Remembering Aaliyah, Detroit’s ‘Babygirl,’ 21 years after her death

DETROIT – Thursday marks 21 years since the death of Aaliyah, but her legacy is not forgotten.

Aaliyah, also known as “Babygirl,” or the “Princess of R&B,” was one of the biggest stars in music and entertainment at the time of her tragic, untimely death in 2001.

Last year, on the 20th anniversary of Aaliyah’s death, Local 4′s Karen Drew spent months interviewing some of the people who were closest to her. You can watch the extended cut of that special on Aaliyah in the video player above.

What to know about Aaliyah’s story

At the time of her death in 2001, Aaliyah was just 22 years old. But she had already made a huge impact on the music industry, film industry, and even in business.

Early life

Aaliyah Dana Haughton was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1979. She was five years old when her family packed up and moved to Detroit.

Aaliyah started in music early on, performing in choirs and churches, and taking voice lessons. While at Gesu Elementary, she was cast in the school play “Annie.” Eventually, she would attend the Detroit Performing Arts High School, where she had a 4.0 GPA, while managing an exploding music career.

Aaliyah often credited the support of her family with helping her find success, supporting her desire to pursue a music career.

“When I told my parents that I wanted to embark along this path, they were with me all the way,” Aaliyah said, according to her biography. “They were the ones who shuttled me back and forth to my vocal lessons, dance lessons, private guitar, play rehearsals at Gesu Elementary School and they even saw to it that the sets for the plays were transported to Marygrove College. What could be more important?”

Success in music and film

Aaliyah first caught the attention of the music world at age 10, when she appeared on the TV show “Star Search.”

At age 12, Aaliyah was signed by Jive Records, and her uncle Barry Hankerson’s Blackground Records, where she was introduced to R. Kelly.

In 1994, at the age of 14, Aaliyah released her first album, “Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number.” The first single, “Back And Forth,” was a top five hit on the Billboard Hot 100 and a No.1 R&B song.

The follow up single, a remake of the Isley Brother’s “At Your Best (You Are Love),” reached the top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 and was No. 2 at R&B radio. “I still remember how nervous I was right before “Back And Forth” came out,” she said. “I kept wondering if people would accept it. When it went gold, I had my answer, and it was just such an incredibly satisfying feeling.”

During the success of her first album, controversy surrounding her relationship with R. Kelly started to surface, including the allegation of a secret marriage between Aaliyah and Kelly. She would have been 15 years old at the time. Though there were multiple reports of the marriage being annulled by her parents in 1995, the two both continued to deny the allegations. (R. Kelly is currently on trial for multiple allegations of sexual assault involving underage girls)

Related: Ex-tour manager testifies against R. Kelly about Aaliyah

The 1996, Aaliyah left Jive Records and signed with Atlantic Records, where she worked with Timbaland and Missy Elliott, on her second album, “One in a Million.” The album peaked at No. 18 on the Billboard 200, selling three million copies in the U.S., and eight million worldwide.

Aaliyah & Missy Elliott during The 12th Annual Soul Train Music Awards at Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, California, United States. (Photo by Chris Walter/WireImage) (Chris Walter)

In 1998, Aaliyah started moving into the film industry, with her music -- and her acting skills. Her 1998 hit, “Are You That Somebody,” from the “Dr. Doolittle” soundtrack, was a big hit. In the same year, Aaliyah performed “Journey To The Past” for the motion picture Anastasia, which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Song.

In 2000, Aaliyah landed her first film role in “Romeo Must Die,” starring opposite Jet Li. The film grossed $18.6 million in its first weekend. Aaliyah served as the executive producer for the film’s soundtrack, where she contributed four songs, including the No. 1 hit “Try Again,” which eventually led to her earning a Grammy Award nomination for Best Female R&B Vocalist.

Aaliyah landed her second film role in 2001′s “Queen of the Damned,” directed by Michael Rymer. The vampire gothic horror film grossed $45 million at the box office, and was actually released in 2002, after Aaliyah’s death.

Aaliyah’s third and final studio album, the self-titled “Aaliyah,” was released on July 7, 2001, opening as the No. 2 album on the Billboard 200.

Bahamas plane crash

On Aug. 25, 2001, Aaliyah and members of her record label boarded a small plane at Marsh Harbour Airport in Abaco Islands, the Bahamas, to travel to Florida. They had just finished shooting the music video for “Rock the Boat,” directed by Hype Williams.

They originally planned to leave a day later, but filming for the video finished early, and the decision was made to leave, though the plane was smaller than the one they had arrived on. All of the equipment was loaded onto the plane.

The plane crashed and caught fire shortly after takeoff.

The plane suffered engine failure, and an investigation found that the aircraft had attempted to take off while overloaded with passengers and weight. Investigators also found the pilot, Luis Morales, was not licensed to fly the plane, and toxicology results found he had traces of cocaine and alcohol in his system.

All nine on board died in the crash, including Aaliyah, Anthony Dodd, Eric Foreman, Scott Gallin, Keeth Wallace, Gina Smith, Douglas Kratz, Christopher Maldonado, and the pilot, Luis Morales.

A private funeral was held for Aaliyah on Aug. 31, 2001, in Manhattan, followed by a procession, attended by about 800 mourners. She is interred at Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York.

Fans hold a memorial for the late R&B singer Aaliyah at Cipriani restaurant, as the funeral service is held at St. Ignatius Loyola Church, August 31, 2001 in New York City. The 22-year-old singer died August 25 in a plane crash in the Bahamas. (Photo by George De Sota/Getty Images) (Getty Images)
A horse-drawn carriage carries R&B singer Aaliyah''s coffin towards the St. Ignatius Loyola Church for services August 31, 2001 in New York City. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

After her death in 2001, Janet Jackson, Missy Elliott, Timbaland, Ginuwine and her brother Rashad joined at the MTV Video Music Awards to pay tribute to Aaliyah.

Aaliyah helped shape her era and the future of R&B, and inspired countless artists for years after her passing. Drake has said that Aaliyah had the biggest influence on his career, and has a tattoo of her on his back.

Other artists, including Adele, The Weekend, Beyoncé, Rihanna and J. Cole have all cited Aaliyah as major influences.

A fan of R&B singer Aaliyah Haughton holds a sign during a memorial candlelight vigil August 27, 2001 in Detroit, Michigan at Aaliyah''s old school, the Detroit High School for Performing Arts. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

Local 4′s Aaliyah Spotify Playlist:

Until Aug. 2021, the only Aaliyah album available on streaming services was “Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number.” Following a dispute between the record label and estate, “One in a Million,” was finally released on all streaming platforms. Here’s a collection of some of her most popular songs:

About the Authors:

Karen Drew is the anchor of Local 4 News First at 4, weekdays at 4 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. She is also an award-winning investigative reporter.

Ken Haddad has proudly been with WDIV/ClickOnDetroit since 2013. He also authors the Morning Report Newsletter and various other newsletters, and helps lead the WDIV Insider team. He's a big sports fan and is constantly sipping Lions Kool-Aid.