The story of Aaliyah is truly heartbreaking. It’s not just because of its abrupt ending, but also because one can’t help mourning the loss of all that talent and promise. At 22, she achieved the kind of success most people only dream of. What big things was she destined for if she had lived longer? Pull out some tissues as we reminisce about the insanely talented artist and her full, but sadly short life.
1. Her Name Was Powerful
Ol’ William Shakespeare may have wondered, “What’s in a name?” but our girl Aaliyah wasn’t a fan of this philosophy. She loved her name and strived to live up to it every day. While it has roots in the Arabic “Ali,” the singer connected it more to the Hebrew word, “Aliya,” which means “highest, most exalted one, the best.”
So, when mom suggested she just use her first name once she started out in showbiz, she totally went for it. Not many even know that her full name was Aaliyah Dana Haughton.
2. She Had A Small, Loving Family
Born in 1979, Aaliyah was the younger of just two siblings, and was always close to her older brother, Rashad. Her parents, Diane and Miguel Haughton, always wanted to give their kids the best life they could. So, they decided to move from Brooklyn, NYC, to Detroit when Aaliyah turned five. It was the first in a life filled with dramatic changes.
3. She Had More Support In Detroit
Aaliyah’s family moved to Detroit to be closer to her extended family. Her uncle, Barry Hankerson, was an entertainment lawyer, and his wife was singer Gladys Knight. Her dad, Miguel, started working in one of Hankerson’s businesses, and Aaliyah got the opportunity to sometimes go onstage with Knight. The exposure and support really helped her come into her own.
4. Her Mom Spotted Her Talent
Diane was a vocalist herself, so it was no surprise that she wanted to enroll her daughter in voice lessons too. However, it wasn’t just a case of making your kid do something you love, because Aaliyah was seriously talented. Her brother Rashad recalls that she always had a beautiful voice and enjoyed performing whenever she could.
5. Her Grandma Was Her Biggest Fan
While Aaliyah’s whole family was amazingly supportive of her and her talent, her grandma was her first and biggest admirer. She always wanted her to sing to her and “spoiled” her and her brother in any way she could. Before her untimely passing, Aaliyah made a heartbreaking confession about her beloved grandmother. She said that she always thought of her grandma whenever she felt depressed—which sadly, was far too often for a girl so young.
6. She Was Proud Of Her Roots
Aaliyah’s grandparents were from Jamaica originally, and she also had Native American heritage. She was proud of who she was and where she came from, and open to showcasing more of her roots. That was how her stylist came up with the inspiration of her look in her final video, for the hit song “Rock the Boat.”
7. She Knew What To Do
Aaliyah found her calling young—in grade one, to be precise. Her Catholic school cast her in their annual musical, Annie, and there was no looking back after that. Little Aaliyah knew she wanted to be an entertainer. At age six, let that sink in. I think my six-year-old self had the highly attainable goal of becoming a princess, how about you?
8. She Ignored The Haters
Although Aaliyah had plenty of friends in school, there were always a couple of kids who were cruel to her for no reason. They teased her about her short height, but mom made sure to keep uplifting her and cautioned her to ignore the negativity. “You always have to deal with jealous people…I just let it in one ear and out the other.”
9. She Started Young
Being Gladys Knight’s niece was definitely a plus when it came to getting her foot inside the showbiz door. Aaliyah traveled with her and auditioned for commercials and Family Matters. Her first real appearance on TV was on Star Search, when she was ten—but it led to a devastating moment. She lost that day—but not without making an impressive impact.
Host Ed McMahon said he saw the “fire” in Aaliyah when she came on stage.
10. She Was Driven
Sure, you need talent to make it to the top, but you also need passion and ambition. Aaliyah had it all. She wanted to get into the Detroit High School for Fine and Performing Arts, so guess what she did for her audition? She sang the whole “Ave Maria” in Italian. No surprise that she nailed it and got acceptance immediately!
11. It Was A Zoo
Aaliyah had a penchant for weird pets. These included ducks, snakes, and iguanas…and if you think that isn’t too weird, wait till you hear about her cousin Jomo’s pet: An alligator. Yes, you heard it. Even Aaliyah felt that was going too far, though! But strange taste in pets notwithstanding, Jomo and Aaliyah shared a special bond throughout her short life.
12. She Had A Stellar GPA
As if she wasn’t doing enough, Aaliyah also had a 4.0 GPA throughout high school, even though she’d already started working and recording by then. It was all for a surprising reason: She wanted something to fall back on if she didn’t make it in showbiz. Her alternate plans included teaching music history or drama, because, “when you pick a career it has to be something you love.”
So wise, and so young…
13. No Labels Were Interested In Her At First
Aaliyah had started performing with Gladys Knight onstage since she was 11, but her uncle, Barry Hankerson was having a tough time finding a label to sign her. He believed in her and was so strongly supportive that he decided to go all the way to make sure his young niece got the exposure she deserved—so he came up with an idea.
14. Her Uncle Came To The Rescue
He started his own label, Blackground Records, after signing a distribution deal with Jive Records. Then he signed Aaliyah to record some songs for them. Together they launched her first album, Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number, in 1994, when she was just 15. The album was a hit, but the whole experience became a super distasteful memory for Aaliyah.
15. Her First Mentor Was Shady
It took Aaliyah eight to ten months to finish recording Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number. R&B fan favorite of the time, R. Kelly agreed to be lead songwriter and producer after he heard her sing. Hankerson was able to rope him in as he was managing him anyway, and thought he’d hit a bullseye when Kelly seemed so impressed with Aaliyah’s talent.
Unfortunately, he didn’t realize what exactly he was getting his little niece in for.
16. He Wasn’t What He Seemed
Kelly spent a lot of time with Aaliyah, trying to figure out what kind of songs would match her personality and lifestyle. She said they’d often go bowling, or to arcades, and “vibe off one another.” Kelly also made her practice singing the songs he wrote several times before he pronounced her performance satisfactory. She admitted looking up to him and being close.
But there was a dark side to the relationship. And no one, least of all her parents, suspected it.
17. She Became A Victim
Sadly, Kelly didn’t live up to being a true mentor. He took advantage of having an underage girl under his wing, with horrific results. He slept with her and married her. Aaliyah was just 15 at the time, while he was 28. The title track “Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number” takes on a whole different, gruesome, meaning when you look at it in this context.
18. She Denied Some Rumors
While she was alive, rumors swirled that Aaliyah was married to Kelly, but she fervently denied them. She didn’t talk about him at all and said people had the wrong idea just because they’d been so close at one time. On his part, Kelly said the same thing. He acknowledged loving her, but as a “best best best best friend.” However, there was one thing they didn’t count on.
Journalists from Vibe magazine tracked down their marriage certificate and published it in 1995.
19. She Wanted To Move On
According to Damon Dash, Aaliyah’s boyfriend at the time she passed, all she wanted was to forget that the R. Kelly episode had ever happened. It was only after her passing that the heartbreaking truth came out. Once she confided to her parents what had happened, they helped her annul the marriage a few months after it happened. Following the annulment, Aaliyah wanted nothing to say or do with Kelly.
That may not even be the worst part. Dash said that he firmly believed that if Kelly had been held accountable at the time, all the other young girls he allegedly mistreated afterward may have been spared.
20. She Got Rave Reviews
Regardless of what was happening behind the scenes, Aaliyah’s vocals got great reviews from critics and listeners alike. People loved her “warm, silky voice” and music editors from RPM magazine even pronounced that Aaliyah would follow in the footsteps of Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, and Toni Braxton. She received nominations for several awards, and some of her tracks went on to become chart-toppers.
21. She Made A BFF
Kidada Jones, daughter of composer Quincy Jones and actor Peggy Lipton, is herself an actor, model, and fashion designer. She was very close to Aaliyah: Both of them met at a fashion show and there was no looking back. Jones even confessed that before her passing, Aaliyah and she had joked about marriage and babies and how they couldn’t “wait to kick back with [their] babies.”
22. The Ride To Her Second Album Was A Bumpy One
Her cousin, Jomo Hankerson, maintained that the media had “villainized” her after the Kelly fiasco, which is why it wasn’t easy to find producers for her second album. She ended her contract with Jive and signed up with Atlantic Records hoping for a fresh start. Although she had some concerns about how different this album would turn out, it seemed the stars were in her favor.
23. She Got Lucky
Two of the main producers on Aaliyah’s second album, One in a Million, were Timbaland and Missy Elliot. Since they were both just starting out, they were nervous about how diva-esque Aaliyah might be, considering she already had a successful debut album to her name. But Aaliyah won them over by her natural warmth and friendliness.
Their sound and songs really worked for her, and One In A Million became a huge hit.
24. The Acting Bug Bit Her
Aaliyah had always wanted to be an “entertainer,” which meant she wanted to try her hand at everything. She was working with acclaimed acting coach, Harold Guskin when Joel Silver offered her the role of Trish O’Day for Romeo Must Die, a modern, martial-arts-oriented adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. Of course, she accepted it, and you can imagine how it went.
25. And Of Course, She Could Sing…
Aaliyah was a movie producer’s dream. Between her acting chops and her singing skills, she was the total package. She executively produced the Romeo Must Die soundtrack and contributed four songs to it. The most popular was “Try Again,” which won “Best Female Video” and “Best Video from a Film” at the 2000 MTV Awards. She also got a Grammy nomination, though she didn’t win.
Of course, Aaliyah didn’t believe in giving up. Her mantra was to keep trying her best in the face of obstacles, like when she couldn’t find producers for her albums, or when she was on the receiving end of the Kelly marriage backlash. No doubt, she sang from the heart, and no wonder, it resonated with her listeners.
26. Her Acting Won Her Many Fans
Like everything else, Aaliyah put her heart and soul in the acting. It was no wonder then, that she started getting offers for multiple roles. There was one she couldn’t say no to, but sadly, it would be her last. After the success of Romeo Must Die, Aaliyah won a role in Queen of the Damned. Based on Anne Rice’s novel, producers cast her to play an ancient vampire, a role which she happily accepted.
Her skin, nails, and teeth were airbrushed grey every day for this on the shoot. Why, you ask? To show she was made of stone, of course!
27. She Had A Macabre Obsession
Aaliyah had long been fascinated by vampires, so, she was naturally super-excited to play one in the movie. She’d also read all of Rice’s novels before she started filming. Sadly, unknown to everyone at the time, this would be the final movie she starred in. Although she finished filming her scenes, her brother Rashad came in to record some of the dialogues she hadn’t been able to record.
The sound engineers then used ADR to replicate her voice and give it a supernatural effect.
28. She Left A Rich Legacy
Aaliyah may have only lived for 22 years, but she was one of the lucky few who got to do what she loved. She was quoted as saying: “Everything is worth it…because it really makes me happy…I thank God for His blessings every chance I get.” Her music has influenced many artists who came after her, and she is still remembered as a redefining influence for R&B.
29. Her Final Album Came Out Late
Aaliyah could hardly be expected to focus on recording an album while also acting in a feature film. Although she started recording for her self-titled third album in March 2000, it took a whole year for her to finish her tracks on it. Timbaland felt Virgin Records rushed it a little, and it hadn’t received the same kind of production as her previous album. Either way, Aaliyah came out in July 2001. Sadly, she wouldn’t get to see just how much people ended up loving it.
30. She “Sat On” A Song For Two Years
Aaliyah had conceived and sang the song “Rock the Boat” two years prior to its release. However, her label held it back for a disturbing reason. They considered it too sensual and inappropriate to release because she’d been so young when she wrote it. Tragically, when they gave it the go-ahead, it became the fatal song that she went to shoot a music video for and never returned.
31. She Took Leisure Time Too
Aaliyah loved the simple pleasures in life, like eating at Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles, playing Laser Tag, collecting sunglasses and stuffed animals, and spending time with the people she loved. Aaliyah famously never owned a car either because there was no need for it in NYC. She did hire a car and driver when she felt she needed to, though.
32. One Of Her Songs Became An Anthem
Apart from her own hit singles and albums, Aaliyah had many film songs that were huge hits in their own right. She sang “Journey to the Past” in Anastasia, and the song received a nomination for an Oscar. It ended up losing to “My Heart will Go On” from Titanic, but Aaliyah performed her song at the 1998 Oscars ceremony. At 19, she was the youngest person to do so!
33. Her Stuffed Animal Also Had A Moment In The Spotlight
Remember how Aaliyah had always been close to her grandma? She had a dove tattooed on her lower back as a tribute to her, and her most prized possession was a stuffed orangutan, Lina, that her grandma had given her a long time ago. If you look closely, you’ll see that very orangutan in one of the scenes in Romeo Must Die.
34. She Had Some Flings
Despite her traumatic early relationship with R. Kelly, Aaliyah eventually got back into dating when it was more age-appropriate to do so. And according to some, she had a fling with an A-lister. One of the more famous examples that came to light after her passing was an alleged relationship with Jay-Z. Some unseen pictures made the media rounds in 2019, which show the two dancing close to each other.
Damon Dash, who was working with Jay-Z at the time, revealed that Aaliyah had been with him before choosing to be with Dash. However, neither Aaliyah nor Jay-Z mentioned anything of the sort, though the latter paid tribute to her in one of his songs after her passing.
35. She Met The Love Of Her Life
The official story was that Aaliyah met Damon Dash, co-founder of Roc-a-Fella Records, through his accountant. Dash recalled how they just clicked. He felt they were very similar and understood each other completely. Though Aaliyah hadn’t announced anything other than a platonic relationship with Dash, she hosted his 30th birthday party, and flew to visit him just two weeks before her passing.
But the story gets more heartbreaking…
36. He Was The One
After her passing, Damon Dash revealed that he’d planned to marry Aaliyah. Although he hadn’t formally proposed to her yet, they did plan on getting engaged. Her close friend Kidada Jones also backed this up. She said that even though Aaliyah and Dash had only dated for a year, Aaliyah was ready to settle down and have kids with him.
It’s no wonder Dash was left broken-hearted after her passing. He said that after losing Aaliyah, and his mom soon after, he felt like he’d turned into a “monster,” afraid to love and scared to lose.
37. She Was Filming In Miami
In August 2001, Aaliyah was making a video for “Rock the Boat” in Miami. She’d already filmed some of the underwater scenes when she boarded a plane with her crew to Abaco Islands in the Bahamas to continue the shoot. Did she have an inkling of what might happen? Maybe not, but Dash does admit that she’d been apprehensive about flying this particular flight.
38. She Was Alone
There was something remarkably off about that trip, and it wasn’t just what ended up happening later. Usually, Aaliyah traveled with at least one of her family members. However, this time, none of her family members had been able to accompany her to this shoot. Rashad Haughton remarked that this had never happened before.
His mother couldn’t go because she was recovering from eye surgery and his dad was taking care of her. Rashad himself was in Australia visiting friends. This was the first video Aaliyah had made without any of them. Devastatingly for them, it became the last.
39. Her Last Few Days Were Wonderful
The director of “Rock the Boat” said that the entire crew had a wonderful time on the island, filming and relaxing in the idyllic setting. “We all worked together as a family…Everyone felt part of something special.” Aaliyah’s wrapped up her work a day earlier than expected, so she decided to leave the island on that fateful day along with seven members of her crew.
No one could have predicted the disaster that awaited them.
40. Her Plane Never Really Took Off
Aaliyah boarded a ten-seat twin-engine Cessna 402-B, with seven members of her crew. The plane then crashed just one minute after take-off. It was just a few hundred feet from the runway. A fire broke out and as a devastating result, not one person survived. Aaliyah was among the six who perished on the scene, while only three others struggled for a few hours before breathing their last breaths.
It was an out and out catastrophe…but it didn’t have to be.
41. Many People Bade Her Farewell
Although Aaliyah’s funeral was a private affair with only her family and close friends, her fans all over the world mourned her passing. Posters of her in NYC and Detroit became makeshift shrines with fans heaping flowers below them. Her family released 22 white doves at her funeral, one for each year of her life. Her crypt bears the inscription “Baby Girl.”
42. Her Final Video Went Viral
That is to say, it was the highest-watched video when it was released after her passing. Hype Williams, the director, felt that they owed it to Aaliyah to release it because of all the love and hard work that had gone in it. Her third album Aaliyah also rose to number 1 after her passing.
43. She Couldn’t Complete Her Last Film
Aaliyah completed filming for Queen of the Damned and it came out after her passing—but there was something else that few fans knew. The star had actually begun filming for The Matrix sequel, The Matrix Reloaded! She hadn’t done much though, but if she lived, we would have seen her in both Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions.
44. Her Uncle Made Some Strange Choices
Was Barry Hankerson just heartbroken after his niece’s demise, or was there some deeper problem? All we know is that Blackground Records and all it stood for went under, and artists like Timbaland and Toni Braxton sued them for mismanagement. The lawsuits ended with out-of-court settlements. Hankerson didn’t just treat them badly, he also did a huge injustice to Aaliyah.
45. But Her Voice Will Live On
Since Blackground had the rights to Aaliyah’s music, Hankerson refused to release it to streaming services. Considering streaming is the primary way that people now listen to music, this was a great disservice to Aaliyah and her songs. Thankfully, her estate has now announced that her music will be available for digital downloads and streaming soon.
It definitely would’ve been a whole other tragedy if her songs completely disappeared from public memory!
46. It Inspired Some Rumors
When she was starting out, her mom suggested Aaliyah wear her hair over her left eye like her favorite film star, Veronica Lake. They believed this would add to the “mystique of [her] personality.” On top of that, Aaliyah frequently wore sunglasses. She’d basically done it because she was shy, and a little overwhelmed by media attention. However, it ended up sparking a bizarre rumor. People speculated that she had a glass eye which she tried to cover up with sunglasses and hairstyles.
Say what you will, you have to give them credit for using their imagination!
47. She Got In Too Deep
Very little was known about Aaliyah’s brief marriage to R. Kelly—but after her death, the horrifying details emerged. In 2011, Kelly’s former associate Demetrius Smith revealed that, in 1995, Kelly had confided in him that he thought Aaliyah was pregnant. Following this admission, Smith and Kelly falsified documents so that Kelly could secretly marry Aaliyah in Rosemont, Illinois. They hid the union from her family, and it was only after they found out that the marriage was annulled.
As we now know, taking advantage of young girls was R. Kelly’s horrific specialty.
48. Who Was To Blame For Her End?
Incidents like the plane crash that took Aaliyah’s life always lead to a lot of regrets and a lot of questions. How did it happen? Who was to blame? In this case, it became apparent that unbelievable negligence on part of the plane company, Blackhawk International Airways Corp, was partly responsible for the crash. The plane was over capacity…and that wasn’t even the worst part.
49. She Had An Inept Pilot
Pilot Luis Morales had no certification to fly, because he’d been on probation just two weeks before this flight. There was a jaw-dropping reason behind his suspension: He’d been found with illicit substances in his possession. The coroner found traces of both drink and an illicit substance in his system. Perhaps he hadn’t cared for his own safety, but to risk the safety of others is indefensible.
50. Her Family Tried To Fight For Justice
Aaliyah’s family sued Virgin Records and Blackhawk Airways for their “culpability in the crash.” The case dragged on for a year, after which they decided to settle the matter out of court. Aaliyah was gone, and nothing was going to bring her back.