“I don’t think about my success. I’m happy that the work I’ve done in the past has been very successful. All I can do is leave it in God’s hands and hope my fans feel where I’m coming from. I took the time to give my all.” – Aaliyah Haughton.
As I sit listening to the infectious, sensuous harmonies of Aaliyah’s smooth R & B, I wonder why it had to happen. Why did someone so young with such amazing talent, strength and the potential to carry on rising higher and higher, have to be taken from us? The lyrics swirl around in my head, saying more about the real Aaliyah than any media report could ever attempt. Her tragically shortened life followed the message from within one of her most famous songs,
“If at first you don’t succeed, dust yourself off and try again.”
Aaliyah Dana Haughton was born on January 16th, 1979 in Brooklyn, New York. Her Grandmother would tell stories of how she was special straight out of the womb; born with a full head of hair. Aaliyah lived in Brooklyn for five years until, together with her parents and older brother, she was moved to Detroit where they could be closer to family. Her devoted mother gave up her teaching job to care for Rashad and Aaliyah full time.
Aaliyah was introduced to music at a very young age; her mother would play Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and other such legends while she worked around the house. It wasn’t long before Aaliyah was joining in, having learnt all the words off by heart. She was just six years old when her talent for singing was recognized by her mother. Before she even started school, the services of a voice coach had been secured for her.
Aaliyah spent most of her pre-teen years between singing in school plays and auditioning for various small television projects. At the tender age of only eight or nine she was charming people all around Michigan with her sweet, angelic voice, belting out songs during weddings. Aaliyah sang the very songs she listened to at home, while people sat in awe, eagerly anticipating the time her voice would mature to its full potential.
Her first downfall came when she was just eleven years of age. Aaliyah landed a spot on the nationally syndicated talent show, Star Search. She chose to sing ‘My Funny Valentine”, a soul classic that she had often heard her mother singing,
‘That was my Mommy’s song and I wanted to be like my Mommy’ she said, remembering the experience during an interview. The high hopes she and her family had for victory where shattered when Aaliyah lost, and was ripped apart just as any other child would have been. However, without any falls no lessons could be learnt. With lots of encouragement from her mother, Aaliyah began to understand a prospect of great importance, one that would guide her through not only her musical career, but every aspect of her life. Never give up.
It was only a matter of months before the bright, upcoming star was on the rise again. At the time her uncle, Barry Hankerson, was married to Gladys Knight. Some people slated Aaliyah for this, claiming she only got onto the music scene because she knew the right people, but without her outstanding talent, none of her future success would have been possible. Hankerson took his niece to perform with Gladys Knight for five nights at Bally’s Las Vegas Casino. Here, the two would duet on Believe In Yourself and Aaliyah would sing solos. Remembering she was still only eleven at the time,
Two years later came the meeting that would set Aaliyah’s career on fire. Barry Hankerson introduced his niece to R. Kelly, a performer he was managing at the time. Kelly fell in love with her beautiful voice, going on to become her mentor. He ended up writing and producing all the tracks on her debut album, Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number. And it wasn’t – not many people can boast a completed album at just thirteen years of age. The process of selling the album began but, once again, expectations of Aaliyah were not fulfilled. Many record companies passed on the album – a setback very hard to take at such a vulnerable age. Her confidence was dented but her strength was not; Aaliyah was prepared to give things another go. Hankerson created his own label, Blackground Records especially for his niece. There was no way he was going to give up on her; she was far too special to let go.
In 1994 the album was released, catching the world’s attention. Her first single, Back And Forth reached number one on the R&B/Hip-Hop chart, dethroning her mentor. Other singles followed including At Your Best (You Are Love), Down With The Clique, and the adulterated title track. Her sound was new and fresh to the music world, her unique mystique captivating listeners. The artist herself liked to describe her music as ‘street but sweet’.
With the success of her debut album Aaliyah’s spirits soared. She had kept information about her age (she was just fifteen at the time) concealed, as she wanted her triumphs to be based solely on her talent. She did not seek any advantages because she was, ‘really good for someone so young’. Unfortunately her decision to withhold such facts was taken in the wrong way. Vicious rumors arose, slowing down album sales and threatening to thwart a prosperous career. The provocative nature of Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number combined with a little bit of media imagination and the mystery of her age sparked a frenzy of stories about a relationship between Aaliyah and twenty-five-year-old R. Kelly. Tales of marriage and even pregnancy were spread. All were denied.
The storm settled and three years passed, leaving many wondering what Aaliyah’s next project would be. She teased fans with numerous guest appearances, singing songs from soundtracks and building them up for the time she would truly return, stronger then ever. Aaliyah left R. Kelly behind to prove, more to herself than to anyone else, that she had grown as an artist and could make it without him. Perhaps the rumors that had at one point looked like they could destroy her had in fact been a Godsend. Would Aaliyah have made this choice if tales of something more than a good friendship and working partnership between the two hadn’t sprung up? Whatever her reasons, the change was for the best. She teamed up with the then unknown Missy Elliot and Timbaland and, between the three, a new sound was created, once again irresistible to fans.
They blended rough Hip-Hop beats with Aaliyah’s silky, laid-back vocals, the voice of an angel. The result was a sassy, sexy, sophomore album, One In A Million. The album went double platinum, putting her among the superstars of the music industry and silencing critics in their questions as to whether or not she had been just a ‘one hit wonder.’ The first single from the album, If Your Girl Only Knew, went straight to number one on the R&B/Hip-Hop chart, followed by four other singles including the number one radio play title track.
Aaliyah never let the fame go to her head. Between all her musical commitments she still found time for her family, friends and schoolwork. In June 1997 Miss Haughton graduated from the Detroit High School for the Fine and Performing arts, just one A-grade away from a perfect grade score. She had always set her sights so high and her determination paid off. She worked hard through hard times as well as the good, and brought her dreams to life. She truly was one in a million.
It was time for Aaliyah to turn her attention to Hollywood. She began by sticking to her music, recording Journey To The Past for the Anastasia soundtrack and then the contagious, Grammy nominated, number one hit song, Are You That Somebody, from the Dr. Dolittle soundtrack. With that track, she really got a taste for the mainstream and took a hiatus from the music world to team up with Joanne Baron, an acting coach. With Baron’s help, Aaliyah’s talent for acting was revealed and, by 1999, she was flying to Vancouver to shoot her debut film, Romeo Must Die. She starred alongside Jet Li in the adrenalin-stoked/Hip-Hop action flick, in which she was the executive producer of the soundtrack. From this came Try Again, the song that followed the story of her life. The lyrics came straight from her heart, from the lessons she had learnt. These qualities took the single all the way, reaching number one on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, the first single ever to do so based on Airplay alone.
Romeo Must Die sparked rave reviews and her acting skills were soon sought throughout Hollywood. Her next film was the novel-based Queen Of The Damned. Baron recalls the memory of Aaliyah during the audition process,
‘She put her heart, her time, her love and her life into it. She just ripped it out.’
It was her second starring role in just her second motion picture, displaying to the world she was more than just a crossover singer/actress. So much more. The release of the completed film was fervently awaited. Little did anyone know that Aaliyah wouldn’t be there to witness its success.
Whilst shooting Queen Of The Damned, Aaliyah simultaneously recorded her third, self-titled album. She was not put off or daunted by her doubled workload, choosing instead to put her all into both projects, as she had always done. Aaliyah was well aware of her presence, or lack of it, in the music world; it had been five years since the release of One In A Million. She released the dark, feisty, first single, We Need A Resolution, warming fans up, preparing them for what was to come. Aaliyah was released on July 17, debuted at number two in the charts and, in it’s first week alone, sold over 200,000 copies. Blackground Records planned to release Rock The Boat and More Than A Woman as back-to-back singles; they were getting heavy rotational airplay and already an awesome response from listeners. It seemed nothing could stop her.
It was August the 25th, 2001. Aaliyah had just finished shooting the island themed video for Rock The Boat in The Bahamas. Another video completed; another accomplishment. The set was laid-back and, together with the film crew and dancers, Aaliyah was enjoying herself, chatting, laughing and winding down. Her work done, Aaliyah decided to head home a day early, anxious to be with her beloved family before heading back to promote the album. Her parents and brother had always been there for her and it had been a while since she had managed to get back to them. The arrangements were made; she would leave that day along with eight others.
The small Cessna 402 departed from the Marsh Harbour airport, bound for Opa-locka, Florida. It had been airborne for only a short while when, suddenly, it crashed. Six of the eight were killed instantly. Aaliyah was among them.
Nobody knows just what it was that made the plane crash that day. Nobody could understand why it had to happen. Why Aaliyah, why someone so talented, so determined, so beautiful? There were so many questions and so few answers. At just twenty-two years of age Aaliyah, a daughter, a sister, a friend, a star, was gone. Disbelief, anger and, most of all, a great sense of sorrow and grief spread with the news. She had lived her life like an angel, fallen from the heavens. Through her life she rose and fell and now she had risen for the final time. We can only hope that, when the time came, she knew how much she was loved.
Aaliyah will never be forgotten. Through her music and her memory, she will live on. The album in the CD player draws to a close. It is an album that she never saw released, an album that wouldn’t even have been put together if she was still with us; a tribute to Aaliyah, I Care For You. Visions of her float by with the music and songs take on a whole new meaning now she’s gone. When Miss You is played, instead of thinking of the singer’s lost love, we think of ours, Aaliyah. Every note she sang was a part of her and with every song we understand more about her. She was a star in every sense of the word and I believe she continues to be so even now; still a star, shining brightly down on us.
There is no doubt in my mind that this angel lived up to the true meaning of her name,
‘The highest, most exalted one.’ The best. Aaliyah.