Aitina Fareed-Cooke has no memory of her biological mother. Except for a recurring dream where a man comes to the door, and her mother leaves with the man to never return.
Cooke’s mother, Laura, died of a drug overdose when Cooke was three years old. This left her and two older siblings in the foster care system, where they were separated until her foster mother adopted them when Cooke was seven.
Young and impressionable, Cooke couldn’t have foreseen how the void left from her mother would impact her life. A native of Buffalo, New York, Cooke longed to be loved and accepted as a child, which her foster mother at times failed to fulfill.
“There was good [times]. And then there was not so good,” Cooke said. “There were some abuses; my adoptive mother wasn’t perfect.”
Cooke still describes her foster mother as a fierce woman of God, who raised her in the church of God in Christ (COGIC).
“Even with some of the things she said and did, I still respect her and love her for the woman she was,” Cooke said.
They attended church nearly every day. There, Cooke was introduced to God. And years earlier, she had been introduced to a means by which God would heavily impact her life — writing.
Cooke’s interest in writing started through counseling sessions that she attended because of trauma she experienced as a foster child. Just five years old then, Cooke struggled to express how she felt in conversation.
“There was this one counselor who gave me a pen and paper and asked me to write down how I felt,” Cooke said. “It was at that moment when I fell in love with writing. Then that developed into stories, and this idea of creating character, and hiding behind those characters so you can read them and not know that it’s me, but I can get my emotions out through that.”
Cooke soon developed a love for poetry and music. Then in her teens, she began to write rap songs. Storytelling and vocabulary went on to envelop her completely; “the adventure of unraveling lyrics,” she said, “and that whole journey of discovery in music that I had to keep listening to over and over to understand the meaning behind it.”
Despite the start of this fond relationship, Cooke refers to her teenage years as “the dark ages.” In her studying of lyrics, Cooke’s search for the meaning behind life remained unanswered. She attended Buffalo State College, starting her freshman year at 17 years old, and, then, life spiraled downward.
“Growing up in my home church, I felt like, in certain circumstances, you had to keep getting saved over and over again,” Cooke said. “It felt like I kept losing my salvation. I was either gonna go all in for Christ or all in doing what I wanted to do.”
Cooke chose the latter and got caught up in the streets, making foolish decisions and becoming pregnant at 20 years old.
After the birth of her son, she reached a turning point. Feeling convicted and repentant, she then went all in … in the opposite direction — “all in” being her an acronym for her soon-to-be rap moniker, A.I. for Jesus Christ. She knew it’s what her son needed.
“I couldn’t be a good parent on my own,” Cooke said. “I knew that Christ was the only way. I made that decision at 20 years old to dedicate my life to God, and ever since then, I’ve been dying to my flesh everyday. Everyday I was was reading God’s Word, praying that God would lead me to truth and His will. It went from wanting to be a good parent to me wanting to be used by God and applying His word to my everyday life.”
Cooke’s debut album, entitled Sever Threads, covers a myriad of topics including her own childhood abandonment, the search for her mother’s identity, fleeing temptation, contending for the faith and being a female hip-hop artist in the Christian music industry. The 17-track album features heart-wrenching songs like “Journal Entry Three: Reflections,” where she expresses grief over the loss of her mother.
“I sat with the music and begin to tear away at some stuff and realized, you know what? I didn’t have my biological mom around,” Cooke said. “I’ve never really mourned her growing up. I never really thought about it and how much it affected me. I was a very rebellious kid, and why? Because I was missing something. And I tried to fill that void up with a whole bunch of stuff.”
The songwriting process was one of catharsis for Cooke and extremely challenging.
“I cried a lot,” she said, “and that was tough for me to cry because, growing up, I always felt like crying was a weakness. But I had to sit and cry, but I couldn’t give up because I had to write to break that barrier.”
Sever threads is what Cooke used the album to do. One of her lyrics from “Journal Entry Three” says, “My daddy left and my momma gone/ All this family and no one come?/ No one stepped up to take this on?/ All I’m left with is Kodak forms/ And this folded loose leaf from Laura/ I got questions Laura, you got answers Laura.”
Cooke found release in just saying her mother’s name, “Laura,” and crying while looking at pictures of her wondering what her mother wanted to be and about her untimely end. As she created the project, Cooke gathered information from surviving family members of her mother to piece together who Laura was.
“I talked to my uncle, her only sibling, my grandmother and my cousin and people who knew her personally. I had to get to know my mother through them,” Cooke said. “Writing that song took a lot out of me. It hurt so good because I felt connected to her. I felt like I understood her, and I forgave her. She was just a person, a human being, and she loved me.”
Now at 31 years old, as a wife to her husband Joshua of seven years and mother to 10-year-old son Isaac and one-year-old daughter Bella, Cooke’s story enables her to relate to kids within the Buffalo public schools systems. As a teaching artist, she teaches them how to express their pain and struggles through poetry, video, photography and music, all while communicating Christian values through it.
“When I ask who knows what foster care is, they raise their hand, and when I share my story with them, their eyes light up and they have hope,” Cooke said. “They think about themselves and see that they can be successful. I teach them to focus on things that are right, true, lovely and excellent.”
Recently, Cooke was a Kingdom Choice Awards (KCA) winner in the “Up Next” category, an honor that pushes her to continue to steward her gifts and do what is pleasing to God. Jesus promised to never leave his people orphans (John 14:18), and Cooke is a testament to the larger story of how God adopts Christians into His family. She hopes her artistry, and her life, will reconcile wayward children back to the Father.