Breaking and Entering: VIBE

by
This was this issue in which my first Vibe story appeared. And it definitely wasn't this TLC cover story!

This was this issue in which my first Vibe story appeared. And it definitely wasn't this TLC cover story!

There’s always been something about VIBE.

If you’re an old head like me, you remember the first time you saw a copy. (I was at my boyfriend’s sister’s house. It was the issue with En Vogue on the cover, with a pregnant Cindy Herron showing off her belly).

It’s hard to understand what it was like to see a magazine like Vibe in the early ‘90s. In high school, I flipped through the occasional issue of The Source, thumbed through my mother’s copies of Essence and looked at the pictures in Ebony and Jet. But nothing was really written for me: a girl who lived for New Jack Swing and R&B.

When I saw En Vogue on the cover of this beautiful, oversized magazine, I couldn’t understand it. I kept turning it over, thinking it was a promotional poster. I turned the pages very carefully, afraid of creasing the pages. My mouth was gaping. There was a magazine with young Black people in it? With first class photography and glossy pages?

I just couldn’t fathom its existence. Seriously.

I’ve always known I wanted to be a writer but seeing a magazine like Vibe crystallized it. It gave me a place to fantasize about.

Fast-forward a few years and I was out of college and after teaching for a few years, I was working as an editorial assistant at Billboard magazine.

I subscribed to Vibe and poured over each issue every month. How on earth would I get a chance to write for this magazine? Was it possible? It honestly seemed like a pipe dream.

I scanned the front-of-the-book of Vibe for months and months. (This is the section where all the short, newsy items are. And it’s the best place for a new writer to break in.) I marinated on what I could pitch.

Sidebar: New writers do NOT spend enough time researching a magazine before pitching. And this is why so many pitches from new writers are not accepted. If you haven’t read a magazine and STUDIED it cover to cover, every issue, for at least six months, than you’re not ready. I can’t tell you how many times I have been sent a pitch for a story from a new writer that was…
A.    covered in the magazine a few issues back. (which you would know if you read it thoroughly each month)
B.    a topic that is covered by a columnist who is on staff (which you would also know if you matched the bylines with the names on the masthead).
OR
C.    not something the magazine would cover at all. (particularly local stories like a book fair or a concert in the park.)

My first clip in VIBE was sheer luck, timing and a bit of tenacity. And there was a slightly macabre twist to the whole thing that’s always left me unsettled:

When I was still teaching, I had a student named Iyana Wakefield in my US History II class. Good student. Amazing singing voice. She was always late to class. And she would always bring me a note, signed by her mom, who wrote out her name in a very flowery script: Mrs. Gwendolyn Wakefield.

I found out later in the school year that Iyana’s mother was also known as Gwen Guthrie, a club and disco legend who’d sung backup for Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder and Madonna. You may not know her name. But you definitely know this song:

Iyana used to joke about trying to get a rapper to sample this song so she could pay for college. I never met her mother. But I know the family lived a very low-key, modest existence after Ms. Guthrie’s music career cooled.

While I was working at Billboard and trying to get that clip in Vibe, I heard from a family friend that Iyana’s mom had passed away, from uterine cancer. My first thoughts were with Iyana. She had just graduated from high school. An awful time to lose your mom. Her mom was only 42 years old!

And then, the next day, I thought. Gwen Guthrie has passed away…this is a story. And I have a connection no one else has. The news of her death had not been sent out in a press release and it hadn’t hit the news cycle at all.

I emailed the news editor at Vibe. And I kept it simple and sweet:

Hi. This is Aliya. I’m the editorial assistant at Billboard. We’ve talked in the past about writing for VIBE. I just wanted you to know that I have access to a news story you might be interested in. Disco legend Gwen Guthrie recently passed away. I could cover this as a news story for you ASAP.

The news editor called me back within the hour and assigned me my very first story in Vibe.

I felt weird at first. How was I supposed to contact Iyana and her family while they were still grieving and ask them questions? The news editor told me that because it was a last minute story, I would need to get a photo from the family as well.

I put in a call to Iyana’s family. And luckily, they were cool with talking about Gwen Guthrie’s passing. They were actually happy to know that her death would be covered in the magazine. The family sent me a photo of Ms. Guthrie, which I hand-delivered to Vibe.

Sidebar: I walked off the elevator with the photos in my hand and I almost passed out. There were these huge neon-lit letters spelling out VIBE behind the receptionist’s desk. It was a real place! It really existed! And I was there. I wanted to get into the inner sanctum and meet someone—anyone! But the receptionist took my photos and told me to keep it moving. I got back on the elevator, looking back longingly, wondered if I’d ever actually go inside the offices.

I went home to Brooklyn and started writing my story. The news editor at Vibe told me to keep the story to 200 words. I handed in 600.

People. This is not what you do. Today, I use the 10% rule. You can go 10% over the word count. And maybe 10% under, if you must. But no more. You definitely do NOT triple the word count.

Bless my editor, (I think it was Dave Bry). He didn’t curse me out. Just kindly told me to cut it. And cut it again. And then cut it some more.

That’s one of the hardest things for a new writer to do, cut down their work. You’re married to every adorable sentence. And you can’t see the forest for the trees.

I finally got the story down to word count. I was even able to get some quotes (emailed from her publicist) from Foxy Brown, who had just released a song sampling Gwen Guthrie’s most famous tune. (Always wanted to ask Iyana if she got some college-cash from that…)

After I handed in the story, I couldn’t walk past any newsstand in New York City without looking for a new issue of VIBE. I’d heard that TLC would be on the cover. But every day, I looked and looked. Nothing.

One morning, I was running late for work. Jumped off the N train, dashed across the street to the heavy glass doors of 1515 Broadway. Just before I swung them open, I looked back at the newsstand on the corner of 44th and Broadway.

A new issue of Vibe. With TLC on the cover! I ran to the stand, grabbed it and flipped through the magazine furiously.

And there it was.

I must have stared at this story for an hour...

I must have stared at this story for an hour...

A tiny little thing. Less than a fourth of a page. My obit on Gwen Guthrie. Barely a hundred words, (I swear Dave Bry cut it in half even after I handed it in).

What bowled me over was the tiny little byline at the end of the story: Aliya S. King.

That was me. In the big-bad Vibe magazine. The oversized glossy joint that I’d watched from afar for years and years.

I would go on to write cover stories for Vibe, many years later. But I’m telling you, nothing matches the feeling I felt on that spring day in 1999, when I stood on the corner of 44th and Broadway, ogling my own name.

I bought five copies. It was all the money I had.

Dear readers, share with me your special moment. The one you’ve carried with you throughout your career. If you’re a writer, tell me about your first clip. If you want to be a writer, tell me about your dream publication. If you’re a lawyer, tell me about the first case you won. Whatever your profession, we all have that special moment. I’d love to hear about yours…

-A

P.S. While looking for information on Gwen Guthrie today, I found this clip of Iyana online. She still has a beautiful voice. Just like her mother.

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21 Responses to “Breaking and Entering: VIBE”

  1. serenakim Says:

    And then you went on and become the magazine’s star writer!

  2. Misha AKA Mick Says:

    Wow!!! I actually remember reading this article and showing it to my dad, because Gwen was a friend to my dad. I knew Ayana and her family personally, her dad (may he RIP as well) and my dad were best friends. So I remember reading this article and showing it to my father. I believe I still have this issue too. Think my dad took the article and saved it. I remember even saying, that’s Ms. (at the time) King!!! She wrote that!!! :) Think I’ll be needing your autograph real soon. lol…

  3. Thembisa Says:

    Beautiful story Aliya! My OMG I’m in the magazine moment came from a now defunct local dance rag called Klub magazine in San Francisco. I did the cover story on KRS-One in 1991 after loving his music like a family member since Criminal Minded. And I could not believe that my story took up so many pages…that byline, while not my first, was my biggest to that point, and started so many things for me: mainly, my relationship to myself as a marquis writer; my friendship with Kris which has only deepened to this day, and ignited my passion for expression with the written word beyond journal entries and note cards…for any and everyone to see. I would never have imagined becoming an editor, copywriter or author from that moment, but that story was the spark that lit the fire under my career. And it gave me the freedom to boldly call myself a writer. I’m in brilliant company, and I am humbled. Thank you.

  4. Aliya S. King Says:

    @Serena: not hardly. But I did my thing here and there, thanks to YOU.

    @Misha: I didn’t know her father passed away as well. Damn. And I’m still Ms. King to you. Hmph.

    @Thembisa: Don’t you love it when you see that story with the lengthy pages and the super big byline, like you’re special! Lol. Great story. Thanks for sharing it with me.

  5. Mish Says:

    You will always be Ms. King to me for some reason… but I will get over it Aliya… but yeah her dad passed a couple years back, I was close to him as well. :( thanks for that youtube clip of her, I sent it to my dad…I’m sure he’ll love seeing it.

  6. Joyce E. Davis Says:

    Hey Ms. Aliya! I don’t know if you know this, but like you, Vibe launched my entertainment journalism career. Of course my experience is similar to yours except since I’ve got you by a few years I remember being a reporter at Fortune, aTime Inc mag, and hearing about the upcoming launch of Vibe, a joint venture with Time Inc Ventures and Quincy Jones. I remember Treach, Wesley Snipes and Rosie Perez on early covers and just DYING at the level of writing about people, places and things that I really cared about…like an urban Rolling Stone…I was in heaven and immediately knew that I wanted to ditch biz journalism. After months of using all my Negro Geography Netowrking powers, I landed a 100 word book review assignment from Omoronke Idowu about Night Song a historical fiction romance. I proceeded to spend a week reading the novel and two weeks writing that 100 word article, which was my first freelance article ever. And when it was released, I was empowered. I knew I could write about what I was interested in as a career. Of course my dream was to be an editor at Vibe, and I interviewed several times to no avail. In one of my tactics, I even took Danyel Smith out to lunch (and received some of the best entertainment journalism advice of my life). While I never got on staff, I did keep writing for them, features and stuff and a gang of my fam worked and wrote for them. Those early days of Kevin and Shani and MY GIRL Karen and Sheena and Dwayne and Jesse and Danyel, and of course KEITH, were just a special time in Vibe’s life. I went on to work for and/or write for several of their competitors. But I was obessed by them for quite awhile and I will forever be in debt to them for helping me towards my commitment to writing what you have a passion for. Thanks for the memories Aliya. You made me really miss those mid-90s when hip hop was poppin!

  7. Aliya S. King Says:

    @Joyce: Wow. This is why I love this blogging stuff. I get to connect with people who get my all-out geekiness on random stuff! I think I am going to do a whole post on Valuable Advice I’ve Received From Danyel Smith. I also tried to work for her, to no avail…Obsession is just the right word…Ah, the good old days!

  8. Naima Says:

    I had a similar feeling when I interned at Seventeen Magazine. I was the intern for the fashion dept and got the opportunity to assist in styling MA$E for June/July issue. I couldn’t believe a) i was even interning for a magazine and Seventeen at that and b) they were going to let me help style him. Maybe they gave me the opportunity because I was the black girl and he’s a rapper…I must know what he would want to wear or if they truly valued my taste in fashion…who cares, i was getting the chance. The head stylist literally left most things up to me…she was very hands off. It was amazing…that day was one of the most exciting days of my life! Since I was interning there, everyday I was looking for when the issue came out and of course I saved a copy as well. I think it’s in my mom’s basement…gotta find it!

  9. Aliya S. King Says:

    @Naima: I didn’t know you interned at Seventeen! That’s huge. What did you have him wearing?

  10. Misha Says:

    Naima…that was a great opportunity, I’ve been blessed with a few opportunities in my life where styling is concerned as it’s my love, but to have one like that, well that’s just awesome.

  11. Clove Says:

    I love hearing stories about a writer’s beginnings. My special writer’s moment also has to do with Vibe. Like you, I was a huge fan, used to read it throughout high school and college and didn’t read any other hip-hop mag. But I never knew I wanted to be a writer until my second year in college. So when I did find out it was my passion, Vibe was my obvious dream gig. In my senior year at NYU, I started applying for internships–I was all late and stuff–sending out my resume to a bunch of places, but VIBE was where I wanted to be. It was young and hip and smart and I didn’t feel like it was degrading at all. I loved the covers, the features, the photos, the stories…just dope. Plus R&B was my obsession, I wasn’t that into rap.

    When I found out I got the internship I was beyond ecstatic. Beaming. First time I stepped foot in the building, it was like “I’m at Vibe!” Me and the other interns could barely contain ourselves and it seemed like everyday we talked about how great it was to be there. And of course that internship led to writing ops, etc, etc. So the first time I saw my name in the mag was under the Interns section on the masthead, along with like 20 other interns. I showed it to everyone lol. Sorry that wasn’t about my first clip but gosh it means something to be at the place you dream of :)

  12. Wifey's House Says:

    Love this post! My first piece ran in Sister 2 Sister. I was a publicist at LaFace in ’98 and just got engaged. Jamie Brown asked me, no, told me to write about it for her Celebrating Black Men issue. I did and loved it. My husband framed the 2 page spread and gave it to me for Christmas the next year. It still hangs on my office wall.

    I have wonderful memories of reading and working with Vibe. In fact, I was at that TLC cover shoot. I remember it well. Thanks for sharing and taking me back there… smiles!

  13. Chris Wilder Says:

    My moment like this was not my first byline. I had many, many bylines but as an editor at The Source back in 1992, I was able to get Charles Barkley and Spike Lee to appear together on the cover of the magazine. At that point they were both kind of peaking. Charles had just returned to the US from winning a Gold medal with the original Dream Team and Spike Lee was just about to release Malcolm X so, they were both hard to get. Barkley’s agent was iffy about it but when I got Spike to confirm and throw out some dates that he was available, Barkley’s guy jumped on it. I felt like people didn’t think I could pull it off but I worked it all out. That was the first big thing I orchestrated as an editor.

    I have a first Vibe moment, too. My first clip in Vibe was also The Roots first press clip. I wasn’t aware of that until Ahmir told me a few years later.

  14. Aliya S. King Says:

    @Chris: I remember that cover!! Well, not in real time. I think I saw it a few months later. That’s how it was with The Source when I was in high school and college. I would see some amazing image, grab it and read it. And then discover it was a year old. And it STILL had stuff I didn’t know…

  15. southernlady Says:

    Wowwww…..Let’s see. The two magazines that really stood out to me were Vibe and Essence. I read The SOURCE and some others that have folded by now, but those two in particular are the top two magazines I would love to be published in. They are though, running a tight race with Honey Magazine (tear…). Actually, I was a Honey blogger before the site shut down and will jump back on as a blogger soon. (The mag is under new management and has a revamped site). I hate, hate, hate that I missed the chance to write for the print mag. There’s absolutely NOTHING like seeing your name in the byline of a print publication!

    I started out as an intern at my hometown’s newspaper, which has a pretty decent circulation. When I saw my name on my first article, I just looked at it. For an eternity. Then I read the story. After so long, you forget what you have written, I guess. I’ve had stories posted on Vibe Vixen.com and each time, there was this high, like, “This is really happening, slowly, but surely.” I screamed (in my office at work)when I saw my first story up and emailed the link to EVERYONE I know. And I’m a pretty modest chick.

    One day I will flip through the pages of Essence and VIBE and see my name somewhere in there. I’m going to make sure of that. It kinda sucks that most magazines are going online, but while there are still pages to slip, I’ll be trying my hardest to write something worthwhile.

  16. Aliya S. King Says:

    @southernlady: what is it about seeing our names in print that makes us just…stare! lol.

  17. Jenna Marie Christian Says:

    Wow..This was such an inspirational piece. I needed it! Thank you so much!

  18. enter name here Says:

    testing

  19. acyum2012 Says:

    Hey i just happened to glance at you alls convo..and Im telling you I really am aspiring to become the next Oprah.. You guys how did you get where you are…?? God has given me a gift..and I have to share it with the world..Im a sophmore in college..and its sooo hard… wow.. Help a sista out..

    Amber

  20. Sheila Says:

    This young lady can sing.

  21. Susan Varghese Says:

    I love this! I’m writing an article and stumbled upon this blog while researching. I currently intern for Billboard magazine and my first clip was published in March. I called just about everyone in my phone book and made 100 copies of it, haha. I have never been so excited and happy in my life! I’m going into my senior year of college and have finally figured out that writing is what I want to do. It’s inspiring reading your story because it proves that with persistence and hard work, you can achieve anything, even if it seems like a pipe dream! Thanks for this!

    -Susan

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