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An illustration of the face of singer Aaliyah wearing sunglasses. blackpowerbarbie for Vox

20 years after Aaliyah’s death, her story only feels more tragic

R. Kelly groomed Aaliyah in plain sight, and the world let him.

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This month marks the 20th anniversary of the death of Aaliyah. The R&B singer, born Aaliyah Dana Haughton and nicknamed Baby Girl but best known by her first name, died in a plane crash on August 25, 2001, at 22 years old. Alongside that anniversary comes a notable milestone: On August 20, Aaliyah’s music catalog began making its way to streaming for the first time.

In her lifetime, Aaliyah was celebrated as one of pop’s most forward-looking and futuristic artists. She still is: A 2021 MTV News article declared that listening to her 2001 self-titled album “still sounds like the future.” Yet until this month, the only Aaliyah album available to stream was her 1994 debut, Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number — which meant that listening to any Aaliyah song on streaming meant automatically sending royalties to R. Kelly, the album’s producer and Aaliyah’s alleged abuser.

Kelly, born Robert Sylvester Kelly, is at the center of the other big Aaliyah milestone of this month. On August 18, opening statements began at Kelly’s trial on charges of racketeering and sex trafficking. Aaliyah appears as Jane Doe No. 1 on Kelly’s indictment, and she is likely Kelly’s first known victim.

For a very long time, however, that’s not how the world told their story. Instead of a story about abuse, the story of R. Kelly and Aaliyah was framed as a love story.

Court records show that Aaliyah and Kelly were married in an illegal ceremony in 1994, when Aaliyah was 15 and Kelly 27. The wedding was quickly annulled, and Kelly and Aaliyah both denied it ever took place. (Kelly has continued to deny it at his trial.)

Since Aaliyah’s 2001 death, stories that have filtered out from Aaliyah’s friends, family, and boyfriends suggest that Kelly abused her badly. Additionally, since news of Kelly’s continued abusive relationships and his so-called “sex cult” broke in 2017 amid the Me Too movement, discussions about what he did to Aaliyah have acquired a widespread moral outrage that they lacked just a few years ago.

Fans of Aaliyah turned a record store mural of the singer into a shrine after her death.
Steve Grayson/WireImage

“Theirs wasn’t a love story that defied age,” writes journalist Kathy Iandoli in her 2021 biography Baby Girl: Better Known as Aaliyah; “it was a tragedy that Aaliyah endured and somehow moved past to become an icon in her own right without him.”

Even in 1994, it should have been clear just from the sheer age difference and power differential between Aaliyah and Kelly — Aaliyah 15 and a child, Kelly 27 and her professional mentor — that any romantic relationship between them would most likely hurt her. It also should have been clear that the responsibility for any such relationship rested with the adult in the room: Kelly.

Instead, in the aftermath of the relationship — both before Kelly’s 2006 arrest for the possession of child pornography and throughout his professional rehabilitation in the years that followed, all the way up until the news of his so-called “sex cult” broke in 2017 — their secret marriage was treated as an amusingly soapy celebrity scandal. Moreover, R. Kelly’s abuse of Aaliyah has been treated as something shameful about Aaliyah rather than something shameful about Kelly.

Aaliyah worked hard to move on from Kelly after news of their marriage went public. She stopped working with him, embracing a new sound with Missy Elliot and Timbaland. In the seven years between distancing herself from Kelly and her death, Aaliyah skillfully played down the whole incident with the press every time it was mentioned in public.

But in an odd way, the story of what R. Kelly did to Aaliyah would set her image. As her star rose, her youth and innocence would become central to the way the world understood her sexuality, and her sexuality, in turn, would be central to what the world loved about her.

So when we talk about Aaliyah today, 20 years after her death, we find ourselves faced with the task of untangling Kelly’s abuse from Aaliyah’s image — and the question of whether it’s even possible for us to do so.

“It was basically like listening to an R. Kelly album, but with a little girl singing”

Aaliyah and R. Kelly met through Aaliyah’s uncle Barry Hankerson. Hankerson was Kelly’s manager, and when Aaliyah was 12 years old, Hankerson brought her into the studio and had her sing for Kelly.

At 12, Aaliyah had already been pushing for years to break into the industry. She appeared on Star Search at age 10. She sang with her aunt Gladys Knight at one of Knight’s Las Vegas concerts at age 11. By age 12, she was, Hankerson thought, ready to start thinking about an album. Kelly agreed. In 1993, when Aaliyah was 14 years old, she and Kelly began work on her debut: Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number.

The album was a hit. It debuted at No. 24 on Billboard in May 1994, and it earned Aaliyah nominations at the American Music Awards and the Soul Train Awards. Most critics thought they knew what made it so good: R. Kelly.

“Aaliyah’s ‘Back & Forth’ is a fixture in the pop Top 5 partly because of R. Kelly. … He not only produced and wrote ‘Back & Forth,’ but he also does the rapping,” explained the LA Times in 1994. “Getting airplay for a single by a new artist is tough — unless it features R. Kelly doing everything but the lead vocals. Fans love just about anything he does, and ‘Back & Forth’ is the next best thing to a new R. Kelly single.”

Even after Aaliyah had established herself and her voice and everyone knew what an Aaliyah album sounded like, Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number still sounded strikingly like an R. Kelly album rather than an Aaliyah album. “It was basically like listening to an R. Kelly album, but with a little girl singing,” album sequencer Jeff Sledge told Vibe in 2014. “Obviously the subject matter wasn’t sexual, but the overall production and the sound of the record was like a Robert album as a little girl.”

Kelly seems to have been intent on presenting Aaliyah to the world as a miniature version of himself, and not just in the way her album sounded. In Iandoli’s Baby Girl, Aaliyah’s stylist Kimya Warfield Rainge recalls that Kelly insisted Aaliyah be dressed like him for her videos, in an oversize sweatsuit that would reveal her midriff, with dark sunglasses. He also produced a leather vest for her, a miniature version of the vest he wore on his album covers and tours, with a license plate for Illinois — Kelly’s home state — on the back. Rainge didn’t feel the vest particularly fit Aaliyah’s look, but both Aaliyah and Kelly insisted she wear it. “He was the influencer,” Kimya said. “They already had an image set for her.”

On the front and back covers of Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number, Aliyah is wearing the vest R. Kelly had made for her: black leather, with an Illinois license plate on the back. Kelly himself looms out of focus in the background.
Blackground Enterprises

Kelly didn’t only insist that Aaliyah dress like him for her videos and album production. In the months following her album drop, they began to dress alike everywhere they went, which was quite a few places. They were photographed together in public often. They told everyone they were best friends. The gossip press began to raise a collective eyebrow.

“The two are obviously close,” snarked YSB magazine in 1994. “It’s no wonder they were thought to be cousins. NOT!”

“Everybody seems to think that y’all are either girlfriend and boyfriend or cousins or friends,” said Sherry Carter on BET’s Video Soul Gold, when Aaliyah and R. Kelly appeared in matching outfits. “Let’s get the record straight.”

“I better go get me a white Jeep,” Kelly joked, referring to the OJ Simpson Bronco chase. “Uh-oh.”

“Well, no, we’re not related,” Aaliyah responded. “At all. We’re just very close. This is my best friend in the whole wide world.”

Later, Carter asked Aaliyah how old she was. She refused to say, and she would continue to refuse until she turned 16.

As Aaliyah’s debut album year went on, the “Are R. Kelly and Aaliyah secretly together?” story began to evolve. It turned into, “Are R. Kelly and Aaliyah secretly married?” Both Kelly’s camp and Aaliyah denied the rumors.

Then in December 1994, Vibe published their marriage certificate, and the rumor became fact.

“I had Aaliyah’s mother cry on my shoulder and say her daughter’s life was ruined, Aaliyah’s life was never the same after that”

In the nearly 30 years since that clandestine, illegal marriage, there’s been a fair bit of reporting on what occurred, most explosively in the 2019 Lifetime docuseries Surviving R. Kelly and from the journalist Jim DeRogatis, who first broke the story of Kelly’s child sex tape in 2000 and has been reporting on Kelly ever since. Here’s what seems to have happened.

“All but one of my sources said [Aaliyah] and Kelly began having sexual contact during her first recording sessions,” writes DeRogatis in his 2019 book Soulless: The Case Against R. Kelly. Aaliyah was 14 at the time. In Surviving R. Kelly, Kelly’s former backup singer Jovante Cunningham says that she once saw Kelly in bed with a 15-year-old Aaliyah on their tour bus and that Kelly was doing “things that an adult should not be doing with a child.”

Kelly’s former personal assistant Demetrius Smith has said — in Soulless, in Surviving R. Kelly, in his own book The Man Behind the Man, and at Kelly’s 2021 trial — that Aaliyah and Kelly got married because Kelly got Aaliyah pregnant.

According to Smith, Aaliyah called Kelly when he was touring in Miami to tell him she thought she might be pregnant. Kelly consulted with his lawyer and accountant, both of whom told him that he should marry Aaliyah. At Kelly’s 2021 trial, a Jane Doe testified that Kelly went through with the wedding so that he could legally give Aaliyah permission to get an abortion, since otherwise she would have needed her parents’ consent to access one.

Kelly and Aaliyah flew to Chicago, where Smith says he bribed an official to obtain false documents showing that Aaliyah was 18 years old, and the pair had a quickie city hall wedding in suburban Maywood. Their marriage license is dated August 31, 1994.

As Smith’s story goes, Aaliyah returned home to her family in Detroit the day after the wedding and told them what had happened. Her family took charge of the situation, and on September 29, 1994, the marriage was annulled. Aaliyah told her family that she never wanted to see Kelly again, and they set about making sure she would never have to.

The family understanding at the time seems to have been that the marriage, while plainly a bad idea, was just a case of two kids who cared for each other getting in over their heads.

“Rob made a mistake,” Smith says in Soulless. “That’s how the family looked at it.”

“We just thought, ‘This guy is stupid. He’s like a big, dumb 15-year-old hisself,’” an anonymous member of Aaliyah’s family says in Soulless. “It was just, ‘How dumb can you be, boy? You’re lucky we are the family!’”

But not long after the marriage ended, the people who were closest to Aaliyah seemed to change their minds about Kelly’s harmlessness. “I had Aaliyah’s mother cry on my shoulder and say her daughter’s life was ruined, Aaliyah’s life was never the same after that,” DeRogatis said in a 2013 interview with the Village Voice.

Damon Dash, who was dating Aaliyah at the time of her death, says in Surviving R. Kelly that Aaliyah was too traumatized by her relationship with Kelly to tell him everything that had happened, and that she would only say, “That dude was a bad man.” In a 2019 interview with Nick Cannon, Dash spoke more plainly: “That ni**a raped my girl,” he said.

“It’s tantalising to imagine Aaliyah as a beautiful Lolita”

Any sexual contact between Kelly and Aaliyah in 1994 would have been at the very least statutory rape. Yet even after the publication of their marriage certificate made it clear that something had happened between them, the media treated the story as at best an unconventional love story and at worst as a judgment on Aaliyah’s so-called “Lolita” image: The little girl assuring a grown man that “age ain’t nothing but a number” got what was coming to her. Often, it treated the story simply as a sudsy celebrity scandal, a fun pop culture reference to break out and dish over.

The Philadelphia Inquirer, tongue in cheek, referred to Aaliyah as “the love of Kelly’s life” in a 1994 concert review. “The recording of this disc makes about as much sense as R. Kelly marrying Aaliyah,” lamented the Tampa Tribune in a 1994 review of the swiftly forgotten debut album by a girl group called Y?N-Vee. Neither Kelly nor Aaliyah had anything to do with the album, but the scandal of their marriage seemed to be easy fodder for a buzzy one-liner, something to toss dismissively over your shoulder to establish your own coolness.

“It’s tantalising to imagine Aaliyah as a beautiful Lolita trapped by a scandalously doomed romance; it adds to the thrill of hearing her love songs,” mused i-D in 1995. “Obviously, performers have been lying about their ages since the dawn of time,” said Vibe. “But that’s show business: smoke and mirrors, mikes and sound checks. Marriage, however, is something else, and if Aaliyah and R. Kelly’s is real, then her pseudo-Lolita image becomes reality. And R. Kelly’s sex-man image gets that much murkier.”

Kelly wrote “Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number,” the song that created Aaliyah’s “beautiful pseudo-Lolita image” in the first place. He dressed her for it and produced it, and the world was happy to give him credit when the song was a hit. Then the song became inextricably linked to a scandal, and responsibility for it somehow transferred to Aaliyah.

“Just how old is newlywed Aaliyah?” demanded USA Today in 1994. The article goes on to warn of dire consequences for Aaliyah if she’s underage: “If she’s 15, there are some problems,” says the marriage bureau’s Louis Barnes. “The state says she has to be at least 16 with parents’ consent. She can go to jail.” It lists no potential consequences for Kelly.

In the Vibe article that broke the story of the illicit marriage, Aaliyah is presented paradoxically: so young as to be a wicked temptress, while also more mature than Kelly himself.

The article quotes Jamie Foster Brown, the editor of Sister2Sister magazine, who had been covering Kelly for years by the time this story became public. Brown is disparaging to Aaliyah and her choices: “I kept hearing complaints from people about her being in the studio with all those men,” Brown says. “At 15, you have all those hormones and no brain attached to them.” Brown goes on to suggest that R. Kelly and Aaliyah might just be a good match, “because Aaliyah has a mature mind, and Robert is such a big kid.”

Kelly, the big kid, continued to flourish professionally after the scandal. Mature-minded/Lolita-esque-temptress Aaliyah saw her career suffer.

Kelly received his first Grammy nominations in 1995. His 1995 self-titled album went quadruple platinum. Meanwhile, when Aaliyah’s picture was shown at the 1995 Soul Train Awards, the audience booed. The scandal of their marriage was considered her fault. She was a little girl who tempted a grown man into jeopardy. She was the one to blame.

“Aaliyah got villainized,” her cousin and Blackground Records executive Jomo Hankerson said in 2014 on The Ryan Cameron Morning Show. “That’s what made the transition to the second album difficult. … It was hard for us to get producers on the album. She was 16, 17 at the time of the second album. I just didn’t understand why they were upset with Baby Girl.”

“She didn’t sing like a little girl, and she didn’t act like one, either”

Regardless of the industry’s reluctance to work with her, Aaliyah got that second album together. She recruited then-up-and-comers Missy Elliot and Timbaland to produce for her. She maintained the tomboy image Kelly had built for her but transformed it into something sleeker, less a mirror reflection of her former mentor.

Aaliyah once again became a massive hit, even bigger than before. Her 1996 album One in a Million went double platinum. Her single “If Your Girl Only Knew” was in the Billboard top 10. This time, no one could credit Kelly with Aaliyah’s success.

“From the intro, you know,” began the Voice’s album review. “She’s back, and it’s clear — no R. Kelly.”

Where Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number had sounded just like Kelly’s Marvin Gaye-inflected branch of R&B, One in a Million was recognizably something new. It was R&B reaching out and meeting hip-hop on its own turf, Aaliyah’s voice cool and precise over Timbaland’s electronic beats. Slant would call it, in 2001, “undoubtedly one of the most influential R&B albums of the ’90s.” Aaliyah, Kelefa Sanneh would argue in the New York Times in 2002, “helped invent a style that might be called avant-garde R&B,” and One in a Million was where it began.

Aaliyah’s style, too, was evolving. She stuck to the baggy low-slung pants Kelly had dressed her in, revealing her midriff, but she made the look more feminine, more rooted in her own aesthetic. When she appeared in a Tommy Hilfiger ad in low Tommy jeans and a tiny bra top, she made the look iconic.

“Aaliyah is … among the few musical icons who is recognizable from just a few items of clothing,” wrote Vice in 2016. “Michael had the glove and fedora, Sinatra had the stiffly ironed suits, Nina had the headwraps, Prince had the colour purple, and Aaliyah had baggy pants and a crop top. With these two things alone she created one of the most lasting fashion looks of all time, combining femininity, masculinity and androgyny into one trend-setting game changer.”

But even as Aaliyah’s sound and image moved away from R. Kelly, he would continue to haunt her career. The idea of Aaliyah and R. Kelly as a cockeyed love story would go on, too, continuing through her death in 2001, and to a certain extent through Kelly’s 2008 trial on child pornography charges.

“You know what? The way the story was told, they were in love,” Wendy Williams said to Vice in 2014. “He wasn’t just some old man in love with a young girl even though that was also clearly the reality of what it was. She loved him, and he loved her.” Williams was promoting the Lifetime biopic Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B, which she executive-produced, and which depicted the pair’s relationship as a complex romance.

It seemed that every time the story of Aaliyah and Kelly’s faux-marriage was told, Aaliyah remained the responsible party. She was always the figure granted agency, the one instigating scandalous acts, older than her years, while a hapless Kelly passively accepted her seduction.

“Aaliyah’s career started and ended with people talking about her age,” began a New York Times article shortly after her death. “In 1994, when she was 15, she released her first album, ‘Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number,’ which sold a million copies. She didn’t sing like a little girl — even then, she had a stronger voice and a more sophisticated approach than most pop singers — and she didn’t act like one, either: the child star was reported to be a child bride, secretly married to her mentor, the R & B crooner R. Kelly.”

In Baby Girl, Iandoli describes writing a feature on R&B singer Ciara in 2004. Ciara, then 19, had just released a seductive duet with R. Kelly, and Kelly wrote the lyrics. Iandoli thought the collaboration wildly inappropriate and said so: Just two years previously, Kelly’s child pornography tape had reached the public.

Ciara’s team, outraged, threatened Iandoli with a libel suit. “She’s not Aaliyah,” they told Iandoli.

“The mention of Aaliyah by [Ciara’s] team, as if it were a mark of shame, felt so wrong,” Iandoli writes. “The blame was again placed upon the teenage girl and not the predator.”

The idea of Aaliyah as the party at fault in her relationship with R. Kelly had by then become baked into her image, where it had expanded until it was near-universally accepted. Aaliyah became positioned in the public eye as a somehow inherently sexual teen — so whenever anyone treated her as a sex object, whether that person was R. Kelly or adults in her audience, it wasn’t their fault. It was Aaliyah’s.

“I was hot at 10. I had a little sex appeal working back then.”

A lot of teen idol pop stars are also sex symbols, and Aaliyah, with her tiny crop tops and her Veronica Lake swoop of hair, was no exception. What was striking about Aaliyah, though, was the way in which the public understanding of her sexuality became intertwined with the public understanding of her as a child. That juxtaposition was fundamental to the way people talked about Aaliyah — including Aaliyah herself.

In an interview on The Late Late Show With Craig Kilborn in 2000, when she was 21, Aaliyah jokingly described her childhood appearance on Star Search. “I thought I should have won,” she says. “I felt hot, I had on this hot little dress.”

“How old were you?” Kilborn asks.

She was 10, Aaliyah tells him.

“I don’t think you’re supposed to be hot at 10!” Kilborn objects.

Aaliyah, laughing, overrules him. “I was hot at 10. I had a little sex appeal working back then,” she says. She describes having her mother photograph her for headshots as a child. “She said, ‘Yo, she’s got this kind of sex appeal working.’ It comes through in the pictures and on the camera.”

Aaliyah was mostly joking about being hot as a child. Yet the idea that her hotness was somehow intertwined with her childishness was embedded in her image, and she seems to have at the very least absorbed the mindset. So did the rest of the world. The New York Times article breaking the news of her death described her as “precociously sultry.” Even her nickname, Baby Girl, is at once an infantile coo and a lover’s endearment.

Aaliyah got her nickname from her father, and it only became widespread after she left Kelly. First, Timbaland and Missy Elliot called her Baby Girl in private, as a mark of affection, because they had all become so close. Then in 1998, it became one of her public monikers after Timbaland rapped “Baby girl, better known as Aaliyah” on his guest verse in Aaliyah’s “Are You That Somebody?” and laid a sample of a crying baby over Aaliyah’s vocals.

But even this apparently wholesome professional relationship was marked by discordant overtones. In 2011, Timbaland admitted that when he met 16-year-old Aaliyah, he fell in love with her. At 23, Timbaland knew he was too old for her, and he didn’t cross the line Kelly did, maintaining that he always acted as Aaliyah’s big brother. Still, he says, “When I first met my wife, I knew I was going to marry her because she looked like Aaliyah.”

There’s no evidence to suggest that anything untoward ever happened between Timbaland and Aaliyah. Nonetheless, their relationship is another case of a youthful Aaliyah being seen as a sexual object, and of the idea of her sexuality becoming entwined with the idea of her youth: hence Baby Girl.

It is often argued that while white girls are expected to be pure and innocent and virginal well into their teens, Black girls are not granted the space to experience a girlhood at all: While the world obsessed over Britney Spears’s virginity, it expected Beyoncé, at the same age, to be a fully mature adult. But Aaliyah was caught in a different version of that trap, in that her youth was understood to be part of her sexual availability. It’s not that she wasn’t allowed to be young; it’s that her youth wasn’t considered a hurdle to treating her as a sexual object. It seemed, in fact, to make her sexier.

Aaliyah onstage singing into a handheld microphone.
Performing in 1997.
Chris Walter/WireImage
Aaliyah sitting at a table holding a champagne flute.
Backstage at the 2001 MTV Movie Awards, about two months before her death.
KMazur/WireImage

It’s worth interrogating to what extent the idea that Aaliyah’s youth made her sexy is the result of Aaliyah having her career and her image launched by an alleged child predator. As the scholar Jason King put it in Wax Poetics in 2014, “When I’m listening to Age, I’m struggling to try to listen to it out of context, but mostly I’m hearing R. Kelly as an alleged predator presenting to us his sonic and musical vision of how he wanted Aaliyah to exist in the commercial marketplace.”

So R. Kelly set a narrative — but then the rest of American culture willingly embraced it. He told the world to see a child as a sexual object, and it obliged.

What made this vision of Aaliyah as a Lolita so attractive was that it offered her viewer an out. If there was something inherently seductive about Aaliyah’s childishness, then it was not the viewer’s fault if they found her sexy. She was the one who kept repeating that age ain’t nothing but a number, even if she was only saying so because Kelly wrote the lyrics and told her to sing them. The subsequent shift of blame onto Aaliyah meant that the rest of the world could enjoy the spectacle of her sexuality without guilt. She had already taken on the guilt for the rest of the world.

Part of what made Aaliyah great is that she was able to use her escape from Kelly to launch herself even further into stardom, to remake herself as pop’s most futuristic star, to refashion the tomboy style he established for her into an instantly iconic image that screams Aaliyah, not R. Kelly. And one of the many tragedies of her early death is that we’ll never see what would have happened had she been able to transcend him entirely — and whether the cultural reckoning of the past 10 years, and the way it’s changed how we talk about women and about consent, could have helped her while she was still living.

In the Purity Chronicles, Vox looks back at the sexual and gendered mores of the late ’90s and 2000s, one pop culture phenomenon at a time. Read more here.

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