Aaliyah Dana Haughton was born on January 16, 1979, in Brooklyn, New York. Born of African American descent, with Oneida heritage from her grandmother, she was the second and youngest child of Diane and Michael Haughton. At a young age, Aaliyah was enrolled in voice lessons by her mother. She started performing at weddings, church choir and charity events. When she was five years old, her family moved to Detroit, Michigan, where she was raised along with her older brother, Rashad. She attended a Catholic school, Gesu Elementary, where in first grade, she received a part in the stage play Annie. From then on, she was determined to become an entertainer.
Aaliyah’s mother was a vocalist, and her uncle, Barry Hankerson, was an entertainment lawyer who had been married to Gladys Knight. As a child, Aaliyah traveled with Knight and worked with an agent in New York to audition for commercials and television programs, including Family Matters; she went on to appear on Star Search at the age of nine. She auditioned for several record labels and at age 11 appeared in concerts alongside Knight.
After Hankerson signed a distribution deal with Jive Records, he signed Aaliyah to his Blackground Records label at the age of 12. Hankerson later introduced her to recording artist and producer R. Kelly, who became Aaliyah’s mentor, as well as lead songwriter and producer of the album, which was recorded when she was 14. Aaliyah’s debut album, Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number, was released under Jive and Blackground Records; the album debut at number 24 on the Billboard 200 chart, selling 74,000 copies in its first week. It ultimately peaked at number 18 on the Billboard 200 and sold over three million copies in the United States, where it was certified two times Platinum by the RIAA. In Canada, the album sold over 50,000 copies and was certified gold by the CRIA. Aaliyah’s debut single, “Back & Forth”, topped the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart for three weeks and was certified Gold by the RIAA. The second single, a cover of The Isley Brothers’ “At Your Best (You Are Love)”, peaked at number six on the Billboard Hot 100 and was also certified Gold by the RIAA. The title track, “Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number”, peaked at number 75 on the Hot 100. Additionally, she released “The Thing I Like” as part of the soundtrack to the 1994 film A Low Down Dirty Shame.
Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number received generally favorable reviews from music critics. Some writers noted that Aaliyah’s “silky vocals” and “sultry voice” blended with Kelly’s new jack swing helped define R&B in the 1990s. Her sound was also compared to that of female quartet En Vogue. Christopher John Farley of Time magazine described the album as a “beautifully restrained work”, noting that Aaliyah’s “girlish, breathy vocals rode calmly on R. Kelly’s rough beats”. Stephen Thomas Erlewine of AllMusic felt that the album had its “share of filler”, but described the singles as “slyly seductive”. He also claimed that the songs on the album were “frequently better” than that of Kelly’s second studio album, 12 Play.
In 1996, Aaliyah left Jive Records and signed with Atlantic Records. She worked with record producers Timbaland and Missy Elliott, who contributed to her second studio album, One in a Million. The album yielded the single “If Your Girl Only Knew”, which topped the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs for two weeks. It also generated the singles “Hot Like Fire” and “4 Page Letter”. The following year, Aaliyah was featured on Timbaland & Magoo’s debut single, “Up Jumps da Boogie”. One in a Million peaked at number 18 on the Billboard 200, selling over 3.7 million copies in the United States and over eight million copies worldwide. The album was certified double platinum by the RIAA on June 16, 1997, denoting shipments of two million copies.
Aaliyah attended the Detroit High School for the Fine and Performing Arts, where she majored in drama and graduated in 1997. Aaliyah began her acting career that same year; she played herself in the police drama television series New York Undercover. During this time, Aaliyah participated in the Children’s Benefit Concert, a charity concert that took place at the Beacon Theatre in New York. Aaliyah also became the spokesperson for Tommy Hilfiger Corporation. She contributed on the soundtrack album for the Fox Animation Studios animated feature Anastasia, performing a cover version of “Journey to the Past” which earned songwriters Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Original Song. Aaliyah performed the song at the 1998 Academy Awards ceremony and became the youngest singer to perform at the event. The song “Are You That Somebody?” was featured on the Dr. Dolittle soundtrack, which earned Aaliyah her first Grammy Award nomination. The song peaked at number 21 on the Hot 100.
In 2000, Aaliyah landed her first major movie role in Romeo Must Die. Aaliyah starred opposite martial artist Jet Li, playing a couple who fall in love amid their warring families. It grossed US$18.6 million in its first weekend, ranking number two at the box office. In addition to acting, Aaliyah served as an executive producer of the film soundtrack, where she contributed four songs. “Try Again” was released as a single from the soundtrack; the song topped the Billboard Hot 100, making Aaliyah the first artist to top the chart based solely on airplay; this led the song to be released in a 12″ vinyl and 7″ single. The music video won the Best Female Video and Best Video from a Film awards at the 2000 MTV Video Music Awards. It also earned her a Grammy Award nomination for Best Female R&B Vocalist. The soundtrack went on to sell 1.5 million copies in the United States. After completing Romeo Must Die, Aaliyah began to work on her second film, Queen of the Damned. She played the role of an ancient vampire, Queen Akasha, which she described as a “manipulative, crazy, sexual being”. She was scheduled to film for the sequels of The Matrix as the character Zee.
Aaliyah released her eponymous album, Aaliyah, in July 2001. It debuted at number two on the Billboard 200, selling 187,000 copies in its first week. The first single from the album, “We Need a Resolution”, peaked at number 59 on the Billboard Hot 100. Aaliyah was engaged to co-founder of Roc-A-Fella Records Damon Dash at the time of her death and had plans to marry him after the premiere of The Matrix Reloaded.
The week after Aaliyah’s death, her third studio album, Aaliyah, rose from number 19 to number one on the Billboard 200. “Rock the Boat” was released as a posthumous single. The music video premiered on BET’s Access Granted; it became the most viewed and highest rated episode in the history of the show. The song peaked at number 14 on the Billboard Hot 100 and number two on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart. It was also included on the Now That’s What I Call Music! 8 compilation series; a portion of the album’s profits was donated to the Aaliyah Memorial Fund. Promotional posters for Aaliyah that had been put up in major cities such as New York and Los Angeles became makeshift memorials for grieving fans. “More than a Woman” and “I Care 4 U” were released as posthumuous singles and peaked within the top 25 of the Billboard Hot 100. The album was certified double Platinum by the RIAA and sold 2.95 million copies in the United States. “More than a Woman” reached number one on the UK singles chart making Aaliyah the first deceased artist to reach number one on the UK singles chart. “More than a Woman” was replaced by George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” which is the only time in the UK singles chart’s history where a dead artist has replaced another dead artist at number one.
Aaliyah was signed to appear in several future films, including Honey, a romantic film titled Some Kind of Blue, and a Whitney Houston-produced remake of the 1976 film Sparkle. Before her death, Aaliyah had filmed part of her role in The Matrix Reloaded and was scheduled to appear in The Matrix Revolutions as Zee. The role was subsequently recast to Nona Gaye. Aaliyah’s scenes were included in the tribute section of the Matrix Ultimate Collection series.
With the release of Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number, rumors circulated of a relationship between Aaliyah and R. Kelly. Shortly after, there was speculation about a secret marriage with the release of “Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number” and the adult content that Kelly had written for Aaliyah. Vibe magazine later revealed a marriage certificate that listed the couple married on August 31, 1994, in Sheraton Gateway Suites in Rosemont, Illinois. Aaliyah, who was 15 at the time, was listed as 18 on the certificate; the illegal marriage was annulled in February 1995 by her parents. The pair continued to deny marriage allegations, stating that neither was married.
On August 25, 2001, at 6:45 p.m. (EST), Aaliyah and various members of the record company boarded a twin-engine Cessna 402B (registration N8097W) at the Marsh Harbour Airport in Abaco Islands, The Bahamas, to travel to the Opa-locka Airport in Florida, after they completed filming the music video for the single “Rock the Boat”. They had a flight scheduled the following day, but with filming finishing early, Aaliyah and her entourage were eager to return to the United States and made the decision to leave immediately. The designated airplane was smaller than the Cessna 404 which they had originally flown in on, still the whole party and all of the equipment were accommodated on board. The plane crashed shortly after takeoff, about 200 feet (60 m) from the runway. Aaliyah and the eight others on board, pilot Luis Morales III, hair stylist Eric Forman, Anthony Dodd, security guard Scott Gallin, video producer Douglas Kratz, stylist Christopher Maldonado, and Blackground Records employees Keith Wallace and Gina Smith, were all killed.
According to findings from an inquest conducted by the coroner’s office in The Bahamas, Aaliyah suffered from “severe burns and a blow to the head”, in addition to severe shock and a weak heart. The coroner theorized that she went into such a state of shock that even if she had survived the crash, her recovery would have been nearly impossible.
As the subsequent investigation determined, when the aircraft attempted to depart, it was over its maximum takeoff weight by 700 pounds (320 kg) and was carrying one excess passenger, according to its certification. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report stated that “the airplane was seen lifting off the runway, and then nose down, impacting in a marsh on the south side of the departure end of runway 27 and then exploding in flames.” It indicated that the pilot was not approved to fly the plane. Morales falsely obtained his Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) license by showing hundreds of hours never flown, and he may also have falsified how many hours he had flown in order to get a job with his employer, Blackhawk International Airways. Additionally, an autopsy performed on Morales revealed traces of cocaine and alcohol in his system. The NTSB reported that the maximum allowed gross weight of the plane was “substantially exceeded” and that the center of gravity was positioned beyond its rear limit. John Frank of the Cessna Pilots Association stated that the plane was “definitely overloaded”.
Aaliyah’s funeral was held on August 31, 2001, at the St. Ignatius Loyola Church in Manhattan. Her body was set in a silver casket, which was carried in a glass hearse and was drawn by horse. An estimated 800 mourners were in attendance at the procession. Among those in attendance at the private ceremony were Missy Elliott, Timbaland, Gladys Knight, Lil’ Kim and Sean Combs. After the service, 22 white doves were released to symbolize each year of Aaliyah’s life. Aaliyah was interred in a private room at the end of a corridor in the Rosewood Mausoleum at the Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York.
The day of the crash was Morales’ first official day with Blackhawk International Airways, an FAA Part 135 single-pilot operation. Morales was not registered with the FAA to fly for Blackhawk. As a result of the accident, Aaliyah’s parents filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the company, which was settled out of court for an undisclosed amount. Barry & Sons, Inc., a corporation formed in 1992 to develop, promote and capitalize Aaliyah and to oversee the production and distribution of her records and music videos, brought an unsuccessful lawsuit in the New York Supreme Court against Instinct Productions LLC, the company that was hired in August 2001 to produce the music video for “Rock the Boat”. The case was dismissed because New York’s wrongful death statute permits only certain people in relation to the deceased to recover damages for wrongful death.
- January, 16, 1979
- Brooklyn, New York
- August, 25, 2001
- Marsh Harbour, Bahamas
- Ferncliff Cemetery and Mausoleum
- Hartsdale, New York