More Than A Woman: The Ascension Of Aaliyah

Aaliyah Dana Haughton was born in Brooklyn on 16th January 1979. Of both Hebrew and Arabic origin, her name literally translated as ‘highest, most exalted one,’ or ‘to ascend’ and its meaning was a source of motivation and inspiration for Aaliyah throughout her life. With a mother who had forfeited her dreams of becoming a singer for her family, and as the niece by marriage, of soul legend Gladys Knight, Aaliyah had a natural proclivity for music as well as important industry connections. Encouraged by her parents, Aaliyah was given singing lessons from an early age, even before the Haughtons moved from Brooklyn to Detroit when she was 5.

Still only 9 years old, Aaliyah and her extraordinary voice were unleashed upon the American public with her appearance on Star Search, where she gave her own unique rendition of the 1937 Rodgers and Hart standard, My Funny Valentine. She failed to win on the show, but it granted Aaliyah national exposure, and further cemented her determination to become an entertainer. Gladys Knight’s then husband, Aaliyah’s uncle Barry Hankerson, agreed to manage her and in 1991, she performed a week long stint with her famous aunt in Las Vegas, closing with a duet of Believe in Yourself, originally sung by Diana Ross in the 1978 film The Wiz.

Above: Aaliyah on Star Search (1989)

Hankerson founded Blackground Records in 1993, with Aaliyah as the label’s principal artist. At the same time, Hankerson started managing R. Kelly, a singer and songwriter from Chicago who had won the television talent contest Big Break in 1989. R. Kelly had put out his first album, Born Into The 90s (as R. Kelly & Public Announcement) in 1992, and several hits ensued, including She’s Got That Vibe, Honey Love and Dedicated.

Sometime in 1992, Hankerson apparently introduced R. Kelly to Aaliyah; she became his protégée and he composed and produced most of the tracks on her debut album Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number, released in May 1994 by Jive and Blackground Records, shortly after her debut single, Back & Forth. Both received overwhelmingly positive reviews, and reached number 18 in the U.S Billboard 200 and 5 in U.S Billboard Hot 100 respectively. However, Back & Forth made it to number one in the U.S Hot R&B Singles & Tracks. Aaliyah’s next single, a cover version of At Your Best (You Are Love), a hit for The Isley Brothers in 1976, peaked at number 6. However, her third single, the album’s title track, limped to a disappointing 75.

Above: Aaliyah – Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number (1994)

Nevertheless, Aaliyah’s smooth sound and tomboy image, along with her trademark look of covering one eye with her hair, made a refreshing change from divas like Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston, who had dominated the charts during the early 1990s. Commenting on her own appeal, Aaliyah believed that her growing fan base appreciated how ‘I stay true to myself and my style, and I am always pushing myself to be aware of that and be original.’ Her casual and relaxed style eventually brought her to the attention of the designer Tommy Hilfiger, who contracted Aaliyah as the face of his clothing line in 1996. Popular with her fellow recording artists too, Aaliyah would make cameos in the videos for the Biggie Smalls classic One More Chance in 1995, and Lil’ Kim’s Crush On You in 1996.

As Aaliyah and R. Kelly promoted her album, the media began to speculate about the nature of their relationship. The fact that R.Kelly had mentioned ‘little cute Aaliyah’ on She’s Got That Vibe, and some of the rather adult lyrics of the songs he had written for her, fuelled rumours that the pair were romantically involved. Interviewed on Video Soul in 1994, Aaliyah coyly described R. Kelly as ‘her best friend,’ and refused to disclose her exact age. In late 1994, Vibe magazine claimed to be in possession of a copy of a marriage certificate, stating that the pair had married in Illinois on 31st August that year, and insinuating that Aaliyah might be pregnant. On the certificate, Aaliyah’s age was falsely stated as 18.

Spokesmen for both parties denied that any wedding had taken place, but it was later purported that Aaliyah’s infuriated parents had the union, which was illegal as Aaliyah was a minor, annulled in February 1995. Aaliyah spent the next few months touring Japan, South Africa, Europe and the United States, and severed all ties with her former mentor and alleged husband; she would politely refuse to answer any questions appertaining to him in subsequent interviews. In June 2002, R. Kelly would again be cloaked by controversy when a sex-tape featuring him and two underage girls emerged. Following an arrest in January 2003, some of the charges against him were dropped in 2004, but a two week trial would finally take place in 2008; the jury found him not guilty.

The allegations that she had married R. Kelly at 15 were not without repercussions for Aaliyah; her cousin Jomo Hankerson, an executive for Blackground Records, confessed that she ‘got villainized,’ and as a result, this ‘made the transition to the second album difficult. It was hard for us to get producers.’

Aaliyah moved to Atlantic Records, and began working on her second album with Timbaland and Missy Elliott; One In a Million was released on 27th August 1996. Like her earlier offering, One In a Million peaked at number 18 in the U.S Billboard 200 and If Your Girl Only Knew, the first single taken from it, reached a respectable 11 in the U.S Billboard Hot 100, it was also her second U.S Hot R&B Singles & Tracks chart topper. Other hits from the album included 4 Page Letter and The One I Gave My Heart To.

Above: Aaliyah – 4 Page Letter (1997)

In conjunction with her musical career, Aaliyah had ambitions of becoming an actress, and enrolled at the Detroit High School for the Fine and Performing Arts, graduating in 1997 with a major in drama. In 1997, she provided the vocals for Journey to the Past from the animated film Anastasia, which was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Song in 1998. Despite losing out to Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On, Aaliyah’s made history with her Oscar ceremony performance as the youngest person ever to sing on stage at the awards. Aaliyah also recorded Are You That Somebody? for the soundtrack of Dr Dolittle which rose to number 4 in the U.S. Billboard Radio Songs chart, and topped the U.S. Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay 100. It was her biggest commercial success to date and her star seemed to be in the ascendant.

Director Andrzej Bartkowiak offered Aaliyah her first acting role as Trish O’Day in martial arts film Romeo Must Die. Starring opposite leading man Jet Li, Aaliyah was praised for her part in the movie, which had included performing all her own stunts, it generally met with mixed reviews upon its cinematic release in March 2000. Two singles by Aaliyah, Try Again and Come Back In One Piece (with DMX) were featured on the soundtrack. Produced by Timbaland, Try Again was released in February 2000 and embodied the bold and innovative direction R&B music was taking at the start of the new millennium. Accompanied by a brilliantly choreographed video, directed by Wayne Isham, Try Again soared to number one on the U.S Billboard Hot 100. The smash hit earned Aaliyah a Grammy nomination for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance, and two MTV Video Music Awards for Best Video from a Film, and Best Female Video.

Above: Aaliyah – Try Again (2000)

Impressed by her performance in Romeo Must Die, Australian director Michael Rymer asked Aaliyah to be in his adaptation of Anne Rice’s novel Queen of the Damned, the third of The Vampire Chronicles. Filming began in Melbourne in October 2000. Aaliyah was cast as Akasha, a 6,000 year old Sumerian vampire, known as the ‘Queen of the Damned’. After Akasha marries Enkil, the King of Kemet (an ancient word for the part of Africa that now encompasses Egypt) the Royal couple are attacked by nobles, resentful of their laws prohibiting cannibalism. In order to save her husband’s life, Akasha drinks his blood before persuading him to drink hers, thus, they became the original vampires. The role appealed to Aaliyah as she had an obsession with Egyptology, admitting to an interviewer, ‘You know, I’m sure, that I was an Egyptian in an earlier life. Only this way I can explain my fascination. This country casts a spell over me immediately although I knew it only from pictures.’ Though she had never visited the land to which she found herself so inexplicably drawn, Aaliyah planned to, adding ‘One day I will travel to Egypt. I will be there, where Cleopatra and the pharaohs lived.’

Whilst filming Queen of the Damned, Aaliyah had begun work on her third album. The self-titled Aaliyah, was completed in March and distributed in July, 2001. Described by Aaliyah ‘a party album, with a few big, beautiful ballads’ it went straight in at number 2; however, the first track released from it, We Need a Resolution, only went to 59 on the U.S Billboard Hot 100, in spite of an electrifying video in which Aaliyah draped a python around herself, months before Britney Spears would pay homage to her with a similar display at the 2001 MTV Video Music Awards.

On the brink of superstardom, it was a similarly positive time for Aaliyah when it came to her personal life. In 2000, she had started dating Damon Dash, who had co-founded Roc-A-Fella Records with Jay Z in 1995. Aaliyah never publicly commented on the relationship, but Dash remembered, ‘Every day that we were together, we cherished. Every memory — every day was a special event.’ Dash also claimed that they had talked about the prospect of marriage.

More Than a Woman was intended to be second single taken from Aaliyah. The track heavily sampled Syrian singer Mayada EL Hennawy’s Alouli Ansa, Aaliyah shot the song’s video and began promoting it in July 2001, even performing it live on The Tonight Show. However, her record company made the decision to replace it with the more sultry and sensual Rock the Boat. Consequently, Aaliyah now needed to film another video for the forthcoming release. With Hype Williams as its director, the video for Rock the Boat was partially shot in Miami, with the remainder scheduled to be done on location in Marsh Harbour, a small town in the Abaco Islands, in the Bahamas.

On 23rd August, Aaliyah arrived in the Bahamas having flown in from Miami on a Fairchild Metroliner, booked through Sky Limo Charter. It was Aaliyah’s first video shoot without any family members accompanying her; her parents were forced to stay in the U.S due to her father’s health, and her adored brother Rashad, who worked as her creative consultant and frequently travelled with her, was in Australia. Due to return to Miami on 26th August, Aaliyah finished filming a day early, and so chose to fly back as soon as it was over. At around 6:50 p.m. on 25th August, Aaliyah, along with eight members of her entourage, boarded a Cessna 402B chartered from Blackhawk International Airways, at Marsh Harbour Airport.

Less than a minute after take-off, the plane plummeted to the ground; one witness recalled, It didn’t look like anyone could survive that crash,’ the doomed aircraft was destroyed on impact and ‘The nose was broken right off and the fuselage was crumpled and there was TV equipment and luggage scattered about.’ Paramedics found three survivors, make-up artist Christopher Maldondo, stylist Anthony Dodd, and Aaliyah’s bodyguard Scott Gallin who, urged them to help the singer, regardless of his own horrific injuries.

Aaliyah was already dead. It would take two years for an autopsy report to give her official cause of death as severe burns and a blow to the head.’ Pathologist Dr Giovander Raju additionally stated that Aaliyah had ‘suffered generally from a weak heart’ and ‘went into such a state of shock, even if she had survived the crash, recovery would have been near impossible.’

Killed instantly, like Aaliyah, were her hair stylist, Eric Foreman, Keith Wallace, a Virgin Records executive, Blackground Records employees Douglas Kratz and Gina Smith, and pilot Luis Morales. Within hours, Maldondo died at a local hospital; Dodd and Gallin were taken to Miami for emergency treatment but both men lost their fight for life.

Details about the terrible crash soon emerged. It was discovered that the plane had exceeded its maximum weight by 700 pounds and this was the most likely cause. Suggestions were made that an argument may have broken out regarding the extra weight, but no conclusive evidence could establish this. Furthermore, Morales was accused of fabricating his flight record and his autopsy discovered that he had used cocaine and alcohol prior to take-off. The Haughton family and relatives of the other victims filed various lawsuits, and successfully put Blackhawk International Airways out of business.

Aaliyah’s body was returned to the U.S on 28th August 2001 and her funeral held at the St Ignatius Loyola Church in Manhattan three days later. As Aaliyah had loved horses, her family had a horse-drawn carriage take her on her final journey, through streets lined with people touched by her talent, beauty and humility. Twenty-two doves were released outside the church, and Aaliyah was interred at the Ferncliff Cemetery and Mausoleum in Hartsdale, New York. The inscription on her tomb is simply her name, 1979-2001, and ‘Baby Girl’ – how she is affectionately referred to by her fans, and the term of endearment her father always used for her. After his own death in 2012, Michael Haughton was laid to rest beside his beloved daughter.

In November 2001, More Than a Woman became the second single from Aaliyah, peaking at 25 in the U.S. It fared better in the U.K, where it climbed to number one upon its January 2002 release. Initial concerns were cast aside and Rock the Boat was the third single, it reached number 14 in the U.S in January 2002, with a U.K highest chart position of 12.  I Care 4 U, an album of hitherto unused songs recorded by Aaliyah, was released in December 2002 with the heartfelt ballad Miss You chosen as the first single from it. Numerous prestigious awards have been given to Aaliyah posthumously, in recognition of her outstanding contribution to R&B music.

Above: Aaliyah – More Than a Woman (2002)

At the time of her death, Aaliyah had not quite filmed all the sound needed for Queen of the Damned. As they had a similar manner of speaking, Rashad stood in for his sister, and his voice was digitally altered to sound more feminine; the film was a box-office success in March 2002. Aaliyah had also been signed to star in several upcoming movies, such as The Matrix Reloaded, Some Kind of Blue and a re-make of the 1976 muscial comedy Sparkle, with Whitney Houston as the producer. Jordin Sparks took over the role intended for Aaliyah and sadly Houston would die herself before its completion in 2012.

Lifetime publicised its intentions to produce a biopic based on Aaliyah’s life in early 2014. The Haughton family refused to allow any of Aaliyah’s original recordings in the film, although they could not prevent covers of her cover-versions from being used. Further upset was caused by the casting of singer Zendaya, who many felt bore very little physical resemblance to Aaliyah, and she was quickly replaced by Alexandra Shipp. Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B aired on 15th November 2014, and was panned by critics and viewers alike, who believed it to be an unworthy tribute to Aaliyah and her remarkable story.

There is no doubt that, if she were alive today, Aaliyah would be a formidable force in the entertainment industry. She is often cited as an influence by many current performers. For instance, in August 2012, Blackground Records released Enough Said, a single from Aaliyah featuring Canadian rapper Drake, who has been outspoken about his admiration for her. In June 2013, Chris Brown’s Don’t Think They Know used additional vocals by Aaliyah, and a video featuring footage of her taken from If Your Girl Only Knew and Try Again.

A month before she died, Aaliyah gave an interview in Paris, in which she spoke about her hopes and dreams, one in particular that frightened her, yet left her curiously exhilarated. ‘It’s dark in my favourite dream. Someone is after me. Don’t know why. I got fear. Then, suddenly I lift off. I fly away. Far away. How do I feel now? It is like swimming in the air, free and without any weight. No-one can reach me. No-one can touch me. It’s a wonderful feeling.’

Above: Aaliyah – Rock the Boat (2002)


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