Trigger Warning: The story contains strong language and a scene of mild violence.
One Saturday, Alimah had joined Fanaye to watch a VH1 special on hip-hop moguls and businessmen. Alimah has never been interested in watching that show, but that week they were featuring Aten Records—a label that was transcending the hip-hop music scene in 2003.
“They already had Bad Boy Records and Roc-a-Fella,” Fanaye bubbled to Alimah, “I knew it was going to be a matter of time they feature Aten Records!”
“You just want to drool over Markus Blak.”
Fanaye smirked, flicking through channels, impatiently waiting to land on VH1. “And I bet you’re dying to see Elliot.”
Alimah sat stiffly, hiding her excitement to see rapper Elliot Hunter, the founder and CEO of Aten Records.
“Oh my God, here it is!” Fanaye bounced up and down in her seat once she saw the VH1 logo.
At the start of the show, there was a montage of dark, seductive, and highly stylized music video clips starring rapper Markus Blak, the co-founder of Aten Records and Elliot’s business partner. Fanaye gawked at the aerial shots of white yachts filled with scantily clad models, close-up shots on feminine curves and designer brands, and scenes of nightclub parties and luxurious hedonism. There were warm tingles beneath her flesh at the sight of Markus’s athletic-built frame in various shots and the power he exuded behind dark shades. He was a striking man of chocolate-brown hue in his mid-twenties standing at a statuesque six-foot-three. She envied the underpaid video girls who got to touch him and kiss him and probably sleep with him off the set. Amidst the many unattractive rappers with misshapen bodies, Markus was an exception.
“I’m gonna marry Markus one day,” Fanaye said, “and we’re gonna be a power couple.”
“Whatever!” Alimah spluttered her lips with a laugh.
“Mark my words.” Fanaye shot her an annoyed side glance.
Then, the camera showed Elliot on stage before thousands of fans, as the narrator did a rundown of his top chart numbers, big money stats, record sales, and the number of cities and countries where he and the entire Aten roster sold out concerts, flashing the names of international cities on the screen, and then announcing his rise to becoming a powerful mogul with photos of him with other prominent executives. Finally, the camera slowly eased in on Elliot in the studio as he worked at a mixing board, introducing him as the main attraction of the episode. Alimah hid her bashful grin behind the pillow, embarrassed for herself for fangirling.
In the interview, Elliot talked about how he and Markus developed Aten. They wanted to add a dark and gothic edge to the glamourous, glossy NYC hip-hop and R&B trend that had been popular since the late nineties. He introduced it as the “Aten sound”—where hip-hop, R&B, and pop had elements inspired by punk, EDM, and industrial rock music. The “Aten sound” had crossed over to fan bases of other genres, especially rock listeners, making the record label an overnight success. Alimah ignored his words as she zeroed in on his deep-set brown eyes and his flawless caramel complexion and elegantly symmetrical and chiseled facial features. Suddenly, she slid off the couch onto the floor and crawled towards the television, then kissed the screen as if she thought Elliot was going to feel it. Fanaye burst out cackling at Alimah, who quickly sat up pretended that she didn’t just kiss the TV.
Alimah started following Aten Records closer, researching beyond pictures of Elliot she tore out of magazines or saved in her computer. Then, she came across a magazine interview where Elliot announced that he wanted artists, especially female, who performed music in genres outside R&B and hip-hop like dance, pop, and rock.
“He wants a rocker chick?” Alimah screeched when she saw those four letters.
Then, her mood sunk when she remembered that she was still fifteen and her father wasn’t going to let her sign to any label until she turned eighteen. He stood firm by that, especially since Alimah was on the edge of a downward spiral after being suspended from school for fighting. Her parents forced her to homeschool for a semester after she got into a fight with a boy at the park and beat him with her skateboard. They regretted taking her off anti-depressants after she complained of the side effects. They even regretted moving from Los Angeles to New York City, wondering if the brash New Yorker teens negatively affected their daughter. Alimah would’ve done anything to move back to California, which she only remembered scarcely before being uprooted at the age of six.
Alimah couldn’t win over her father, but she watched Fanaye manifest her future dreams of being a singer-songwriter and fashion mogul. Fanaye was in her first semester at Parsons, the only seventeen-year-old in her fashion classes since she graduated high school early after being promoted. In between classes, Fanaye dipped in and out of the studio, recording her demos or writing songs for other established artists in the industry. Even though she wasn’t signed to any label yet, she gained a songwriting credit for a famous R&B singer. Alimah thought it was destined for her sister to surpass her in music. Even worse for her, Fanaye was one step closer to Aten Records than Alimah when she was invited to meet Markus Black after their older cousin won backstage VIP passes to his concert at Madison Square Gardens. On the night of the concert, Alimah seized the opportunity of her sister meeting Markus Blak to get her music into Elliot’s hands, and move a few steps past her sister.
“Do you think Elliot will be there?” Alimah asked as watched her sister get dressed for the concert.
Fanaye shrugged, “Maybe…maybe not.”
“Well, can you do me a favor?” Alimah sprinted out of her sister’s room and quickly returned with her demo, which had her rock and R&B songs. “Give this to Elliot if he’s there. And if he isn’t, give it to Markus.”
“No—you will do it. Promise?”
“Okay. I promise.”
Fanaye sighed, taking a break from applying her smoky eyes, and turned to her sister with her pinky up.
Alimah stayed up past her eleven o’clock bedtime, waiting for Fanaye to return home from the concert. As soon as she heard Fanaye’s bedroom door open, she flew out of bed and straight to her room, walking in on Fanaye humming one of Markus’s songs as she undressed. Fanaye jumped when she saw her sister but proceeded to tell her about her amazing night.
“Oh my God—it was so much fun. Markus is like a rock star on stage—no wonder his tour’s selling out!” she rambled on, “And look at what he gave me!” Alimah’s eyes widened at the diamond-encrusted Rolex on Fanaye’s wrist. “He saw me and was like ‘you’re so beautiful…thank you for coming, and he hugged me and gave me this! And he gave Cousin Makeda his fitted cap! And guess who was there?”
Fanaye nodded as she beamed.
“Oh my God…” Alimah blushed, hating she wasn’t old enough to attend the concert. “How did he look?”
“He’s much cuter in person. But Markus is just…the most gorgeous man I’ve ever seen in my life. He’s got the body of a Mandingo god—”
“So, did you give Elliot my demo?”
“Um, everything was happening so fast,” Fanaye stammered as she slipped on her pajamas, “Markus had to hurry to the next city. The security guards were rushing us. We were back there for, like, what, eight minutes?”
“Did you give them the demo?”
Fanaye face dropped as she avoided eye contact.
“They didn’t take it?” Water reached the rims of her eyes.
“I’m sorry, I forgot to give it to them.” Fanaye’s hand trembled as she slipped Alimah’s demo out of her Coach bag. “They were rushing us so fast that I forgot—”
Alimah snatched the CD case from Fanaye and stormed out. Through angry tears, she decided to take the matter into her own hands. The following day, she rode her skateboard to the post office around the corner and mailed the demo CD to the Aten Records office. Inside the package, she included a letter to Elliot, letting him know that Fanaye had met him, and even included a picture of her to refresh his memory.
A few weeks after the package was delivered, Fanaye received an unexpected phone call.
“This is Keith Johnson,” said the caller, “I’m Markus Blak’s assistant manager, and I’m reaching out to you because you gave your demo to Markus at one of his concerts.”
“Wait,” Fanaye exclaimed, “Markus actually listened to my demo?”
“Yes, and he loved it and would like for you to do a feature on one of his upcoming singles.”
Fanaye only broke the news to her parents. Alimah didn’t know that her sister had left the following Sunday to meet Markus at a studio in Manhattan. Alimah continued to be unaware of what was happening to her sister. However, she answered a surprising phone call some weeks later.
“This is Martin Frankenberg calling from the A&R office of Aten Records.”
Her stomach did multiple flips. “Yes, this is Alimah!”
“Um, hello,” Martin uttered, “Is Fanaye Kebede or one of her parents available?”
“We would like to speak to her.”
Alimah almost hurled the phone at the wall. Instead, she hung up and slammed it back on the charger base. Eventually, the man called back later and got her mother on the phone. She received news that the executives at Aten Records wanted to meet with Fanaye. Eventually, Alimah realized that Fanaye broke her promise and snuck her demo into Markus’s hands instead of hers. After Fanaye received the exciting news, Alimah confronted her in private.
“When did you give Markus your demo?” she asked.
“Oh, I gave it to him some time ago.”
“Did you give it to him at the concert?”
Alimah stared dead at her sister, detecting the essence of deception in her sister’s face. But, she walked away, not wanting to add more days to her punishment. Her parents already grounded her for punching a hole in the wall after an argument with her mother, so she tried her best not to punch another hole into her sister’s face. However, she could only contain that anger for so many days. She had lost it when she found out that her father was letting Fanaye pursue a recording career a month before she turned eighteen.
Alimah snuck into Fanaye’s empty bedroom with a drinking glass wrapped in a washcloth. She placed the wrapped-up glass on the floor and crushed the cylindrical lump into pieces beneath her sneaker. She then dumped the broken glass into Fanaye’s purse before zipping it back up. Alimah quietly retreated to her bedroom and resumed playing her keyboard nonchalantly. Hours later, Fanaye let out a scream that could’ve shattered the windows. Alimah smirked to herself with an impish squint, remaining at her keyboard while her parents rushed upstairs. She took a break from her music and strolled past her sister’s open door, watching her parents scurry back and forth with gauze, bandages, wet towels, and peroxide. The smile disappeared from Alimah’s face when she saw the amount of blood dripping from Fanaye’s hand. Alimah went back to her room and sobbed into her pillow, wishing she could undo what she had done.
Fanaye’s vocals impressed the executives, but they decided not to sign her. She complained about it over a so-called celebratory lunch from her parents, even though she didn’t get signed. Alimah blamed herself, wondering if Fanaye didn’t give her best because the injury broke her spirit.
“Elliot called me a black Malibu Barbie!” Fanaye cried. She often embraced being called a real-life Black Barbie doll by her friends and family. However, that day, it worked against her. “He said I was gorgeous and had an amazing voice, but he wanted an edgy ‘bad girl’ or sexy tomboy like Aaliyah, who dances—not a pageant girl’. I could be edgy if I want to! I have natural rhythm—all I need is a great choreographer.”
“There’ll be other labels, dear,” her father said, “You’re talented—that’s what’s important.”
Later that afternoon, Alimah found Fanaye sitting in her room on the edge of the bed, glaring at her while gently rubbing her stitched-up hand, which was wrapped in gauze.
“Why did you put that glass in my purse?”
“I didn’t do that.”
“Mom or dad wouldn’t do that. So who else would do it?”
“Maybe someone in your class did it.”
“There wasn’t glass in my purse when I brought it back home!”
“I didn’t fucking do it!”
Fanaye jumped up and punched Alimah in the eye, knocking her to the floor. Alimah curled up on the floor as Fanaye kicked her repeatedly. Alimah howled for her father, who flew up the stairs and into Fanaye’s bedroom. He wrestled Fanaye off of Alimah, losing balance and nearly hitting his head on the nightstand. Sudden metallic banging startled the girls, causing them to jump to different sides of the room.
“Stop it, now!” Their mom boomed, banging a soup ladle maniacally against a frying pan.
“Alimah, put the glass in my purse!”
“No, I fucking didn’t!”
“Language!” The father snatched Alimah by the arm.
“Alimah, you’re on punishment for the rest of the month,” The mom shouted.
Their parents stayed up most of the night, arguing over last resort punishments for Alimah. Her father wanted to force her into another semester of homeschool. However, her mother wanted to send her away to a ‘scared straight’ program at the women’s jail on Riker’s Island. She blamed her husband for spoiling Alimah, then developing his temper, which was part of the reason why she resented her daughter. But, he didn’t want his daughter to attend a jail program, even though he worried that her explosive anger would have her in handcuffs before she even turned sixteen. Then, he thought about the counselor who he spoke to while in rehab. He had brought up Alimah’s anger and depression, calling her a “difficult child” and being corrected by the counselor who asserted that she was a “hurt child”. He struggled with guilt, thinking of what he could do to make his daughter happier. So, he came to a decision that would change Alimah’s life. Some days later, he had a serious talk with his daughter in the home recording studio.
“Alimah, you’ll be turning sixteen this year,” he said, “and despite the trouble with your behavior, your grades are still a good student. First, I want to tell you that I am sorry for what you’ve seen me and your mother go through. I don’t blame you for being angry, but you can’t go about it like this anymore.”
Alimah fiddled with her nails as she slouched in the chair, listening to her father. She was barely making eye contact, still pissed off about her sister.
Her father continued, “However, I think there’s something we can do to help your behavior, but you’re going to have to prove that you’re deserving of this. I’m giving you got the next three months to prove it.”
“Deserving of what?”
“I’m going to work towards getting you signed to record label.”
Alimah shot up in the chair, more alert than she was seconds ago.
“You’re going to let me have a music career?”
“But I haven’t finished school yet,” Alimah exclaimed with a grin.
“Well, you’re still going to finish school. But I want your grades better. You’ve always been an A-student—not a low B-student like you are now. I want to see more A’s again.”
“Are you still going to manage me?”
“About that,” he left the room for a few minutes and returned with a letter, “I’m going to send this to my management and the label.”
“Somewhat, yes. For however long I manage you. I’m just retiring from touring and recording for the time being.”
“I’ll do better, daddy.” The letter trembled in Alimah’s hands. “I promise I won’t mess this up.”
Elliot had a fashion line called LUX 93, which had made its debut in New York Fashion week the previous year. Markus Blak felt bad about Fanaye’s rejection, so he invited her to model in a LUX 93 photoshoot in Miami since he found her swimsuit model proportions more fascinating than her sound. Fanaye had turned eighteen, so her parents allowed her to go by herself as long as long as they had the travel and accommodation information and important numbers, including those from Elliot’s management.
“Do you have another copy of your demo?” Fanaye asked Alimah the night before she headed to Miami.
“Why? You wanna destroy it or something?”
“Hush!” Fanaye rolled her eyes. “Elliot is going to be on set.” Then, she seductively stuck out her tongue, “…And so will Markus!”
Alimah looked up from her guitar and stopped strumming.
“I told Markus’s manager about you, and even though he was a bit iffy at first, he said he would pass it to Elliot.” Fanaye kissed Alimah on the head. “Oh, and print out one of your professional photos. I want to show it to Elliot, so he can see what you look like.”
A month after the Lux 93 photoshoot, Fanaye came into Alimah’s bedroom with a shiny gold envelope. “Lookie-lookie-loo!” She chirped as she hopped onto her bed, waving the envelope in the air. She pulled out a party invitation and handed it to Alimah.
“Happy 28th Birthday, Markus,” Alimah read it aloud, “Semi-formal? Men must wear suits or suit jackets? Women must wear cocktail dresses? This sounds boring!”
“It does not!” Fanaye snatched the invitation out of Alimah‘s hands. “Besides, Markus invited me to come.” Then, her tone softened, “You wanna come with me?”
Alimah grew interested. “Are you sure Daddy’s gonna even let me go?”
“Mom will be with us. Besides, Markus wants to meet you.”
Fanaye smiled as she shook her head. “Markus sent me a text message and said he loved your demo.”
“Wait—he loved it?” Then Alimah got sidetracked, “And, uh, he texted you? Isn’t he, like, almost ten years older than you?”
“Hun, I’m eighteen. But that’s beside the point—he loves all of your songs.”
“Did Elliot hear it?”
“I don’t know. But Elliot will be at the party, so maybe you can ask him.”
Alimah gave Fanaye the first hug she had given her in a long time.
At Markus’s birthday party, the guest list was a mixture of music artists from Aten and other labels, businesspeople, wannabe socialites, and models. It was held at a mansion in the Hamptons, straying away from Markus’s usual hip-hop nightclub parties. Elliot changed his image to be an elite hip-hop businessman and executive producer instead of a roughneck rapper/producer from Harlem. So, he knew that he needed to impress the wealthy White and Jewish investors that expressed interest in his business with an upscale birthday party with more mature guests.
Alimah had entered a new world when the doorman let her, Fanaye, and their mother into the glassy mansion. She lowered her eyes when she caught a few of the guests shooting her odd looks, as they noticed she was the youngest person at that party. Much to Alimah‘s surprise, the deejay played R&B and neo-soul music instead of the hardcore hip-hop that Markus performed. A part of her wished that the deejay dropped a rap song to feel less awkward. She followed after Fanaye, who blended in with the crowd like it was second nature to her.
“There’s Markus!” Fanaye pointed at a man in a dark grey Armani suit and squealed in excitement. She nearly dragged her sister and mother by the hand as she rushed over to him. Markus greeted their mother with a handshake, then he placed his hands on Fanaye’s arms and kissed her cheek. Alimah’s snickered to herself as she watched her sister subtly swoon. Then, she noticed him ogling Fanaye’s figure in her strapless, cleavage-bearing sequin dress. Alimah narrowed her eyes and folded her arms as she flashed a mischievous smirk at Fanaye, who returned a seductive gaze at Markus.
Markus turned to Alimah, taking her hand. “So, you’re the child prodigy?”
“Yes,” Alimah blushed, shaking his hand. “Thanks for listening to my demo.”
“I want you to meet somebody.”
Alimah’s heart raced as she hoped that this somebody was who she thought it was. Markus walked the ladies through the crowd to a separate part of the mansion right across the outdoor pool. Alimah grew tense when she saw a boulder of a man in all black with his eyes hidden behind dark sunglasses. The guard stepped to the side and opened the pool house door to let them in. The energy was even more pristine than in the manor—cool, crisp, and fragrant with soft perfumes, top-quality cigars, and fine leather upholstery. The pool house was furnished in white, gold, and marble accents and enclosed by glass walls that looked out at the massive, illuminated, below-ground pool. While the guests in the manor listened to R&B, the pool house had chill downtempo music. Only VIP guests were allowed inside. Their status was evident by the cigars on gold platters, the bottles of Dom Pérignon in glassy buckets, and the fact that everyone Alimah recognized was considered A-listers, unlike the guests in the manor. Alimah noticed a familiar-looking Black man dressed in a designer suit with no tie, sitting with two older professional-looking White men.
“Holy shit—that’s Elliot Hunter!” Alimah squealed under her breath, partially hiding her face against Fanaye’s shoulder.
“Don’t be goofy.” Fanaye playfully nudged her elbow.
Elliot saw the ladies and caught Alimah staring at him from across the room. He glanced away, not thinking much about it, unaware that his admirer was on the verge of fainting. Alimah squeezed Fanaye’s hand as Markus walked over to Elliot to speak before introducing them to him.
Alimah noticed two women and an older man sharing the sofa with Elliot. Looking at them, she was intimidated by how sophisticated they appeared and started feeling out of place in her suit jacket that she paired with a black poofy skirt. One of them was a White woman in a floral dress, enjoying a glass of champagne as she talked to a very famous Black supermodel. Fanaye immediately recognized the woman by her British accent, espresso skin tone, and trademark flowing black hair with a middle part. She idolized this supermodel but remained professional and kept her composure before meeting her. Her mother recognized the woman as well, remembering the Afro-British beauty from a runway gig in London back in the late-1980’s.
Markus walked the ladies over to Elliot, interrupting a conversation between him and one of the older gentlemen. Elliot looked disinterested at first but squinted for a second at Fanaye before his memory sparked.
“I remember you from the Lux 93 photoshoot,” he said to Fanaye, “You were great on set.”
Alimah watched Fanaye make small talk with Elliot as if she were on the same status level as him. She wished her sister sold her confidence in a bottle, something that would sell out overnight if it existed. Fanaye then turned to Alimah and pulled her closer to Elliot.
“That’s my sister whose demo I gave to you at the photoshoot in Miami.”
Elliot rose from his seat and greeted her with a handshake, but he was taken aback by how much she was trembling.
“I’m so sorry.” Alimah pulled her hand away. “I’m super nervous right now.”
“Don’t worry,” He rested his hand on her shoulder, “I listened to your music. You wrote and composed that whole demo, huh?”
Alimah nodded, tingling all over from his touch, feeling her bladder wanting to lose control in her pants.
“Damn. It was incredible. I met a lot of talented kids your age, but not on the level you’re on.” Elliot moved his hand from her shoulder. “Since it’s my homeboy’s birthday tonight, I figured you ought to sing for everybody.”
“Wait? Here? Now?” Alimah’s stomach tightened, and she held it. “But I don’t have my guitar or keyboard or songs…”
“There’s a piano out in in the living room of the main house,” Elliot said, “You can perform later out there, so everybody can watch. Just sing whatever you want.”
Alimah’s mother slipped her arm around her shoulder, pulling her closer beside her in a half embrace. She barely remembered her mother showing that much physical affection to her. She turned and hugged her mom.
“You can do this, Alimah,” she said, “don’t let your nerves get the best of you.”
Back in the manor, Alimah sat before the piano and adjusted the microphone in between engaging glances with the guests that sat around her. Suddenly, she thought about the chance her father had given her if she improved her behavior. It was already happening for her, and her father was allowing her to do it. That positive boost suppressed her anxiety enough for her to select one of the R&B songs from her demo. As she played the opening notes, she smiled at Elliot, who was seated between two top record executives. She performed the song with everything in her, giving mature vocals that didn’t sound like they were coming from a girl who was fifteen-going on-sixteen. She didn’t expect the entire room to erupt in cheers and camera flashes when she finished.
Elliot waved his hand at one of the photographers as he and the two executives approached Alimah. “Hey, man, get a picture of us.”
Fanaye and her mother proudly watched Alimah take photos with Elliot. The scent of Elliot’s musk cologne had permanently embedded itself in Alimah’s psyche as he placed his arm around her. All she could think about was how badly she wanted this and how she could’ve performed more songs for hours. Her dream was becoming a reality from this opportunity, and when she took a break in the bathroom, she whispered to herself, “Don’t mess this up.”
Alimah was signed to Aten Records at the age of 16. Some years after being on the label, her career takes a dangerous turn. Read about Alimah as a young adult in Ungrateful available in the link below: