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. Continue reading