Aaliyah (Contemporary Musicians)
In Swahili, the language of East Africa, the name Aaliyah means "highest, most exalted one." Most parents might shy away from burdening their newborn with such a tough name to live up to, but it seems that Michael and Diane Haughton knew from the start that their baby daughter had the makings of a real star. While still a sophomore at Detroit's High School for Fine and Performing Arts, Aaliyah Haughton, known professionally by her first name alone, released her debut album, which created a minor sensation in the recording industry and in time went double-platinum. Her second album quickly went platinum as well, and she later broadened her horizons, adding acting to her resume. Aaliyah's star was burning bright when her life was unexpectedly cut short: Aaliyah and eight others died in a plane crash on August 25, 2001, while returning from a video shoot in the Bahamas.
Born on January 16, 1979, in Brooklyn, New York's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, Aaliyah Dani Haughton seemed somehow preordained to get into music. She was practically weaned on rhythm and blues and soul, because the Haughton household was almost always filled with music from her mother's extensive collection of recordings. Aaliyah, showing early signs of a talent that would later blossom into a professional career, just couldn't resist singing along to the records of the Isley Brothers, Whitney Houston, and Marvin Gaye.
When Aaliyah was five years old, the Haughton family left Brooklyn behind and moved to a new home in Detroit. It was in the Motor City that Michael and Diane Haughton, impressed by their daughter's raw musical talent, decided to enroll her in vocal classes. When she wasn't learning singing in the classroom, Aaliyah was singing up a storm wherever possible, including school plays and the church choir. Around the age of nine, she began making the rounds, auditioning regularly for television productions and record companies. But the auditions were her idea, she told Vibe, not her parents's. "I pushed them. I would talk to my mother every day. After school I'd go to her job and be, like, 'Ma, did anybody call me? Anybody call about signing me?' I was into it." It was at about this time that her mother encouraged her to drop her surname and go with just Aaliyah as her stage name.
An Early Star
While still only nine years old, she appeared on the national television talent show, Star Search. Interviewed by Details magazine, Aaliyah recalled her TV debut: "It was really, really cute. I sang 'My Funny Valentine,' and I had on a white dress my grandmother made with a little bolero jacket, and special curls in my hair." Unfortunately, Aaliyah didn't win first place, but she gained much-needed experience working in front of a large audience. That experience came in handy a couple of years later when she was signed to perform for a week in Las Vegas with Gladys Knight. Although in the end it was Aaliyah's talent that won her the job with Knight, it didn't hurt that her uncle, Barry Hankerson, who was also her manager at that stage in her career, was Knight's ex-husband. During the week she performed with Knight, Aaliyah sang a solo midway through the show and closed the show in a duet with Knight on "Believe in Yourself."
At the age of 14, Aaliyah signed her first record contract when Hankerson founded his own recording company, Blackground Enterprises. She was the first act to sign with the Blackground label. At about the same time, her uncle introduced Aaliyah to R&B singer/songwriter R. Kelly, who was also managed by Hankerson's Midwest Entertainment Group. Kelly, impressed with Aaliyah's vocal ability, signed on to produce her debut album. Of her first meeting with Kelly, Aaliyah told Vibe: "He came to my house, and I sang for him, and from there we went into the studio." Her debut album, entitled Age Ain't Nothing But a Number, was released in 1994 and eventually went double platinum. Aaliyah was overjoyed at the success of her first recording venture but less pleased at widespread rumors that she and Kelly were secretly married. She consistently denied that she was married to Kelly, but the rumors persisted. Documents were revealed years later that confirmed the couple married when Aaliyah was 15 and had the marriage annulled shortly thereafter. Not surprisingly, the gossip helped to call attention to Aaliyah's debut recording and in the end gave sales an extra lift. "Back and Forth," the first single released from the album, spent three weeks at number one on the R&B charts, while her second single, "At Your Best (You Are Love)," managed to climb its way to number two.
In support of her first album, Aaliyah spent nearly a year touring in the United States as well as several foreign countries, including Japan, South Africa, and most of Western Europe. In the wake of her debut album's success, she received a number of movie soundtrack and video contracts, including Low Down Dirty Shame in 1995 and All That and Sunset Park in 1996. What was perhaps most amazing was teenaged Aaliyah's ability to juggle her new-found success, concert appearances all over the globe, and interviews while still maintaining a 3.8 grade point average at Detroit's High School for Fine and Performing Arts. Her mother, a school teacher herself, insisted that a tutor accompany Aaliyah whenever she traveled away from Detroit or was otherwise unable to attend school.
One in a Million
Back from nearly a year of touring, Aaliyah began to make plans for her second album. Like a lot of recording artists, she worried that unless she produced a strong follow-up, the public andven more importantlyovers and shakers in the industry might write her off as nothing but a one-hit wonder. Perhaps still smarting from the media blitz over her relationship with Kelly, Aaliyah decided to work with a team of producersight in alln putting together her second album. She switched distributors, dropping Jive Records to go with Atlantic, a distributor with proven strength in R&B circles. Of the nerve-wracking period leading up to the release of her second album, she later confided in an Atlantic press release: "I was a little anxious. You could even say I was a little afraid. I spoke with my family, and they helped me realize that it wasn't something I should worry about, that I shouldn't overthink the process." In the end, she took her family's advice and followed her instincts, which had proven more than reliable in the past. Although she worked with multiple producers and songwriters in putting together One in a Million, her second album, her principal collaborator on the project was Tim "Timbaland" Mosely, one of the hottest producers in hip-hop music.
Any fears that she might be labeled a "one-hit wonder" quickly disappeared after the 1996 release of One in a Million, which, like her first album, eventually went double platinum. A number of hip-hop's hottest artists were featured on the album, including Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott, Slick Rick, and Naughty by Nature's Treach. The first single off the album, "If Your Girl Only Knew," rocketed to number one on the R&B charts. Other successful songs from the album included "Four-Page Letter," a cover of the Marvin Gaye classic "Got to Give It Up," and the title ballad. Her successful collaboration with Timbaland continued in 1997, when the two worked on the track "Are You That Somebody?" for the soundtrack of Eddie Murphy's remake of Dr. Dolittle.
Even after the success of her second album and nearly a decade of public appearances, frequently before audiences of thousands, Aaliyah continued to struggle against her basic shyness. So uncomfortable was she around others that she was rarely seen in public without her trademark sunglasses. Even in the recording studio, she felt uneasy being in the spotlight. Talking to an interviewer for Vibe, she said, "When I'm in the studio, I have to have the light offou can't see me 'cause I'm very shy. I don't mind seeing you in the control room, but you can't see me."
In 1997 Aaliyah graduated from Detroit High School for Fine and Performing Arts but postponed plans for college because her career was occupying almost all of her time. For fellow artists Elliott, Ginuwine, and Nas, she contributed tracks on albums they recorded. She continued to work hard on her music but held off on a third album until she found the right combination of elements to make it a sure-fire winner. It was to be a five-year wait until her third album, Aaliyah, was released. The album, another collaboration with Timbaland, was scheduled to hit music stores in the summer of 2001.
Impressive Acting Debut
At the end of the 1990s, Aaliyah's career broadened to include acting. She was signed for a starring role in the martial arts thriller Romeo Must Die, which was released in the spring of 2000. Costarring with Chinese action film star Jet Li, she made what one film critic termed "a creditable film debut." A single she recorded with producer Timbaland for Romeo Must Die, "Try Again," was a smash success, landing Aaliyah her first number one song on the pop charts. Her acting skills obviously made a positive impression on Hollywood's filmmakers, because in short order she was signed to appear in sequels to the wildly popular action film Matrix and to play Queen Akasha, "the original vampire," in the film version of Anne Rice's novel The Queen of the Damned.
For Aaliyah, her career, particularly the musical side of it, was very much a family affair. Although she was first managed by her uncle, that responsibility was later passed to her parents, who formed Detroit-based Raliah Management for just that purpose. However, Aaliyah still recorded for Blackground Enterprises. Her cousin, Jomo, played the role of executive producer on her second album, while her brother, Rashaad, was her creative consultant.
In an interview with Billboard early in 2001, Aaliyah talked a bit about the difficulties of juggling her work in both acting and singing: "I'd literally go from the movie studio to the recording studio. I'm like two different people. Once they say, 'Cutt's a wrap for the day,' I leave the costumes on the set. I have two different facets to my career. I have to know how to turn it on and off."
With her third album's release, she seemed pleased with the ground she'd covered in just 22 years. She told Harper's Bazaar that she is "more controlling now. I have come into my own in the past year, and I really felt it making the new album. I would tell my producers, 'No, no, no. I don't want to do this' or 'Let's take this hook out.' It felt good to be so vocal." She described the third album as "a party album, with a few big, beautiful ballads," and assured the interviewer that her latest effort was definitely not "R&B lite." Timbaland likened their professional relationship to a "musical marriage," saying, "When you feel like someone is part of your family, the work comes naturally."
A Life Cut Short
Aaliyah's promising life came to a halt when she was killed along with seven others on August 25, 2001, when the private plane in which they were traveling crashed after takeoff. She had been shooting a video for the song "Rock the Boat" in the Bahamas and was preparing to return to the United States. The cause of the crash was investigated by Bahamian aviation officials, who later reported that the pilot of the small Cessna plane had traces of cocaine and alcohol in his system at the time of the crash, and that the crash was most likely caused by a pilot error. The plane was also overloaded by at least 700 pounds, most of it sound and video equipment used in the video shoot.
Posthumously, Aaliyah went on to even greater success than she had found in earlier years. In the month following her death, her most recent release, Aaliyah, went multiplatinum. Critics unanimously agreed it was her most accomplished work. All Music Guide critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine declared, "Aaliyah isn't just a statement of maturity and a stunning artistic leap forward, it is one of the strongest urban soul records of its time." Blackground Enterprises released ICare4U in 2002. The release contained most of Aaliyah's greatest hits as well as six new, previously unreleased tracks, including the poignant first single, "Miss You."
Age Ain't Nothing But a Number, Blackground/Jive, 1994.
(Contributor) Low Down Dirty Shame (soundtrack), Hollywood, 1995.
One in a Million, Blackground/Atlantic, 1996.
(Contributor) Anastasia (soundtrack), Atlantic, 1997.
(Contributor) Dr. Dolittle (soundtrack), Atlantic, 1998.
(Contributor) Music of the Heart (soundtrack), Sony/Epic, 1999.
(Contributor) Next Friday (soundtrack), Priority, 1999.
(Contributor) The Nutty Professor II (soundtrack), Uni/Def Jam, 2000.
(Contributor) Romeo Must Die (soundtrack), Blackground/Virgin, 2000.
Aaliyah, Virgin, 2001.
ICare4U, Universal/Blackground, 2002.
America's Intelligence Wire, November 19, 2003.
Billboard, July 20, 1996, p. 15.
Harper's Bazaar, April 1, 2001, p. 153.
Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, July 16, 2002.
People, June 23, 1997, p. 130.
Time, April 3, 2000, p. 80
"Aaliyah," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (April 19, 2004).
"Aaliyah Killed in Plane Crash," Eonline, http://www.eonline.com/News/Items/0,1,8731,00.html (August 27, 2001).
"The Rap on R. Kelly," Chicago Tribune, http://www.chicagotribune.com (April 14, 2004).