She’s 15, she’s pregnant, she’s married to the scandalous R Kelly. Or so the rumours go. But really, the only thing you need to know about teenage superstar Aaliyah is that she’s good enough to last longer than the gossip surrounding her.
IT’S 8.15. A car draws up outside Detroit’s newly-built High School For The Performing Arts and out steps a pretty young thing, dressed warmly against the cold morning air.
“See you later, sweetheart.”
She hurries into school, late as usual, tired from last night’s rehearsal. They were working on the new songs they’re adding to the show, now that it’s got to be longer for the trip to Japan. It was close to midnight by the time she got home. So she slumps apologetically into the first class – it’s Spanish – and struggles to keep her eyes open. This is her ‘tired hour’. She’s almost asleep through most of the lesson.
The second hour is biology. It’s her hardest subject, so she wakes herself up. She puts a lot of time into it. Aaliyah’s a good student: Spanish, Biology, Geometry, English. Last year her grade point average was 3.8, 3.7, but right now it’s 4.0 – straight A’s. All the work is paying off. She likes her academic classes, but she sits through Biology watching the clock, waiting for the school day to tick round to the third hour. Then she can dance.
High School For The Performing Arts: “Everybody says ‘Is it like Kids From Fame?, Do you dance down the hallway?” Aaliyah giggles at the thought of it. “You pay in sweat and right here’s where you start paying.” None of the teachers ever said that to her. “Everybody thinks our school is so exciting because it’s performing arts, but it’s really like a normal school.”
There are two more years here, and then she’ll head to college. Aaliyah’s ambition is to get a degree majoring in Music History. Her mum wants her to go to Spellman, an all-girls college in the South, but maybe she’ll stay in Michigan and go to UoM. She figures she’ll minor in engineering: they did some classes at school last year – building cars and things – and she’s pretty confident she could do well at that. And if her career looks like it might get in the way of her studies, she’ll take time out. Education comes first. She knows it’ll probably be difficult, especially with the degree of success she’s hoping for. Maybe she’ll have to study independently. But fame won’t get between her and that degree. “It’s important to have something to fall back on,” she says, with characteristic common sense. “I’ll do what I have to do.”
‘Age ain’t nothing but a number…’ Aaliyah’s silky pure voice floats over a jazzy sunshine swingbeat; ‘going down ain’t nothing but a thing.’ The lyrics get gradually steamier as a young girl confesses her love for an older man ‘Let me show you to ecstasy/Boy be brave/Don’t be afraid /Because tonight we’re gonna go all the way.’
“It can get a little risqué,” she admits, smiling cheekily. “Some lines are like… Phew. But it’s not like ‘let’s have sex baby,’ it’s not all the way out there.”
Some of it’s pretty naughty though, I insist.
“Yeah, it’s naughty,” she concedes, “but I think that a lot of kids go through that. They go through noticing the boys, noticing the girls. They think about it. So I’m just singing about what basically most teenagers go through.”
‘Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number’ is the third single (the second in the US) taken from her already Platinum album which shares the song’s name. The first, ‘Back And Forth’, claimed the number one spot in the Billboard R&B charts, dislodging a track ‘Your Body’s Callin’’, by her mentor and producer R. Kelly. The style is in the same vein of home-girl hip hop soul mined so successfully by Mary J Blige, though where Mary J’s voice is woven into a strengthening fabric of beats and samples, R Kelly’s masterful production can safely emphasise the simple beauty of Aaliyah’s voice. Kelly calls the music of his protégé “a jazz personality with a jeep mentality.”
Even in addition to writing and producing, R. Kelly’s presence on the album is unavoidable. There he is on the cover, crouching out of focus in the background. His name’s the biggest word on the inside credits. And throughout the album are sweet suggestive messages sung between him and Aaliyah, adding up to a lyrical love affair that fanned the flames of rumour surrounding the pair. One track has Aaliyah’s gentle voice singing “No one knows how to love me like you do”, while Kelly chants “Aaliyah – you’re the only one for me.” This caused no end of trouble.
Rumour one – A little 15-year-old girl with a voice like a nightingale is swept off her feet by a dirty old man of 27 while they work together in the intensive atmosphere of the recording studio. He flies her down to Florida, accompanied by his bodyguards, to meet him on tour. They then fly to Chicago, lie about her age and get married secretly. Her father drags her away and prohibits the two from seeing each other, though he calls up and demands to speak to his wife. Extreme versions had her pregnant, with him slammed in jail for statutory rape when her true age is discovered. Vibe magazine even printed the marriage certificate.
Rumour two – It’s all hype. She’s really 18 or19, and it’s all just bullshit invented (by management, by the record company?) to sell her album. Or maybe there’s no scandal; just the efforts of two talented musicians to avoid the unwanted intrusion of the press into their private lives.
In truth there’s no marriage, no pregnancy, and Aaliyah was 16 years old last Monday. “As we can all see I’m not pregnant.” she giggles, denying knowledge of how the various stories came about. “People ask me where did the rumours come from; why this, why that? I can let you know that it’s not true. You hear it right here from the source. I’m not pregnant, I’m not married, so… just let the public know: from me: it’s not true.”
“I don’t know what it was, or why it happened,” says her father, Mike Haughton (also now her manager), about the alleged affair. “There hasn’t been a lot of response, because sometimes, with those type of rumours, the best thing is to keep quiet.”
So what was the reality; did Kelly make a play for Aaliyah?
“I’d rather not comment on that,” he says. “To be honest with you, it was a situation that happened. It’s gone now. She’s getting on with her life.”
Ask people in Aaliyah’s band and they’ll be a little more candid, saying things like this: “Let’s just say R. Kelly made a move and it was the wrong move.” and even “Her dad wants to kill him.” They’re confident that the marriage rumours came from Kelly, as an attempt to legitimise his interest in Aaliyah’s underage bones: “He tried that ‘I-won’t-tell-if-you-won’t-tell’ line on her, and when people told him what he was doing was real low, he made up all the marriage shit.”
What no-one will let slip is whether or not any romance occurred. It’s easy to believe that it did. Aaliyah is nothing if not supremely alluring, and there’s her famous comment that “Me and him are really…we’re rather close,” as well as the testimony of various friends. They were certainly a large part of each others’ lives while making the record, but did it really go any further?
‘Age Is Nothing But A Number’ is almost definitely about a young girl and an older guy, I suggest.
“Or a young guy and an older girl,” she says.
And you’re working together, and Robert kind of had a crush on you…
“I don’t know. I don’t know about that one.”
But the song just seems to fit too perfectly, and that’s what fuelled all the rumours.
“People said that when the rumours came out – that he wrote the song for me. But he got that song from me and my girls, out in the studio. We were just playing – talking about guys.” She gives no more away. “As far as him having a crush on me that would be something I couldn’t say, cos I wouldn’t know. You’d have to ask Robert. That song is something he just thought of… Maybe he had a crush on someone else.”
It’s tantalising to imagine Aaliyah as a beautiful Lolita trapped by a scandalously doomed romance; it adds to the thrill of hearing her love songs. But from now on allow her the peace of privacy. These are the facts: R. Kelly made her a beautiful album. Aaliyah gave him her beautiful voice. Subject closed.
Aaliyah’s been working at her dream since she was eight. “I told my parents that I wanted to do this. They said, ‘Whatever you want to do in life we’re going to support you.’” Her father feels it was destined.
“I just figure it’s what she’s supposed to do,” he says, beaming with pride. “While other kids were out jumping rope she was messing with music. We noticed she had a voice, we gave her vocal lessons, We worked with her getting auditions. We stayed with it, and pushed it, and it’s happening.” It didn’t hurt that uncle was experienced showbiz figure, Barry Hankerson, one-time husband of Gladys Knight, a producer of gospel musicals and (guess what) R. Kelly’s manager.
“When I was nine we got it onto a professional level,” Aaliyah recalls. “I had agents in New York and I started auditioning for TV pilots, commercials, then for different record companies.”
She did Starsearch (a junior Opportunity Knocks) aged ten. She was beaten by a five-times-winning 12-year-old with bigger lung-power. She did school plays: an orphan with one line in Annie, a singing part in 42nd St., and her first big role, Minnie Faye in Hello Dolly (she still has the videotape). And then, when she was 11, she performed a five-night run at the Bally’s Hotel in Las Vegas with Gladys Knight.
“The first night I was very, very nervous,” she remembers. “I just stood in one spot, frozen.” But up there in the Vegas glitter, harmonizing with the great Gladys Knight, singing ‘Home’ from The Wiz and Lena Horne’s ‘Believe In Yourself’, Aaliyah soon learned how to work the stage. “And my mom just loved it because we had matching dresses on, with all the sequins and everything. It was a great experience.” A year later, aged just 12, she had a contract with Jive Records.
Aaliyah is now sixteen years old. She kept quiet about her age through most of last year, what with the album title and everything, “It was basically a part of the image,” she admits. “We kept it a little secret.” However, this year, on January 16th to be exact, she celebrated her 16th birthday. “I’m kind of psyched about my birthday passing, so I’ve been letting it out a bit.” Her parents threw her a surprise party a week before, “just a dress-to-sweat, wear-anything type of thing,” as a prelude to going on tour. But there’s a traditional sweet sixteen party planned: tuxedos and pretty gowns in the ballroom at the Western Hotel. She’s looking forward to it.
There’s a maturity to Aaliyah which could be disconcerting if it wasn’t mixed with such a bright-eyed amount of teen enthusiasm. She’s determined, single-minded. “You have to grow up, definitely when you’re in this business,” she cautions. “It’s pressurizing. But – I want this. I want it. And I’ve always wanted it. Sometimes I get tired and I say I’m going to sleep, I’m not going anywhere, not doing any interviews, but I have to. I’m willing to deal with it. I’m willing to deal with what I have to do to make it in this business.” Aaliyah knows what it takes to succeed. She knows that there’s work to be done. And with vocal talent that eclipses other older, more temperamental female R&B stars, she can’t fail to make that work pay off.
She’s getting used to being recognised by now, though she says it’s a drag when people stare when she just wants to have fun. Her classmates are pretty cool, very supportive, though they really bugged her for autographs and pictures at the beginning of the year. But it’s a small school, just three classes, so everyone’s settled down now. A few have been inspired by her success and have gone into the studio to work on their demos, and every so often someone will press a tape into her hand and ask politely “Can you give it to the record company.”
Last year Aaliyah was a vocal major. This year she figured she was doing so much singing outside school that she’d major in dance. She takes African Dance, a class in modern dance, and her favourite, Advanced Ballet. She’s always loved ballet, loves going to performances whenever she can, and couldn’t wait till she mastered the skills of dancing on point. “It’s so pretty.” She thought of putting an interlude in her concerts where she would come on and just dance: pirhouetting on her toes.
In the bizarre youth-club atmosphere of the rehearsal space, deep in Detroit’s Robocop warehouse-zone, the band are plunking out chords, working out arrangements for a new song. The dancers are shooting some hoops, Aaliyah’s messing with harmonies. She’s wearing white Nikes, a blue and white Nike shellsuit, a white t-shirt and a chipmunk medallion. She stands at the mic, lipsynching outrageously to ‘Down With The Clique’; hamming it up for her girlfriends who are cracking up watching. The track ends and Aaliyah carries on singing, her face still contorted with overacted passion, and a stream of spun-silver notes rings through the air.
There’s a moment in her show. It comes during the medley, during ‘Street Thing’. She sings that song and she feels like there’s nobody there. The audience melts away, the band disappears, it’s just Aaliyah in a room. “I could be anywhere,” she says, recalling the rapture. “‘Street Thing’ is totally my moment. That’s when I can really let loose. And just sing.”
And at the gig in Columbus Ohio – the best so far – her dad, standing in the wings, was moved to tears.
“To see her onstage, singing, and the crowd jumping up in their seats and waving their hands…” The big guy’s lost for words. “It looked like the whole house was lit up. The promoter came up behind me hugging me. I got filled up. It was just a macho thing that prevented the tears from falling.”
And now Aaliyiah is getting ready for stage two. After finishing the tour in Japan and then Europe, she’ll start work on the second album. Teddy Riley has offered his services as producer, and no-one (diplomatically) has yet ruled out R. Kelly again providing his studio skills. But Aaliyah’s determined to write at least two of the songs herself.
What will you write about when you have to write a love song? I ask.
“If I had to write a love song I’d write about…” She stops, thinks, rubs her cheek. “If I had to write a love song I’d write about…I don’t know.” I ask her if she’s ever been in love. She makes an ‘aw shucks’ kind of face, gesturing back to talk of being too busy for anything. “I don’t even have a boyfriend.” Another pretty smile.
Aaliyah: sweet sixteen and never been kissed.
© Frank Broughton, i-D, March 1995