AALIYAH DANA HAUGHTON was just 22 when she died last Saturday in a plane crash in The Bahamas, but she’d already been famous for seven years. Known to her fans simply by her first name – a Swahili word meaning ‘the highest, most exalted one’ – Aaliyah was one of a new generation of performers and producers who have bought R&B into the pop mainstream.
She was in the Caribbean shooting the video for ‘Rock The Boat’, the next single from her third album Aaliyah, released last month. The singer and seven friends – record company executives, stylists and a bodyguard – chartered a twin-engine Cessna to return to Florida. The cause of the crash is not yet clear. Some reports claimed that the plane might have been dangerously over-loaded. Aaliyah’s group apparently argued with ground staff who asked them to leave some luggage behind. There have also been reports that the pilot had difficulty starting one of the engines, which may indicate a fault. Either way, shortly after takeoff at 6.50pm, witnesses say that the plane banked sharply to the left, then plunged down into swampy scrubland some 200 metres from the end of the runway, where it burst into flames. Aaliyah was among the six passengers killed instantly; the remaining three died within hours.
Born in Brooklyn but raised in Detroit, she signed her record deal when she was 12. R&B star R Kelly produced and wrote much of her first album, Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number. In 1994, long before Britney and co made teen-pop big business, the 15-year-old took her first single ‘Back and Forth’ to number one in the US, forgoing the yodelling pyrotechnics of her peers in favour of a cool, understated vocal style. She dressed in baggy Tommy Hilfiger clothes and was marketed as ‘street yet sweet’, although she was a middle-class A-student at Detroit’s most prestigious stage school. In fact Aaliyah had been introduced to R Kelly by her uncle Barry Hankerson, a music business veteran who was once married to soul star Gladys Knight. She made her stage debut in Annie at the age of six, and within five years was performing in Las Vegas with auntie Gladys.
She was managed by her parents, employed her older brother Rashad as creative director and recorded for Blackground, a label owned by her uncle and run by her cousin. This family support seemed to allow her to push boundaries. For her second album One In A Million in 1996, she worked mainly with Missy Elliot and Tim Mosely, aka Timbaland. Fusing hip hop, soul and electronica, they forged a new R&B sound with hard breakbeats, cut-up sounds and hypnotic layers of sensuous vocals. ‘She took chances on her music,’ says Jermaine Dupri, who worked on her last two albums. ‘Just the softness of how she sang over them hard-ass beats, it was something different.’
Her film debut was Romeo Must Die, a martial arts action movie with a plot full of holes and no sexual chemistry with her older co-star Jet Li. But it was a surprise box office hit, partly due to Aaliyah’s sparky performance and to the stunning soundtrack, on which she was credited as executive producer. The stand-out track ‘Try Again’ was another collaboration with Timbaland, a dense, slinky number which finally broke Aaliyah outside America and gained her a second Grammy nomination.
Other film roles followed, and she recently finished filming Queen of the Damned for Warners, a version of the Ann Rice novel in which she plays the title role of Akasha, a powerful, 5000-year-old vampire queen. She was also due to star alongside Keanu Reeves in two eagerly awaited sequels to his sci-fi hit The Matrix. The main work on both films was to have started in Australia this autumn. It is not yet clear whether this will now continue.
Aaliyah rarely talked about her personal life. Her current boyfriend was record company executive Damon Dash, who said this week that they had planned to marry after the Matrix sequels. Earlier, there was a romance with R Kelly, and in 1994 the US magazine Vibe published an Illinois marriage certificate appearing to show their names. She would have been 15 at the time, and it was rumoured that the marriage was annulled because it took place without her parents’ consent. Aaliyah and R Kelly always refused to comment, though her father said, ‘It was a situation that happened. It’s gone now. She’s getting on with her life.’
Music and film names have been paying tribute all week, talking of a bright, hard-working and well-liked young woman. At the Reading Festival, an emotional Eminem asked for a short silence in her memory. Fans across the US have held candlelit vigils, and sales of her three albums are predictably brisk.
‘I can’t say I had a specific plan,’ she told Mixmag recently. ‘From childhood I knew I wanted to be an actress and a dancer, a total entertainer. I would sit in a movie theatre thinking, “One day I’ll be on that silver screen.” Sometimes I look where I am in life and what I’ve achieved at this age, and I think “wow”.’
© Sheryl Garratt, The Observer, 2 September 2001