By Faith Evans
With Aliya S. King
Foreword by Voletta Wallace
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But sometimes, I still find myself thinking about Big being rushed the hospital, and I break down in tears.
It’s not just because we hung up on each other during what would be our last telephone conversation. And it’s not because I am raising our son, a young man who has never known his father.
It’s partly all of those things. But mainly it’s because he wasn’t ready to go. His debut album was called Ready to Die. But in the end, he wasn’t. Big never got a chance to tell his story. It’s been left to others to tell it for him. In making the decision to tell my own story, it means that I’ve become one of those who can give insight to who Big really was. But I can only speak on what he meant to me.
Yet I also want people to understand that although he was a large part of my life, my story doesn’t actually begin or end with Big’s death. My journey has been complicated on many levels. And since I am always linked to Big, there are a lot of misconceptions about who I really am.
I hope that in reading my words, there is inspiration to be found. Perhaps you can duplicate my success or achieve where I have failed. Maybe you can skip over the mistakes I’ve made. Use my life as an example-of what to do and in some cases, what not to do.
It’s not easy putting your life out there for the masses. But I’ve decided I’ll tell my own story. For Big. For my children. And for myself.
Copyright © 2008 by Faith Evans
All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
Grand Central Publishing
Hachette Book Group, USA
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First eBook Edition: August 2008
Let the Sun Shine In
I stood straight ahead, facing the back of Emanuel Baptist Church. My hands were at my sides, and my whole body was stiff. I stared at a spot on the back wall and sang out as loud as I could.
"Sing it girl!" someone said. I saw some random hands flying up in the air.
"Go on, girl! Sing that song!"
More arms were raised, and I saw folks looking at me with bright smiles and wide eyes. I took in a sharp breath to belt out the chorus to my favorite song.
I was three years old, performing for the first time for the congregation at Emanuel Baptist Church. After seeing the reaction of my first audience, I knew I would be a singer. I wasn't sure how it was going to happen. But I knew I'd found my calling.
Since that day, I've performed around the world, earning critical acclaim, platinum record sales, and legions of loyal fans. But no matter how far I travel or how large my audience becomes, so much of what makes me who I am begins with the city where I made my debut performance.
I'm from Newark, New Jersey. It's nicknamed the Brick City because of the housing projects that were erected in the 1930s and '40s. Although many of the projects have been replaced by condominiums and single-family homes, the nickname remains. It fits: Bricks are tough and unforgiving. And they are building blocks. It's an accurate way to describe the city — and the people — that raised me.
I can't remember coming into Newark for the first time. I was less than a year old. I was born in Lakeland, Florida. My mom, Helene, was only eighteen years old and barely out of high school when I was born. At the time, she was living in nearby Dade City, Florida, with her mother; her twin sister, Hope; and her younger siblings, Missy and Morgan.
From what I hear, my mom and her twin sister were something to behold down in Dade City, a very poor area with a large concentrations of black folks. The nearest major city is Tampa, nearly an hour away.
My mom and her twin sister were very popular with everyone, black and white. They were personable, outgoing, and musically talented.
All I know about my father is that his name is Richard Swain. And that he was from the area and dabbled in music like my mom, who was a singer. I've heard people mumble something about him being Italian but I don't know for sure. I do know that he was white. I remember hearing my aunts talking about me, thinking that I couldn't hear them. They'd say stuff like, "You see how light she is. It's 'cause her daddy's a white man." Or I might be dancing at someone's house and I'd hear someone say, "Poor girl. Can't dance for nothing. Guess that's 'cause of that white daddy she got. Gave her that flat butt, too."
I don't know what happened with his relationship with my mom. All I know is that I've never met him. A few years ago, I looked up the name Richard Swain and found several listings in the St. Petersburg area. My mom seemed to think it could be him, so I sent letters to the addresses. But they all came back to me with an ADDRESSEE UNKNOWN stamp.
So I don't know where he is. I think he knows who I am. If he still lives in Florida, where I have tons of family members, it would be pretty hard not to know. It ain't too many towns he could be living in and escape running into someone from my family.
I haven't really talked to my mom to get the real deal on what happened in that relationship or to get any details about my father. I've never really lacked a father figure. So perhaps that's why I've never been too stressed about finding him.
I think it's pretty interesting that he's never popped up. Lots of times, when someone experiences some degree of fame, all kinds of family members start coming out of the woodwork. But so far, Richard Swain is still a mystery.
Being biracial was never really an issue with me. I was raised 100 percent black and have always considered myself a black woman. Because I am very light in complexion, I've often been asked if I'm mixed. So it has always been something I'm conscious of. But it never really affected me in any significant way. Ironically, I even have Irish and Puerto Rican branches in my family tree, spread out through Brooklyn. My uncle Dock married an Irish woman and their children intermarried in the Latino community.
My mom's an interesting character. I've learned so much from her, and we have a lot in common. She's always been willing to go it alone and give a big F-you to anyone who tried to stop her or criticize her. And she's never let anything said about her deter her from what she needed to do. In many ways I've adopted that same stance, and it's served me well.
I look like my mom in some ways. We both have one small mole in the same place. And I definitely inherited her wide hips and her sharply defined full lips. For years, she wore a short Afro and then began to let it grow, allowing it to frame her caramel complexion like a halo.
Most importantly, I inherited her love for music. My career in music is definitely a by-product of being Helene Evans's daughter. My mom performed in a few bands when I was growing up. I didn't hang out with her too much when she was performing, so I didn't catch the bug from actually seeing her perform. Although my gift ultimately comes from God, I know it was sent through my mom.
Helene Evans was a bit of a hippie back in the day. She hung with a multiracial crowd and loved rock and folk music. And she didn't let my birth stop her from continuing to try to pursue her music career. When I was a newborn, we lived with my maternal grandmother, Helen Arnold. I don't remember too much about my grandmother. She died when I was very young. I do remember that her house in Dade City always smelled like Pine-Sol. Aunt Hope had cats, so my grandmother was a bit of a fanatic about keeping the house clean.
From what I hear, my grandma Helen was a real spitfire. She worked in a numbers house and had a very fiery and feisty personality. I do know she was beautiful. I have a painting of her that one of her brothers did. And she was very fly. I'm not sure if I have much in common with Grandma Helen. But I do know we may have had the same taste in men. One of my aunts recently told me that Grandma Helen once dated a man everyone called Uncle Biggie.
Grandma Helen told all her children that once she was done raising kids, she was done for good. And that she would not help out any of her children who decided to have babies before they were ready. She wasn't doing no babysitting. And she wasn't going to let her kids live up in her house with their babies, either.
After my birth, I think there was a lot of pressure on my mom to get her act together. She didn't have a career, but she always worked two or three jobs.
My mom was still a teenager when she had me. And she had this passion to sing and to perform. So being a single mom was tough. Lucky for me, she met Bob and Mae Kennedy, the couple who would end up raising me.
Now, I've always called Bob and Mae Kennedy my grandparents when I'm doing interviews because it's just easier that way. But they're not my grandparents. It's just so difficult to explain how exactly we're related. To make a very long story short, my great-uncle married Mae's aunt. So Mae and Bob Kennedy are really my cousins.
After moving up north in the '60s, Mae and Bob often drove down to Dade City to visit family. In December 1973, they came down to visit and ended up at my aunt's house. My cousin Pee Wee, whom I call my aunt Pee Wee, was watching me for the day and, as the story goes, Mae Kennedy took one look at me in Pee Wee's arms and fell in love.
Mae held me in her arms and told Pee Wee what a pretty baby I was. Mae and Pee Wee got to talking about how my mom was so busy working and trying to get on her feet. I'm not sure how the whole discussion went down. But somehow, after a few conversations back and forth between Mae, Pee Wee, and my mom, Mae offered to take care of me until my mom got on her feet with her own apartment and a better job. My mom agreed. And Mae and Bob brought me to Newark, New Jersey, at the end of 1973.
In the mid-'70s, Newark was still sliding into the decline that began with the riots in 1967. Throughout my childhood there, the population would continue to decrease as white families made a beeline to the suburbs. The closing of factories in Newark would lead to a loss of jobs, bringing in larger numbers of poor folks. But for the most part, I was insulated from the changes that were taking place in the neighborhood. My entire universe centered on the white, single-family house near the end of Grumman Avenue in the Weequahic section of Newark.
My earliest memories are at the Emanuel Baptist Church, a few blocks away from Grumman, over on Chancellor Avenue. My grandparents had been members for many years and I was quickly enrolled in many church activities, including Vacation Bible School and, of course, services every Sunday.
When I was three, my favorite television show was The Flintstones. And there was this episode where Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm performed "Let the Sun Shine In." I would go around the house singing that song all the time. By the tender age of three, I already had an anthem. And then, at preschool, my teacher Miss Henry heard me singing and encouraged me to learn all the words to the song.
And that's how I ended up singing for the first time in church.
But before I could even get my first solo, I got a taste of the music business. After my first performance, there was some talk of putting me in the children's choir. I was only three years old. And the minimum age was five. But I was entered into the choir anyway. Immediately, there were grumbled complaints from other members in the church. I was too young for anyone to have said anything to me directly. But I heard my grandparents talking about it.
"Should we still let her join? Some folks are saying she should have to wait," Mae said to my mom.
By this time, my mother had moved to New Jersey from Florida and was staying at my grandparents' house while she looked for a place to live.
"If they want her to be in the children's choir, why shouldn't she be?" my mom asked.
"I don't know, Helene," Mae said. "I just don't want folks to be upset."
My mom sucked her teeth and rolled her eyes. "If she's good enough to be in the choir and they want her to be in it, then that's that. Whoever don't like it — fuck 'em."
It may not have been a very church-like attitude, but my mom was keeping it real. Her abrasive and direct approach to life was a sharp contrast with Mae and Bob, who were very laid-back and easygoing and didn't like to make waves. Over the years, I'd learn to incorporate both of their ways into my own lifestyle.
For the first few years on Grumman Avenue, it was just me, Mae and Bob, their son Ronnie, and my aunt Pee Wee. Later their son Fred and an adopted daughter, Rhonda, would join them.
I still went down to visit my mom occasionally in Florida. At one point, before she came to New Jersey for good, she was living in a house in Santa Ana, Florida, with a few white folks she was cool with. I vaguely remember the house; there were goats on the property. I can remember my mom giving me goat's milk to drink, still warm and fresh from the udder.
My peoples in Dade City were straight-up unapologetic country folk. I came down to visit my mom when I was about six years old and ended up at the home of one of my aunts. It was either Sylvia or her sister Nita. I'm standing out on the porch when I look into the house and see her son and my uncle wrestling with a burlap sack.
"Kill that possum!" I remember Aunt Sylvia telling the boys.
The possum got out of the sack and started running around the house. I watched — in horror — as the guys chased the possum around with a hoe in their hands.
"Get 'im now!" Aunt Sylvia said. "That's good meat right there! Don't let him get away!"
They cornered the possum and then beat the animal to death with a hoe. I was so scared. I watched as they burned the hair off the animal and then prepared to skin it. I didn't watch that part. Dinner that night was a stew with hunks of meat inside.
"Faye," my Aunt Sylvia said. "You not having no stew? It's good!"
"No thank you," I said. "I'm not hungry."
To this day, my aunt Sylvia will pull over if she's driving and sees a turtle — dead or alive — on the side of the road. And dinner will be turtle soup.
Obviously, Dade City was a completely different atmosphere from Newark. Dade City was laid-back, Newark was bustling. Dade City was country while Newark was the very definition of urban. In Florida, I would run around outside barefoot and explore on my own. In Newark, I was always supervised and never left the house without an adult chaperone.
But the house on Grumman Avenue was my home base. And while I was doted on by Mae and Bob, I was by no means the only child there. That house would continue to fill up with random folks for the entire time I lived there. Mae and Bob would eventually take in over one hundred foster children. There were at least four children and teenagers living there all the time. Some, like me, were family members. Others were official foster children placed by the Department of Youth and Family Services. And others were unofficial foster children.
And on top of running a large household and working at a factory, Mae also babysat various neighborhood children while their parents were at work — or just out and about. I noticed early on that Mae's kindness was often taken for weakness. She is such a goodhearted person. She's always trying to do the right thing and help people out. I love that about her. But at the same time, I hated watching her being taken advantage of. After a week of watching someone's badass kids, I'd see the parent pick them up at the end of the week and no money would change hands.
My grandmother wasn't the type to set an amount, charge someone, and be sure to collect. She was just doing things out of the kindness of her heart. But we didn't have money like that. She definitely could have used the extra. There was always something in the house that needed fixing. For the entire twenty years that I lived in that house, the shower on the second floor didn't work. And Bob was constantly adding on bedrooms in the basement to accommodate the growing household.
I watched her being used by people who should have known better and made a mental note at a very young age not to do that to her or to let that ever happen to me.
My grandparents kept me very sheltered in my early years. There were three places you could find Faith Renée Evans: Louise A. Spencer Elementary School over on Muhammad Ali Avenue in the Central Ward, Emanuel Baptist Church, and the house on Grumman Avenue. If you saw me anywhere else, it was probably church- or school-related. Socially, they would let me go to my friend Courtney Terry's house. They liked her parents and knew she was a good girl.
My grandparents were very, very strict. Particularly my grandmother. There was no secular music in the house. And because there were so many foster children in and out of the house, there were a lot of household rules so that they could try to keep some kind of order.
The one place where it was incredibly hard to shield me from drama was the apartment building on the corner of Grumman and Elizabeth Avenue.
My grandmother's best friend, Mrs. Hayes, lived in that building on the third floor. She had eleven kids, and some of the younger ones were my friends. Although my grandmother was okay with me befriending Mrs. Hayes's children, I was not supposed to be in that building. Now, I was a good girl, and for the most part I did what I was told. But there is something very alluring about an apartment building where it seems like the families are just a little bit more lax.
Mae and Bob did not spare the rod. And just about every spanking I did get as a young girl was because of something that went on in or around that apartment building. I'd get on my bike to go for a ride with Shonda and Penny, two of Mrs. Hayes's kids, and somehow end up three towns over in Roselle. My granddad might get out the thick alligator belt for a stunt like that. Or perhaps I'd end up playing Spin the Bottle or Truth or Dare with some neighborhood boys. If word got out about something like that, my grandmother would get a switch from a tree and wear me out. And my mother would too.
It didn't matter. I still found myself spending lots of time with my folks in that building. They were all a little faster than me — they had lots of siblings, lots of exposure to pop culture, and spent a lot more time on their own. So being over at that apartment was always a real education, and it helped me to grow up a bit faster. At home, it was Sunday-morning prayer circles and gospel music. But just a few feet away, there was hip-hop, little boys trying to play Catch-a-Girl, Get-a-Girl, and old-school soul music, from the Delphonics and Blue Magic to the house music that had trickled down from Chicago to Newark. My grandmother would warn me that most of the kids in the building were troublemakers. (Which I knew — that's why it was so fun to be there.)
My mother would also warn me that some of the kids I wanted to hang out with seemed cool, but weren't really my friends.
She had a point. I noticed early on that the people who were supposed to be my friends would always show their true colors at some point.
Folks who seem like they want to befriend you may have ulterior motives. They might want to be close to you just to use you. Or they may be jealous of you and want to keep you nearby to demean you. I experienced all of that — and more.
(When I got into the music industry, I would again experience this several times, with both famous and not-so-famous people.)
A lot of times, someone would want me to sing for their friends. And then they would immediately start hating on me. She think she cute 'cause she can sing. If I had a nickel for every time I heard that.
Thankfully, I was never in that building in any sort of unlimited way. I had pageant rehearsals, choir practice, and other activities. So although I was in the mix over there sometimes, I still maintained the lifestyle my grandparents and my mother wanted for me.
Although Mae and Bob were strict when I was young, it became harder to enforce their rules as I got older because they worked so much. By the time I was in middle school, Mae was working the night shift at a wire factory called Elrob. I'm not even sure what she did there. But I know she would come home at two in the morning with pinpricks in her fingers that matched the patterns on the inside of a wire cable. And Bob was working during the day at the Drake's bakery in Wayne, New Jersey. He always brought me goodies from work. I was never without a Devil Dog or a Funny Bone to snack on.
And though I was expected to be in the house pretty much all the time, I started trying to find small ways to escape. We had a washing machine but no dryer, so on Saturdays me and my cousins Candy and Gaye and our foster sisters would drag huge bags of wet clothes up to Maple Avenue to the Laundromat. It was annoying — but we were out of the house!
I'd look for any reason to walk up to Bailey Avenue to visit the Shambergers — I was out of the house! But mostly, we couldn't leave the block. And on some days, we might not be allowed to leave the front porch.
I'm sure my grandparents were trying to protect me. But keeping me in the house didn't protect me from drama — it mainly just exposed me to different drama. I lived in a home with foster children moving in and out, which brought its own share of problems — there were children with different issues, plus parents drifting in and out to pick them up and drop them off. So downstairs there might be some random guy picking up a daughter whose mom was just killed in a bar fight. And upstairs there might be a woman dropping off a son, saying she'll pick him up in two days — but she won't be back for months. There was a steady stream of random folks in and out of the house, which is why we had a lock on the phone, the pantry, and the extra refrigerator in the basement.
It was all very unpredictable and, unfortunately, some of the characters in and out of the house were just as suspicious as the people my grandparents were trying to protect me from on the street.
My grandparents wanted me to be a mannered young lady whose spiritual development was intact. And my mom wanted to make sure I was respectful, respectable, and exposed to the arts. When I was six, she took me to see The Wiz and I was transfixed throughout the performance. (Although I was petrified when the Cowardly Lion came dancing down the aisle.)
I continued to be nurtured in the arts by my family and my community. One of my neighbors, Mrs. Malachi, worked in the control room at the Newark Airport. She knew that I was a talented singer, and she would bring me to her job to sing for her co-workers. In a room circled by wide windows, I'd belt out songs while watching air-traffic controllers lead planes onto the runway. I'd always score a nice little bit of money in the form of tips from her co-workers, most of which I turned over to my grandparents. It was really about getting experience. Even from a young age, I loved to perform, whether I was in church or in an unconventional place like the airport.
To continue my exposure in the arts, my mother entered me into a local pageant, Miss Fashion Teen, when I was eight. My godparents Wayne and Dorothy were friendly with Sharon Carswell, the person who put the pageant together each year. The contestants had to model outfits in different categories, including sportswear and evening wear. You had to submit a written essay and perform a talent.
The prize was a savings bond, a trophy, and a trip to Florida to perform with other winners from different areas. I won the pageant. I was the youngest contestant — and technically, I wasn't a teen. But I won. And the runner-up, a thirteen-year old who happened to be the oldest contestant, looked at me with pure hatred as we stood together for the crowning ceremony.
I wasn't tripping. I knew I'd won because I deserved it. And although she made me nervous with her attitude, I knew I hadn't done anything to earn it so I tried my best to dismiss it.
I knew I had something special from a very young age. When I was barely six years old, I sang at my maternal grandmother's funeral down in Florida. My mother tells me that when the organist began to play, I made a face and signaled to my mom to make the woman stop playing so I could sing a cappella. I vaguely remember that the older woman was playing the organ in an old-school fashion, and it wouldn't work with how I was planning to perform. I had some nerve! And my mom actually asked the woman to stop playing — and she did!
When I was thirteen, my mother had another daughter, my sister Janeal. Since we were so far apart in age, we didn't end up hanging together a lot. But I did spend some time with her. Now that she's older, she's one of my best friends.
When I was about fourteen, I ended up in a gospel group called the Spiritual Uplifters. It was formed by Mrs. Wilson, an evangelist from our church. We called her Sister Wilson; she had a daughter, Tammy, who put the group together, and a son, Kenny, who I called my godfather.
Sister Wilson was best known for putting on local plays, including the one in which I made my theatrical debut. It was called The Devil Used My Children!
Even though Sister Wilson's plays weren't big-budget theater, they did give her some cachet in the hood. When I joined the cast, I was surprised at how serious everyone took the production. Whether there were twenty people in the audience or two hundred, Mrs. Wilson expected us to give 110 percent.
I joined the cast in the role of Wendy, an alcoholic, who ends up singing a duet with the devil about the temptation of alcohol.
Okay, it might sound funny. But I'm telling you, I really feel like I have theater experience because of that play. You can't front on how you get your first start. And I learned that no matter how small the audience, you should always take each performance very seriously.
It was also said that Sister Wilson had real Hollywood acting experience. Everyone talked about her role in the 1984 movie Brother from Another Planet. Now, in reality, she was an extra in a train scene. But still. That was kind of a big deal around the way.
She even ended up getting me a role as an extra in a video. Rapper KRS-One had a song called "You Must Learn," and because of some connections Mrs. Wilson had, you can see me and my friend Courtney in the video, sitting at desks, playing students.
I liked and respected Sister Wilson. But even though I didn't think I was really interested in being in a gospel group, rehearsing and performing meant I was out of the house! We even traveled to places like Harlem, Philly, and Connecticut. I really appreciated that.
After months of singing together and performing at different churches and other venues, I started to try to put together my own songs. I'd write rudimentary lyrics and melodies and teach them to the girls just to hear how they'd sound outside my own head. I liked the feeling of putting songs together and performing them. But I knew that a gospel quartet wasn't going to be my opportunity to showcase what I could do musically.
- On Sale
- Aug 3, 2009
- Page Count
- 368 pages
- Grand Central Publishing