One in a Million: Remembering Aaliyah

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Published August 25, 2011

Exactly ten years ago today, a small plane took off from the Bahamas. The twin-engine was overloaded by 700 pounds and carrying one more passenger than it was supposed to. It crashed, killing all eight passengers, including a 22-year-old woman named Aaliyah.

She was returning to America from a video shoot for a song called “Rock the Boat,” and at the time, was one of the most famous R&B singers in the world. (The pilot, Luis Morales III, was unlicensed at the time of the accident and had traces of cocaine and alcohol in his system.)

Born Aaliyah Dana Haughton in Brooklyn, New York, Aaliyah was raised in Detroit, and it was there, in a Catholic school during first grade, that she performed in a production of Annie. That was it: she was hooked, determined to become an entertainer, and from that moment on, her dream steadily unfolded. She signed with Jive Records at the tender age of 12. Her uncle, Barry Hankerson, was an entertainment lawyer who had been married to Gladys Knight; he introduced her to R. Kelly, and the rest as they say, was history.

Over the course of a brief but relentlessly productive career, she collaborated with Timbaland and Missy Elliot, earned a Grammy Nomination, acted alongside Jet Li in Romeo Must Die, and sold millions of records. But more than that, Aaliyah sparked the imagination of her public in a way that refused to subside.  What was it about her, in a world of cookie-cutter R&B pop, that stood out?

 

I only met her once, in 1997, in Aspen, Colorado, while working on an MTV special. I remember her being an innocent but radiant presence. Today, I went back and watched some of her music videos from that era, songs like “Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number,” a restrained romantic R&B jam that would later become the focus of rumors of an illegal marriage that she and R. Kelly were alleged to have entered into when Aaliyah was just 15 years old.

It was R. Kelly who wrote and produced much of Aliayah’s debut album, Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number, and it was an era when R&B was changing quickly into a more street-oriented style, with stuttering beats and aggressive expressions of sexuality. R. Kelly was one of the masterminds behind this shift and Aaliyah was, for a time, the style’s most famous female voice.  Listening now, that voice sounds surprisingly grown-up, a soprano endowed with a warm, earthy sensuality that played well against the hard, mechanized grooves of the music. Though many of her biggest hits were uptempo, there was always something slow-motion about the emotions she conveyed, something melancholic that made you want to sit still and pay attention. Like her doe-eyed stare, Aaliyah’s voice conveyed a certainty far beyond her years, a soulfulness with mesmerizing inner strength.

Watching the video for “Rock The Boat,” filmed just hours before her death, you can see a young woman alive and in love with life’s possibilities. That those possibilities include a sudden, unexpected end make you listen all the more deeply to the sound of a performer, barely yet a woman,  in the midst of making her dreams come true.