You don’t come up in Detroit in the 1990s, as I did, without having some connection to Aaliyah Dana Haughton.
She was two years older than me, so degrees of separation between were minimal: Aaliyah attended Gesu Elementary on the city’s west side with my stepsister, who was between Aaliyah and her older brother Rashad in grades. Her grandparents also shop at the Foodland in suburban Ferndale, Mich., where I had my first real job as a bag boy.
While it’s cool to be able to tell people about this celebrity “connection” in a city like Detroit, it hit us that much harder at the crib on August 25, 2001 when we learned that she perished while on a flight from the Bahamas after filming the “Rock the Boat” video. We only had 17 days to mourn our babygirl (as DMX called her) before the entire country got rocked by a whole other tragedy.
Aaliyah captivated us for so many reasons – not the least of which was the fact that she managed to maintain that accessible girl-next-door aura throughout her entire career, even as she catapulted to mega-stardom. Despite passing at the tender age of 22, there remains an aura of mystery about her life, some of which the 2014 Lifetime film Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B attempted to capture. For the rest, check out music journalist Kathy Iandoli’s comprehensive new book Baby Girl: Better Known as Aaliyah, now available in hardcover.
Here are 20 fast facts about Babygirl to commemorate the 20 years since her passing:
1. Her songs are finally (finally!) hitting the streaming services. Her second album, 1996’s One in a Million, released on Apple Music, Spotify and other apps Aug. 20.
2. Her acting career was just ramping up when she passed. She had a commanding presence in 2000’s Romeo Must Die and 2002’s Queen of the Damned. Had she survived, Aaliyah likely would’ve had a full-bore dual career in acting and music.
3. To that point, she was scheduled to appear in the Matrix sequels and a remake of 1976’s Sparkle produced by Whitney Houston. (A Jordin Sparks-helmed remake dropped in 2012.)
4. She performed “My Funny Valentine” on Star Search as a young girl. Tears were involved.
5. She was a Harry Potter “obsessive.” The first four books of the series were released before her death.
6. She has a number of well-known jams under her belt, but her hit “Try Again” from the Romeo Must Die soundtrack was her only #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. It was the first song in the history of the chart to reach number one based solely on radio airplay.
7. She performed in Las Vegas for several nights alongside her aunt, Gladys Knight, when she was only 11 years old.
8. She and Roc-a-Fella Records co-founder Damon Dash were planning to get married at the time of her death.
9. Aaliyah apparently hid the masters to “One in a Million” so Atlantic Records couldn’t remix it against her will.
10. Her role as a model for Tommy Hilfiger in 1996 was pivotal for the brand and helped shape a hip-hop aesthetic for women in the late 1990s.
11. She did opera runs as a warm-up in the studio.
12. She and DMX became homies after working together on Romeo Must Die. Following X’s passing, Aaliyah’s mother Diane Haughton wrote a stirring tribute to the late rapper.
13. She was the first female artist who had a posthumous #1 in the U.K. with “More Than a Woman.”
14. She was the youngest singer to perform at the Academy Awards when, at age 19 in 1998, she sang “Journey to the Past” from Anastasia at the ceremony.
15. Her best friend was Kidada Jones, daughter of Quincy Jones, older sister of Rashida Jones and former paramour of Tupac Shakur.
16. Her last interview was for “106th and Park,” five days before she passed away. During the interview, she mentions that she’s about to shoot the “Rock the Boat” video.
17. “Rock the Boat” was perhaps Aaliyah’s most sexually suggestive song. The label didn’t allow it to drop for two years after it was written because they felt she was too young.
18. She sang “Ave Maria” in Latin to be accepted to the Detroit High School for the Fine and Performing Arts (now called the Detroit School of Arts).
19. She graduated from that high school in 1997 with a 4.0 grade point average.
20. Fellow legend Mary J. Blige attributes her own drive to get sober to Aaliyah’s death.
Dustin J. Seibert is a native Detroiter living in Chicago. He loves his own mama slightly more than he loves music and exercises every day only so his french fry intake doesn’t catch up to him. Find him at wafflecolored.com.
Photo by Kevin Mazur/WireImage