Friends and family remember the short, remarkable life of a music and film phenom
Singer Aaliyah died on August 25th, 2001. ZumaPress
One late Saturday afternoon, just two weeks before her death, twenty-two-year-old Aaliyah walked from a black Mercedes-Benz to a small helicopter for a short flight from New Jersey to East Hampton, New York. She was on her way to the summer house that Jay-Z shared with her boyfriend of a year, Damon Dash, Jay's partner in Roc-a-Fella Records. She wore a dark-green hoodie and matching shorts so small they showed off most of her long, curvy legs, down to the little treble-clef tattoo on her right ankle. She wore all-white Nike Air Force Ones with white socks. Around her neck hung a small Roc-a-Fella pendant. In her left arm she clutched a large, fluffy pillow in a black pillowcase. She got on the helicopter, nuzzled into Dash's shoulder and went to sleep. I was there reporting a story on Jay-Z, and I was struck by Aaliyah's presence, the way she was in person, as she was onstage – sexy without losing her girlish sweetness. Throughout the weekend, she was quiet but not quite shy, quick to flash her wide, bright smile, quick to laugh at Dash's jokes and quick to dance with him in the middle of the living room when Michael Jackson's Off the Wall came on. On Sunday, she slept hours longer than everyone else, on a bed strewn with rose petals. She and Dash seemed very much in love.
Aaliyah Dana Haughton was born January 16th, 1979, in Brooklyn, New York, and moved to Detroit with her family at age five. She grew up singing with her mother, and at eleven opened for her aunt Gladys Knight in Las Vegas. She studied dance at the Detroit High School for the Fine and Performing Arts and earned a 4.0 GPA. At fourteen, Aaliyah released an album produced by Chicago R&B kingpin R. Kelly, called Age Ain't Nothing but a Number, which sold more than 1 million copies. Reports surfaced that she had married Kelly when she was only fifteen and he was twenty-seven; Aaliyah denied it, although a marriage certificate was found in a Chicago county clerk's office.
In 1996 came her second album, One in a Million, which sold 2 million copies and launched its producer-songwriter team, two largely unknown figures named Timbaland and Missy Elliott, to stardom. Aaliyah began modeling for Tommy Hilfiger and taking acting lessons, which led to a starring role in Romeo Must Die (2000) as well as the role of Akasha in Queen of the Damned, slated for release next spring. She had also been cast in both of the upcoming sequels to The Matrix, which she had started shooting this summer in L.A.
Her third record, Aaliyah, released in July, was already gold when she flew to Abaco Island in the Bahamas to finish the video for the album's third single, "Rock the Boat," directed by Hype Williams. On Saturday, August 25th, she boarded a ten-seat twin-engine Cessna 402B bound for Opa-Locka, Florida, with the pilot, Luis Morales III, and seven members of her crew: video-production director Douglas Kratz, 28; bodyguard Scott Gallin, 41; hairstylists Anthony Dodd, 34, and Eric Forman, 29; Blackground Records executive Gina Smith, 30; makeup artist Christopher Maldonado, 32; and friend Keeth Wallace, 49. Less than a minute after it took off, the plane crashed just a few hundred feet from the runway. Aaliyah was among six passengers dead at the scene; three others passed away hours later.
Though Bahamian investigators have not officially determined what caused the crash, police initially speculated that the plane foundered because it had been overloaded with equipment that brought the total weight to more than 700 pounds over the aircraft's specified 6,300-pound limit.
Aaliyah was scheduled to leave the island the next day, but when her part in the video was completed she decided to leave early. "Aaliyah left midproduction, so we were still shooting when she left," Williams says. He challenges the contention that the plane was overloaded. "Those rumors about there being camera equipment on the plane, they're all false because when they left, they left us in the middle of the ocean still in production. Anything that's not the truth – it makes it harder for people to understand."
Reports have surfaced that the passengers argued with pilot Morales over whether the plane was overloaded, although it is the pilot's responsibility to make this determination. Jomo Hankerson, Aaliyah's cousin and the president of Blackground Records, her label, is angered by reports that the passengers argued with Morales. "I don't subscribe to the scenario that the passengers of a plane dictate them to overload the plane," he says. "That seems unfathomable. In the airline business, safety has to always come first."
Though the cargo's weight was the initial focus of investigation, the days that followed brought troubling reports about thirty-year-old pilot Morales and the Fort Lauderdale company that chartered the plane, Blackhawk International Airways. In the past three years, Blackhawk has received several citations for safety violations, including a warning for not adequately testing employees for drugs. Morales' record is also spotty: Less than two weeks before the crash, he pleaded no contest to charges of possession of crack cocaine and attempting to sell stolen airplane parts, and was put on probation. He began working at Blackhawk two days before the accident, and the company hadn't licensed him to operate the plane used for Aaliyah's flight.
Friends recall Aaliyah as driven, intelligent and clear on the reward of hard work, as well as an unusually sweet and gentle spirit who always found time for play. She had a shyness that was beautiful, they say, because it sprang from humility. "She had an old soul," says Hankerson. "She seemed like she was living everything in rewind, like she'd already done all of this. She had this personality that was contagious. It was never just a job when you were working with her. You always had fun. Good kid fun."
She was remarkable for being sexy without selling herself, for finding the thin line where she could attract the boys without embarrassing the moms. "She's the first artist I worked with who would not compromise her values to be famous," says Parrish Johnson, an executive vice president at Blackground. "In this business, church girls become prostitutes because they want to be stars, but she would never let stardom interfere with who she was."
She was nicknamed Li-Li and Baby Girl. She loved to sleep, to play word games, to make prank phone calls, to shop at Fred Segal in Los Angeles, to eat breakfast food, even late in the afternoon. "She would just do silly stuff," remembers Elliott. "One time, she put these big fake teeth in her mouth, the kind you get at a joke shop, and she came into my room and started doing the scenes from Romeo Must Die. Her personality was very playful, but she was also equally caring and compassionate."
She was a girly girl who always made sure her nails were done, her perfume was right, and her bag had lotion and lip gloss. "She matured a lot in the last year," says Kidada Jones, one of her best friends. "She really settled into her womanhood. Her parents gave her more freedom, and she took more control of her projects. She fell in love with Damon and that was it. She wanted to have a family, and we talked about how we couldn't wait to kick back with our babies." She prayed before every meal and before she went to bed. "God definitely must've needed an extra angel," says Sean "Puffy" Combs. "A real strong angel."
Aaliyah had not yet become a songwriter – Hankerson called her an "interpreter" – but the songs she chose to grace with her sultry, understatedly sexy vocals spoke volumes about the image she wanted to portray. "Try Again," from the Romeo Must Die soundtrack, is a playing-hard-to-get anthem, in which she's telling her suitor she's not going to be won right now but he shouldn't quit trying. She sings, "I'm into you, you're into me/But I can't let it go so easily." She debases neither men nor women, remaining above the gender wars that pop songs about dating often become. In "Are You That Somebody?" from the Dr. Dolittle soundtrack, she confesses her sexual desire but demands that her lover be discreet. "If I let this go, you can't tell nobody," she sings. "I'm talkin' 'bout nobody." Where other pop songs treat sex wantonly, she wonders aloud, "I hope you're responsible... I'm trustin' you with my heart, my soul."
But no choice reveals more about Aaliyah's adventurousness, self-confidence and world-class ears than her opting to work with Timbaland and Elliott long before their quirky, futuristic, highly textured, visual soul had become a dominant pop sound. "She was always trying to be the first to do something," Hankerson says. "She never wanted to copy something that's already been out." "Tim and I were new producers," says Elliott. "From day one, she had that much faith in our music that she treated us like we already sold 2 million records, when we hadn't sold anything yet. She really helped make us what we are today."
Her acting career began at nineteen with a call to Harold Guskin, who has coached Kevin Kline, Glenn Close and Matt Dillon. For six months, Guskin and Aaliyah met several times a week to work through plays by Chekhov, Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams. "We worked very seriously," Guskin says. "She was a great student. Very smart, incredibly emotionally available, and she had a wonderful imagination." When she was offered the role of the rebellious Trish O'Day in Romeo Must Die, Guskin worked with her on the set. "We had this scene with Delroy Lindo [who played her father] where she's blaming him for the death of her brother. Delroy's magnificent and she loved him, but in the scene she had to go at him, and I said, 'You treat him like a piece of crap.' Well, she took off on that scene. She just uncorked it. My students, who are major actors, couldn't believe that she'd just started in my living room."
Her last day was marked by fun and laughter, dancing and sun. "I feel that it was a great day," says Williams. "We were on a boat in the middle of the Caribbean. It was extremely hot, but everyone was in such good spirits. Up until the tragedy occurred everybody was really feeling good. Everyone who left the island and got on that plane was in the best of spirits."
Most of those in the crash were friends of Aaliyah's; she tended to treat the people who worked for her like family. The circle included hairstylists Anthony Dodd and Eric Forman. Williams says of Forman, "He was the main one to keep everyone's spirit and morale up." Christopher Maldonado was a makeup artist, one of the best in the industry. Douglas Kratz, director of video production at Virgin Records, was unusually gentle for a record executive. "He made sure Aaliyah was always comfortable and content," Williams says. "He wanted to be more of a friend and less of an obstacle." Scott Gallin was a bodyguard and actor who appeared in the film Bad Boys and on Miami Vice. Keeth Wallace was a close friend of the Haughton family who was nicknamed Joy. Gina Smith had been promoted to product manager at Blackground just a month before.
Aaliyah's August 31st funeral was closed to the public, but hundreds of her fans lined Park Avenue on Manhattan's Upper East Side as the singer's casket was carried to St. Ignatius Loyola Roman Catholic Church. Family and friends attended the service, including Combs, Elliott, Busta Rhymes, Mike Tyson, Jay-Z, Ananda Lewis and Lil' Kim. Later, a public memorial at Cipriani 42nd Street was crowded with more than 3,000 mourners. In Los Angeles, a Sunset Boulevard billboard for Aaliyah's album became an ad hoc shrine.
Though some sources at Blackground say the "Rock the Boat" video will be released eventually, and Williams says he would like to see it on the air, Hankerson says he and his family haven't yet figured out how to move forward as a company. For now, they are struggling to deal with the loss of the girl whose name was an Arabic word meaning "supreme." "She was charmed from the womb," Hankerson says. "It just always worked out for her. This wasn't supposed to happen. I never question God. It's just really hard to see the reason for this one. They say he works in mysterious ways. This one's extremely mysterious to me."
This story is from the October 11th, 2001 issue of Rolling Stone.