In the late ‘90s, I sat in the bookstore, flipping through magazines I could not afford to buy. I froze when I read the masthead of The Source. Marcus Reeves, who had graduated a few years before me at Rutgers University, was now the News Editor. I can’t even begin to explain what a big deal this was. There was a person who had infiltrated The Source who actually knew my name! Someone I could actually call and say hello to!
As much as I’d wanted to, I hadn’t majored in journalism in college. There was that refrain I kept hearing from friends and family: writers don’t make money. It’s not a viable career option.
I went into teaching instead and wistfully read every magazine on the newsstand. Finally, after two years of teaching, I jumped ship to see if I could make it as a writer. Six months later, I’m sorting mail, fetching coffee and writing the table of contents each week at Billboard. I’m still checking the masthead of all the magazines I wanted to write for and Marcus was still at The Source.
I finally get the nerve to call him up. I get straight to the point.
Me: Hey Marcus! I’m at Billboard now.
Marcus: That’s hot!
Me: Yes. So Um. I have a question.
Marcus: What’s up.
Me: Can I write something for you?
Me: But I’m working really hard here and I’ve got some clips building up and—
Marcus: Aliya. You can’t call me talking about “Can I write something for you?” You call me and say, I have a story FOR you.
Marcus: You work at Billboard. What’s going on in the music industry that The Source readers need to know?
Me: Well. Um. So.
Marcus: Figure it out. Good talking to you.
Over the next few weeks, I did what Marcus told me to do and kept my eyes and ears open. Since Billboard was a weekly, we got information really fast and our fax machines, (yes, fax machines), were consistently spitting out press releases.
One day I got a package in the mail. It was a black and white headscarf with the logo of a new record label called Ruff Ryders. Seemed interesting. I read up on it. Talked to the PR folks. Seemed like a good news story. Time to call Marcus!
Me: I have a story for you.
Marcus: What’s up.
Me: There’s a new label coming out. They’re called the Ruff Ryders. And I think—
Marcus: We covered that three months ago.
Marcus: This is The Source Aliya. You have to try a little harder to get me something I don’t already know.
This continued for several months. I would find something I thought seemed newsworthy, do some quick research and hit up Marcus. He would either yawn, admonish me for pitching something the magazine had already covered or just flat out say no.
And then. I got a press release about Wyclef’s annual benefit for Haiti in Miami. Lots of great acts lined up, (including a new group I liked called Destiny’s Child). How could Marcus not cover this? I took a deep breath and called him—again.
Me: Wyclef’s annual concert to benefit Haiti is coming up. How could you NOT cover that? And it’s a few weeks from now so I know you haven’t covered it yet.
Marcus: Hmmm… Who’s going to be there?
Me: XYZ! And ABC! And 123! [don’t remember the actual names. But they were big.]
Marcus: Nah. It’s in Miami. I can’t send a writer for that. It’s a small story.
Me: Didn’t I tell you? I’m going to be IN Miami that weekend! You don’t have to pay for me to go. [Of course, I was not going to be in Miami that weekend until that exact moment.]
Marcus: Oh word? You’ll be there anyway? Then, let’s do it. Just 500 words on the concert and interview as many celebs as you can.
Me: YES SIR!
Marcus: Actually, you know what? I don’t have a lot of room in that issue. Just make it 250 words.
Me: No problem!
Now, I needed to figure out how I was getting to Miami. I made $18,000 a year at Billboard. (After leaving my 35k a year teaching job. Ouch.) I had three roommates in a very tiny apartment in Fort Greene. I called my friend D. His sister worked for an airline. I begged him to get me a buddy pass to Miami. He said he would try. A week later, Marcus calls me back.
Marcus: Hey. Gotta kill that story.
Marcus: Don’t want to use random photos. And we’re not sending a photographer down there.
Me: Didn’t I tell you I was going down there with my best friend D who is a well-known photographer published in grumble-grumble and mumble-mumble?
Marcus: Wait. Did you tell me that?
Me: I thought for sure I did.
Marcus: Can he get a couple of exclusive shots for us?
Me: Of course!
Marcus: Great. Story’s back on.
I call D. back and let him know I need him to get two buddy passes. Because although he was in law school and preparing for the bar, he was going to have to take a break from studying and pretend to be a well-known photographer so I could get this story. D almost had a heart-attack. But he got the buddy passes. The day before we’re set to leave, I call D and double check to make sure he has everything he needs.
“Yeah,” he says. “Just need a camera.”
[insert screams here]
Twenty minutes later, I’m in a camera shop in midtown Manhattan and some dude is trying to show me how to use a zoom lens. My experience with cameras stopped at Polaroids. I used my grocery money AND my rent money to rent the biggest, fanciest camera I could.
Camera shop dude: “Are you sure your photographer knows how to use this camera?
Me: Of course he does.
I gave the huge camera case and lenses to D when we got to the airport and if looks could kill, I wouldn’t be here telling you this story. We flew on standby. And for three consecutive flights to Miami, we ain’t do nothing but stand by and watch people board. Finally, we made it onto a flight and got to Miami. We spent the flight trying to figure out how to use the camera. Who knew they didn’t give you film when you rented a camera!
At the venue, I met up with Lesley Pitts, the publicist for the event. Bless this woman’s soul because she knew I was full of crap, (and my bootleg photographer too), but she still gave me the mega-extra-all-access pass so I could roll up to whoever and get my interview.
“Interview anyone you can get,” Lesley said. “But not Wyclef. He has a full day of interviews with large outlets.”
I hit that backstage area like a ninja assassin. Is that Destiny’s Child over there? Oh yeah. I stuck my recorder in the lead singer’s face. She was super prim and proper as she talked about the importance of giving back to the community and supporting Wyclef’s charity event. And then she made sure to slip in that their new single was called Bills Bills Bills and they would be performing it later on. (They got booed.)
For an hour, I ran up on every celeb I could find, with D trailing behind me, trying to keep up and not look insane with this ridiculous camera that he didn’t know how to work. At one point, a publicist snatched him up and told him to go into the area with the other photographers. I just saw his mouth open; calling my name, while a sea of real photographers who were snapping the show swallowed him up. Sorry dude. Gotta get these interviews.
Finally, I see Wyclef. And I’m thinking, this is big. He’s the orchestrator of the entire event. But Lesley said don’t talk to him. But. He’s just standing there chilling with some random people. What’s the harm? Marcus would be really impressed if I came back with quotes from Clef. I eased over to where Wyclef stood, talking to another guy. I interrupted.
Me: Excuse me, Clef? Can I ask you a few questions for The Source?
Clef: You’re from The Source?
Me: Yes, I am. Name’s Aliya S. King. Nice to meet you.
Clef: I didn’t know The Source was sending anyone down.
Me: Well they did sir. Can I ask a few questions?
Clef: What kind of story is this?
Me: A big one. Very important.
Clef: Ha. Is it a cover story?
Me: I have no idea. I don’t make those decisions.
Clef: Okay. What are your questions?
I ask my questions. Go way overboard. Skip from charity concert to the current political climate in Port Au Prince. After a few minutes, Clef politely ended the interview.
As I turn to walk away, the man he had been talking to taps me on the shoulder.
Man: Did you say you were from The Source?
(I’m thinking, wow! My first story for The Source and already folks are sweating me. Just saying the name rings bells baby. Mama I made it!)
Me: Yes. I’m from The Source. Can I help you?
Man: Which editor are you writing for?
Me: His name is Marcus Reeves. He’s the News Editor. [so take THAT I say to myself]
Man: Yes, I know Marcus. What kind of story is this you’re working on?
Me: It’s a story on the concert and on Clef. It’s multi-faceted.
Man: Right. I could tell from the questions you were asking him that it definitely wasn’t just a short news item about this concert. Dude stuck out his hand and smiled at me.
Man: My name is Selwyn Seyfu Hinds. I’m the editor-in-chief of The Source.
Selwyn: Did Marcus pay for you to fly down here?
Me: No sir.
Him: Did he send a photographer down here?
Me. No sir.
Him: So how are you getting photos for this?
Me. I brought a friend who is a photographer.
Him: Where is he?
I point. D is trying to reload the camera. Another photographer who looks hella frustrated is trying to help him. D looks insanely inept.
Selwyn: So you two flew down here on your own?
Selwyn. How long is the story?
Me. 250 words.
Selwyn: Right. So definitely not a cover story.
I turn crimson at this point. Wyclef is nearby. Chuckling.
Me: No. Definitely not a cover story.
Selwyn shakes his head from side to side. Then he pulls a business card out and puts it in my hand.
Selwyn: As soon as you get back to New York, call my assistant and set up a meeting. If there’s a reporter out there flying herself to Miami on her own dime and running up on celebrities like this, I think I need to sit down with her.
I couldn’t speak. So I just nodded. I called Selwyn’s office FROM A PAYPHONE AT NEWARK AIRPORT precisely five minutes after we landed. I made an appointment and pulled a week of all-nighters putting together an issue plan and a series of story ideas, section ideas and column ideas that would work for the magazine and outlining in detail why he needed to hire me as a staff writer, a position that did not exist. I knew I belonged there. I had been grateful to get my foot in the board with the 18K job at Billboard. But it was time to move up—and maybe make enough money to actually eat. This was my shot. And I wasn’t about to blow it.
I met with Selwyn. I carefully laid out all my paperwork on the coffee table in his office. I spread out the last six issues, marked up with Post-It notes with my thoughts and suggestions. I handed him my packets and explained my proposal. He smiled and nodded and said he’d be in touch. He called weeks later. According to my journal, these were his exact words:
“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.”