The untold truth of Aaliyah

When superstar singer Aaliyah died tragically in a 2001 plane crash in the Bahamas at just 22 years old, she left behind three beloved, award-winning albums, multiple hit songs like "Try Again," "More Than a Woman," and "Are You That Somebody?" and millions of mourning, heartbroken fans. 

In the years since her untimely death, myriad fascinating details about her life have come to light. Read on to find out more about the groundbreaking artist who was also known as "The Princess of R&B."

Her music still isn't widely available

Despite Aaliyah's massive popularity to this day, her catalog of music is shockingly difficult to access via streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music. As of this writing, the only full album that's available to stream is 1994's Age Ain't Nothing But a Number.

The reason? According to Complex, her uncle, music industry executive Barry Hankerson, has been keeping her songs on lock-down. Hankerson served as executive producer on all of Aaliyah's albums during her lifetime and helped to launch her career. After her death, he also held on to multiple unreleased, unmixed vocal takes via his label, Blackground Records.

As Complex details, in the 2000s Hankerson and Blackground Records were involved in numerous personal and professional disputes, and Hankerson has refused to release the streaming rights to his niece's other albums, undoubtedly to the great disappointment of fans everywhere. In the words of Newsweek"To leave Aaliyah out of streaming, which is how fans access figures like Beyoncé and Rihanna, is to undercut her role in pop music."

She had ties to a Motown legend

Along with her own legendary star status, Aaliyah was also related to Motown legend Gladys Knight, the front woman for legendary group Gladys Knight & The Pips. Aaliyah's aforementioned uncle Barry Hankerson married Knight in 1974. The two had a son, Shanga Hankerson, and then divorced in 1979.

However, as Vibe reported in August 2001, Hankerson took an 11-year-old Aaliyah to perform with Knight for five nights at a Las Vegas Casino in the early 1990s. According to the biography Aaliyah: More Than A Woman by Christopher John Farley, Aaliyah learned a great deal from the experience, saying that it taught her to "work the stage and get the audience into it."

After Aaliyah's death, Knight reflected to now-defunct Rosie magazine on her niece's tremendous talent, saying (via People), "The news of her death was a blow… She was a sweet, sweet girl. She would walk into a room, and you would feel her light. She'd hug everyone, and she meant it."

She was on Star Search

In 1989, then 10-year-old Aaliyah appeared on the nationwide TV talent show Star Search (which also saw pre-fame performances by Christina Aguilera, Destiny's Child, Justin Timberlake, and others during its run), performing a pretty great rendition of Frank Sinatra's classic song "My Funny Valentine."

Although Aaliyah ultimately lost the competition, earning 3.25 stars to her competitor's perfect 4, host Ed McMahon later recalled the impact her performance had on him to Vibe magazine, saying, "There's a thing that you see when somebody walks out on the stage…I call it the fire. They got that inner fire…There is a desire in that person to please the audience…And that's what I saw with Aaliyah."

Her best friend was Kidada Jones

In 2011, model Kidada Jones (sister of actress Rashida Jones and daughter of mega-producer Quincy Jones) reflected on her close friendship with Aaliyah for The Fader. She remembered meeting Aaliyah at a Tommy Hilfiger fashion show in 1993, and that she'd loaned the singer shoes. According to Kidada (who also dated rapper Tupac Shakur just before his 1996 death) and Vibe, they then met again at a photo shoot for a Hilfiger ad in 1996, becoming fast and eventually best friends. 

Jones recalled prank calling her father Quincy with Aaliyah, with Aaliyah impersonating singer Christina Aguilera: "[S]he was just singing, and he totally believed it was her… I called him right after and he goes, Christina Aguilera just called me…" According to Kidada, the pair traveled together, danced all the time, and stayed close all the way up until Aaliyah's death.

Her underage marriage to R. Kelly was illegal

Aaliyah was just 14 years old when she recorded her debut album Age Ain't Nothing But a Number, which singer R. Kelly (who was a kind of mentor to the young star) produced and wrote. As evidenced by a marriage certificate that Vibe published, the two tied the knot in Illinois in 1994; Kelly was 27 at the time, while Aaliyah was only 15. 

As The Source details, it turned out that Aaliyah had lied about her age at the time of the nuptials, claiming to be 18, and the marriage was annulled just a few months after it took place. The Chicago Sun-Times revealed that in 1997, Aaliyah filed suit to have all records of the marriage expunged, and she subsequently completely cut off contact with Kelly.

As GQ described in a 2016 profile of Kelly (who has been the subject of numerous accusations of sexual assault, abuse, and statutory rape), neither of the two ever publicly admitted to the marriage. Aaliyah told The Chicago Sun-Times, "I don't really comment on that because I know that's not true," and explained, "When people ask me, I tell them, 'Hey, don't believe all that mess. We're close and people took it the wrong way.'" 

For his part, when asked about the relationship, Kelly told GQ in its 2016 profile, "I will never have that conversation with anyone. Out of respect for Aaliyah, and her mother and father who has asked me not to personally. But I can tell you I loved her, I can tell you she loved me, we was very close. We were, you know, best best best best friends."

Damon Dash claims they were going to get married

In August 2001, just before her death, Vibe published an article that linked Aaliyah to rappers Ginuwine and Jay-Z, and hinted that her latest beau was the co-founder of Roc-A-Fella Records, Damon Dash. Despite Aaliyah's denials to the magazine, it turns out that Dash was in fact Aaliyah's boyfriend at the time of her death. And in multiple interviews since, Dash has claimed that the two were on the verge of becoming engaged. 

After Aaliyah was killed, Dash revealed to MTV, "We were definitely gonna be married. As soon as she had time, we were getting married… She was the one — she was definitely the one for me. It wasn't an official proposal, we had just talked about it, you know?" 

Dash later went on to marry designer Rachel Roy in 2005, though the couple divorced in 2009.

In 1998, she was the youngest person to sing at the Oscars

As Aaliyah's career blossomed, it intersected quite a few times with the movie industry. Her 1998 rendition of "Journey to the Past" from the animated movie Anastasia earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song. She was subsequently chosen to perform the song at the Academy Awards that year, and according to Vice, at just 19 years old she became the youngest person to do so to that point. 

Lynn Ahrens, who co-wrote the song, told Vice, "To see her perform our nominated song on that huge stage, with her famous hairstyle over one eye—it was an out-of-body experience."

Shaq once made false claims about her

As the Los Angeles Times reported back in May 2001, basketball superstar Shaquille O'Neal made some salacious claims during an interview with LA Power 106-FM, saying that he'd slept with Cindy Crawford, Venus Williams… and Aaliyah. 

After Williams released an incensed public statement to the media refuting Shaq's claims, he was forced to acknowledge that he'd made the whole thing up, telling local media, "It was a bad joke–I apologize, ladies. Not everyone has a great sense of humor like me." He later told Entertainment Tonight (via the Los Angeles Times' report), "Everybody knows I'm a comedian, and each female I said I was with–I lied."

The comedian part is debatable, but it's undeniable that Shaq's assertions about Aaliyah were total B.S.

She was supposed to appear in more movies

Along with her award-winning music career, Aaliyah earned additional attention for her roles in the films Romeo Must Die (2000) and Queen of the Damned (which she appeared in posthumously in 2002). And it seems that further roles had been on the horizon for the young star. Whitney Houston revealed to Access Hollywood in 2011 (via IndieWire) that she'd been in conversation with Aaliyah to play the title role in Sparkle (which was later played by Jordin Sparks). And per Torque magazine, Aaliyah had also been the first choice for the lead in the 2003 movie Honey, which ultimately starred Jessica Alba as the titular character. 

According to an obituary from Entertainment Weekly, Aaliyah had been cast in two Matrix sequels (she'd reportedly already filmed scenes for The Matrix: Reloaded when she died, and was later replaced by Marvin Gaye's daughter, Nona Gaye), and had previously told the magazine that she was interested in playing a jazz musician's daughter in a film titled Some Kind of Blue.

She had a recurring dream of "swimming in the air"

Just weeks prior to the fatal plane crash in August 2001, Aaliyah shared a prescient recurring dream she had with German newspaper Die Zeit. According to E! Online, the singer explained to the paper, "It is dark in my favorite dream. Someone is following me. I don't know why. I'm scared. Then suddenly I lift off. Far away. How do I feel? As if I am swimming in the air. Free. Weightless. Nobody can reach me. Nobody can touch me. It's a wonderful feeling."

Even many years later, her words have an especially foreboding quality considering the circumstances of her death.

Her family and Timbaland hated her Lifetime movie

Lifetime premiered its biopic Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B in November 2014 to very little fanfare from her family and her friend and producer Timbaland. Prior to the film's release, her aforementioned uncle, Barry Handerson, told TMZ that the family wouldn't allow Lifetime to use Aaliyah's music in the film, and that they'd hired a lawyer to do everything they could to halt production.

Though the film did indeed move ahead, its making wasn't drama-free. Zendaya Coleman, who'd originally been slated to star as the singer, dropped out and had to be replaced by actress Alexandra Shipp, slowing down production. The family was successful in blocking the use of Aaliyah's original recordings, and according to The Washington Post, continued to claim that they'd never been consulted about the movie. Executive producer Howard Braunstein told The Washington Post, "We absolutely reached out to them, and Lifetime did too… They chose not to cooperate with it."

Timbaland took to Instagram to slam the film after its premiere. According to Dazed Digital, he posted 20 times about the movie, noting in a video, "A lot of people asked if I'm watching that bulls**t… Evidently not. No way. Not Timbo." He also highlighted the film's casting choices, as other critics of the film had done too.

Her funeral caused a press dust-up

Aaliyah's funeral took place in New York City's Upper East Side on Aug. 31, 2001, and as the New York Daily News described, included a silver-plated coffin, over 800 mourners, and the release of 22 doves. Celebrities like Puff Daddy, Jay-Z, Lil' Kim, and Missy Elliot were also in attendance. 

Columnist Rod Dreher invited controversy when he penned a piece the day of the funeral for the New York Post that unfavorably compared the event to Princess Diana's funeral, which Dreher felt was appropriately lavish considering Diana's status as a member of the British royal family. Dreher wrote, "The family of Aaliyah, a beloved daughter but undistinguished singer of forgettable pop songs, does the poor woman's memory no favors with this tasteless gesture." He also deemed the event "a ghoulish saturnalia of sentimentality."

Reverend Al Sharpton was quick to respond to Dreher's offensive piece. According to the New York Post, Sharpton held a press conference the following day in which he called for a boycott of the newspaper and said, "[Aaliyah] wasn't born into royalty, she earned royalty…To say that she was less than someone else is abysmal, insulting and racist." The New York Daily News reported that the Post also received numerous threatening phone calls in the wake of Dreher's article.