Aaliyah Dana Haughton was born January 16,1979 in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, New York to Michael and Diane Haughton. Everyone knew she was special straight out of the womb. Her grandmother, Mintis L. Hicks Hankerson, would tell her cousins stories of how she had a full-set of hair at birth and all the other stories grandmothers would tell their grandchildren about their cousins they’ve never met. At the age of five, she, her older brother Rashad, and parents moved to Detroit to be closer to family. Diane gave up school teaching to raise Rashad and Aaliyah full-time.
Aaliyah’s mother would always play Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and other legends while she would clean around the house. Aaliyah soon learned all the words to all her parents records and started to sing along with her mother. Aaliyah’s mother realized Aaliyah could carry a tune at the tender age of 6. Aaliyah was soon enrolled to a private Catholic school, Gesu Elementary, and participated in all the school’s musical productions. She had one little speaking part as an orphan in her first grade production of Annie that convinced her she wanted to be an entertainer. At the tender ages of only 8 and 9, Aaliyah would belt-out the very tunes that she would listen to at home in weddings around Michigan. At 11 years old, she landed a spot on the nationally syndicated talent show, Star Search. She sang My Funny Valentine, lost, and was ripped up like any other child would have been; but her mother’s encouraging words propped her up to get back to doing what she loved.
At that time Aaliyah’s uncle, Barry Hankerson, was married to Soul Legend Gladys Knight when he took his then 11-year-old niece to perform with her for five nights at Bally’s Las Vegas Casino. The two would duet on Believe In Yourself and Aaliyah would belt out solo Home. Being that Aaliyah was nervous and didn’t move much the first night, Knight taught Aaliyah how to work a crowd and loosen them up.
A couple of years later, Barry Hankerson had R. Kelly, whom he was managing at the time, fly up to Detroit to hear Aaliyah sing. Kelly was impressed with what he heard so Barry signed her, at only 13-years-old, to his label, Blackground Enterprises. R. Kelly ended up writing and producing all the tracks on Aaliyah’s first album, Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number.
Hip-Hop historians and critics accredit Aaliyah’s debut album, Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number, for paving the way for Brandy, Monica, and the plethora of other teen stars who go by one name. Aaliyah acquired the world’s attention at the young age of 15 when her first single Back and Forth landed #1 on the R&B/Hip-Hop singles chart; dethroning her then svengali, R.Kelly and his track Your Body’s Callin. Shortly afterwards, her album was released under Jive records in 1994 and another top five gold single was spawned. Not only was this single a remake of an Isley Brothers classic, but it also flexed Aaliyah’s octave range and vocal versatility. Her rendition of At Your Best (You Are Love) ripped the airwaves and its listeners with its tumultuous and sensuous harmonies.
A few other hit singles followed including the light hip-pop jam Down With The Clique and the adulterated title track. The album went sell onto platinum+ status but slowed down due to vicious rumors arising. The provocative nature of the album’s title and lyrics, as well as the mystery of her true age sparked a media frenzy about an alleged marriage between Aaliyah and her then mentor. This frenzy blossomed into a barrage of media rumors threatening to thwart a prosperous career.
Till this day no one is certain if there was ever a union between the two parties, but those two parties involved. However, Aaliyah denies ever being married to R. Kelly and R. Kelly refuses to comment. In addition, Aaliyah states that the reason she kept her age on the low was because she wanted the world to accept her for her music and not based solely on her age. Despite the rumors, critics gushed and Entertainment Weekly had this to say (6/17/94) …Imagine En Vogue packed into one teenage body and backed by hip-hop svengali R. Kelly, and you have Aaliyah… a promising start…
After the storm had settled, Aaliyah went back into the studio to knock out a second record. She left behind R. Kelly to show her growth as an artist and to prove that she can make it without him. The setting was 1996 and Aaliyah was gearing up for the release of her sophomore album appropriately titled, One In A Million. She made a sonic breakthrough with One In A Million which proved that Aaliyah would forever make her mark on the ever-changing music industry by emphasizing the strength and maturity in her voice. Along with this maturity, Aaliyah carried the once underground producers Missy and Timbaland to new heights. The music they created on One In A Million took the music industry by storm, having every artist and producer try to imitate their unique sound. Hit after heart-pounding hit would follow, ultimately making her 1st sophomore single, the sexy, seductive, and taunt, If Your Girl Only Knew the #1 spot on the R&B/Hip-Hop singles chart and the other singles radio heavy as well.
Before the close of ’97, One In A Million (a #1 radio play single also) would rake up numerous nominations from various award shows, and hit double platinum+ status with the success of 4 Page Letter, Hot Like Fire, and “The One I Gave My Heart To (a top 10 hit on the Hot 100 singles chart); shaking away any worries of a sophomore slump.
In early 1998, Aaliyah made her first major impression on America during the Academy Awards when she performed the Best Song nominee, Journey to the Past, from the Anastasia soundtrack. In the summer of that year, she had continued to make a mark on the entertainment industry with the infectious, Grammy nominated, #1 hit song, Are You That Somebody, from the Dr. Doolittle soundtrack. With that track, she really got a taste of the mainstream.
Aaliyah soon took a hiatus from the music world and hooked-up with acting coach, Joanne Baron. Baron had worked with the likes of Tom Cruise and Matt Damon, with his lessons being very intricate and demanding in the scripts he chose. Baron recalls this memory of Aaliyah, “…before Queen of the Damned was shot, Aaliyah was going through an audition process. She came to the house, and she immediately blew my mind, because she had prepared a piece that Michael Rymer had asked her to do from a play called Salome’. She came in on her knees like a cat, growling, ‘I’m the woman that you left.’ And she did this with such physicality and vocality… We worked rigorously to get her this part. She put her heart, her time, her love, and her life into it. She just ripped it out.”
In the summer of 1999, Aaliyah flew to Vancouver, Canada for 4 months to shoot Romeo Must Die, her debut starring role in a film. She co-starred alongside Jet-Li in this adrenalin-stoked/hip-hop action flick, in which she was executive producer of the film’s soundtrack. She had the pleasure of releasing the first single, Try Again, from the movie’s soundtrack; which went to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart and wa the first single ever to reach #1 on airplay alone. The movie was released on March 24, 2000 and debuted at #1 on the box office. The film grossed over 58 million dollars and the soundtrack sold over a million copies.
Aaliyah garnered rave reviews for her acting skills and was soon sought through-out Hollywood. Movie producer Joel Silver was so impressed with her performance in Romeo Must Die, he decided to signed her up for the Matrix II and III. She soon signed a deal to remake Whitney Houston’s production of Sparkle, film an Anne Rice novel-based movie Queen of the Damned, and star in a tv/movie, Some Kind of Blue.
Later in 2000, Aaliyah won two MTV Movie awards and a Grammy nomination for Try Again, and went to start filming Queen of the Damned deep in Melbourne, Australia. The film was Aaliyah’s second starring role in only her second motion picture, showing that she was more than a cross-over singer/actress.
She simultaneously filmed the movie and recorded her highly anticipated 3rd album, AALIYAH, doubling her workload. After she filmed the movie, she took a small break to, as she would say, “rejuvenate and get my creative juices flowing.”
Five years had passed since she released One In A Million so she was aware of her presence, or lack there-of, in the music world. She released the dark, sassy, first single, We Need A Resolution, which had a luke-warm response from music-goers. A couple of months later on July 17, she finally released the eagerly anticipated, AALIYAH. The album debuted at #2 on the charts and sold over 200,000 copies it’s first week. Rock the Boat and More Than A Woman were getting heavy rotational airplay, so Blackground planned to release them as back-to-back singles. Aaliyah took time out of her promotional tour to film a funky, club-like, dance video for More Than A Woman, and Rock the Boat a couple of weeks later. Little did anyone know, Rock the Boat would be her very last video shoot.
It was August 25, the set was laid-back, and everyone was laughing and having a care free time. Aaliyah had just completed filming her video for the island themed “Rock The Boat”, directed by Hype Williams, and felt it was time to go home a day early to be with her boyfriend, Rock-A-Fella CEO owner Damon Dash, and her family before heading back to promoting the album.
The entourage of 8 boarded the small Cessna 402 which was departing from the Marsh Harbour airport bound for Opa-locka, Florida, when it crashed shortly after takeoff at approximately 6:50pm, police say. The plane is said to have crashed approximately 200 feet from the end of the runway killing six people instantly. Three others died later due to their injuries.
The people who were killed along with Aaliyah were: Gina Smith, 29, of New Jersey, Aaliyah’s product manager at Blackground Records; Blackground Records own Keith Wallace, 49, of Los Angeles; Douglas Kratz, 28, Virgin Records’ director of video production; her bodyguard Scott Gallin, 41; Aaliyah’s personal hair stylist Eric Forman, 29, of Los Angeles; hair stylist Anthony Dodd, 34, of Los Angeles; and makeup artist Christopher Maldonado, 32, of New York; as well as the plane’s pilot, identified as Louis Morales.
Her funeral and a public memorial service was held in honor of Aaliyah on Friday, August 31st, 2001 in New York City. A continuous loop of Aaliyah’s videos, performances and music ran throughout the day. Fans were encouraged and invited to attend, pay tribute to Aaliyah’s life and career and mourn this great loss. Her white casket was transported from Campbell Funeral Home to St. Ignatius Church – where her funeral was held – in a white carriage pulled by two white horses. Dozens of white and pink roses lay on the top of the carriage. Her boyfriend, Damon Dash, and one of her “Romeo Must Die” co-stars, Delroy Lindo, were among the loved ones who walked the streets behind the carriage en route to the private service. Aaliyah’s mom released 22 white doves in the air, each symbolizing a year in Aaliyah’s great-lived life.
Fans converged at the funeral home as early as 6:30 a.m. to pay their respects to this remarkable human being. They wrote messages in the home’s condolence books and followed the procession. Police estimated 1,000 fans were there.
Six months later, Queen of the Damned hit movie stands on February 22, 2002, debuting at #1 in the box office; it racked in over $14 million it’s opening weekend. With the 2 films and timeless music, she left her legacy for us to still enjoy.