:
“Aliya, you are a very talented writer. And besides that, you’re hungry and tenacious. I looked over your story ideas and you are exactly what we need here at The Source. I’m pleased to formally offer you a position as a staff writer with a salary of 33,000 per year. Welcome to The Source.”
I had tears rolling down my face. I was overjoyed that this man respected how hard I’d worked in the past year to even get myself on his radar. But of course I was also crying because I was stuck.
“Yes. I’m here.”
“Are you accepting the position?”
“Can I call you back tomorrow?”
“Of course. Talk to you then.”
I remember (literally) rolling around on the floor of my cubicle at Billboard, while my girl Dylan tried to help me decide what to do. I had heart palpitations. My stomach was full of butterflies. I think I even threw up.
I can’t stress to you how crazy this was. TWO OF THE TOP HIP-HOP MAGAZINES IN THE COUNTRY HAD BOTH OFFERED ME JOBS?!
Now. I have to say, The Source had been around since 1988. It was firmly entrenched at number one. And under Selwyn, the magazine was filling its masthead with respected writers from around the country. It would be an honor to sweep the floors at that place.
And Blaze was nothing to sneeze at either. They were the young, scrappy upstarts. They took risks with their covers. And it skewed younger and hipper. I could see myself getting a chance to really shine there. Selwyn was like a king at The Source. I’d heard it was hard for junior staffers to get an audience with him. Mimi seemed more accessible. And I felt like she would really let me shine as a writer if I showed her what I was capable of.
“Dylan,” I asked. “What the hell am I supposed to do?”
“I have no idea,” Dylan said, shaking her head.
“What would you do?” I asked.
“I would stay with Blaze,” Dylan said. “You officially accepted! If you turn around and go to their main competitor? That’s a bridge you’ve burned forever.”
“But Aliya,” she said. “Where do you want to be? Without filtering yourself, right now, where do you want to be?”
“I want to be at The Source.”
Dylan threw up her hands.
“You’ll never forgive yourself if you don’t go.”
The next morning, I called the Managing Editor at Blaze.
As I write this, I’m sixteen years removed from that phone call. And right now, my heart is thumping. And my stomach is churning. It’s hard for me to even revisit that morning without feeling all that anxiety come rushing back.
The managing editor answered the phone on the first ring.
“This is Aliya King. I’m sorry but I have some not-so-good news that I need to–”
“Don’t even tell me Aliya. Do not even tell me that you’re going to The Source.”
I was shocked.
“Um. Well… Yes, I am–”
“You know what? That’s real WHACK,” he said, his voice rising. “It’s unprofessional. And it’s unacceptable. We just sent you an official letter, outlining your position. You accepted the job. This is totally ridiculous.”
I sat at my desk at Billboard, tears streaming down my face and nodding my head.
“I totally understand. You have every right to be upset,” I said.
“You guys are playing games over there and it’s not right,” he said. “You’re not the first one to pull this shit.”
“Pull what? I wasn’t trying to pull–”
“Yeah, right. You get an offer over there. And then you come over here and we top it and then you run back over there for more money.”
“No no no,” I said. “That’s not what happened at all. I never–”
“Whatever. Thanks for calling. Anything else?”
“No. That’s it. I’m going to reach out to Mimi and tell her–”
“Mimi does not want to talk to you. Trust me. I’ll tell her myself.”
And he hung up.
I felt like I’d gone a round or two with Mike Tyson.
The last part of what the managing editor said had confused me. I had no idea that other people at The Source had been dipping over to Blaze and pretending they were interested in working there. And then they would get a firm offer and go back to The Source and demand a raise while threatening to jump ship.
I had not done that at all. But it didn’t matter. Accepting a job and then not taking it is just wrong on every level. And when you un-accept the job because you’re going to the competition? That’s far worse. And I would have to wear that. Forever.
As soon as I hung up the phone, I picked it back up again.
Even though dude told me not to bother calling Mimi, I did anyway.
I was shook. But something in my mind told me to suck it up and tell her what I was doing. I needed to woman-up and face it. I knew she’d be pissed. But I wanted to face it head-on.
Her assistant put me through.
“Hey Aliya,” she said.
I’ll never forget her voice. It was clipped. But still pleasant.
I took a deep breath. If I wasn’t careful, I was going to burst into tears while talking to her.
“I wanted to tell you myself,” I said. “This is very unprofessional. But I am taking a job at The Source that I interviewed for a while back.”
“I see,” Mimi said. “I appreciate you calling me and telling me yourself. Take care.”
She hung up quickly.
And it was over.
I started at The Source a month later.