This month clues the 20th anniversary that the fatality of Aaliyah. The R&B singer, born Aaliyah Dana Haughton and nicknamed baby Girl but ideal known by her an initial name, died in a aircraft crash on respectable 25, 2001, in ~ 22 years old. Alongside the anniversary come a notable milestone: On august 20, Aaliyah’s music catalog started making its way to streaming for the an initial time.

In her lifetime, Aaliyah was celebrated as among pop’s most forward-looking and also futuristic artists. She still is: A 2021 MTV News write-up declared the listening to her 2001 self-titled album “still sounds choose the future.” Yet until this month, the just Aaliyah album accessible to stream was she 1994 debut, Age Ain’t Nothing yet a Number — which meant that hearne to any Aaliyah tune on streaming meant instantly sending royalties to R. Kelly, the album’s producer and also Aaliyah’s alleged abuser.

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Kelly, born Robert Sylvester Kelly, is in ~ the facility of the other big Aaliyah milestone of this month. On august 18, opening statements began at Kelly’s attempt on dues of racketeering and sex trafficking. Aaliyah shows up as mrs Doe No. 1 ~ above Kelly’s indictment, and also she is most likely Kelly’s an initial known victim.

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

Court records show that Aaliyah and also Kelly were married in one illegal ceremony in 1994, as soon as Aaliyah was 15 and Kelly 27. The wedding was conveniently annulled, and also Kelly and also Aaliyah both refuse it ever before took place. (Kelly has ongoing to deny it at his trial.)

Since Aaliyah’s 2001 death, stories that have filtered the end from Aaliyah’s friends, family, and also boyfriends imply that Kelly abused her badly. Additionally, because news the Kelly’s continued abusive relationships and also his so-called “sex cult” broke in 2017 between the Me as well movement, discussions about what he did come Aaliyah have got a widespread ethical outrage the they lacked just a couple of years ago.

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pan of Aaliyah rotate a record store mural of the singer into a shrine after she death. Steve Grayson/WireImage “Theirs no a love story that defied age,” writes journalist Kathy Iandoli in she 2021 story Baby Girl: much better Known together Aaliyah; “it to be a tragedy that Aaliyah endured and somehow moved past to come to be an icon in her very own right without him.”

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

Instead, in the consequences of the relationship — both before Kelly’s 2006 arrest for the possession of boy pornography and throughout his professional rehabilitation in the years the followed, every the method up until the news the his so-called “sex cult” broke in 2017 — their an enig marriage to be treated as an amusingly soapy celebrity scandal. Moreover, R. Kelly’s abuse of Aaliyah has been treated as something shameful around Aaliyah fairly than other shameful around Kelly.

Aaliyah worked hard to move on indigenous Kelly after news that their marital relationship went public. She quit working v him, embracing a brand-new sound v Missy Elliot and also Timbaland. In the seven years between distancing herself from Kelly and her death, Aaliyah skillful played under the totality incident v the push every time it was discussed in public.

But in an odd way, the story that what R. Kelly did to Aaliyah would set her image. Together her star rose, her youth and also innocence would become main to the means the world understood she sexuality, and her sexuality, in turn, would be main to what the world loved around her.

So once we talk about Aaliyah today, twenty years after she death, we uncover ourselves confronted with the task of untangling Kelly’s abuse native Aaliyah’s photo — and also the inquiry of even if it is it’s even feasible for us to carry out so.

“It to be basically favor listening to an R. Kelly album, yet with a tiny girl singing”

Aaliyah and R. Kelly met through Aaliyah’s uncle Barry Hankerson. Hankerson to be Kelly’s manager, and when Aaliyah to be 12 years old, Hankerson carried her into the studio and had her song for Kelly.

At 12, Aaliyah had already been pushing because that years come break right into the industry. She appeared on Star Search at age 10. She sang v her aunt Gladys items at one of Knight’s las Vegas concerts at period 11. By period 12, she was, Hankerson thought, prepared to begin thinking about an album. Kelly agreed. In 1993, once Aaliyah was 14 years old, she and Kelly started work on her debut: Age Ain’t Nothing however a Number.

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The album was a hit. It debuted in ~ No. 24 ~ above Billboard in might 1994, and also it earn Aaliyah nominations in ~ the American Music Awards and also 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 height 5 partly due to the fact that of R. Kelly. … he not only produced and also wrote ‘Back & Forth,’ but he likewise does the rapping,” explained the LA times in 1994. “Getting airplay because that a solitary by a brand-new artist is challenging — unless it functions R. Kelly doing everything yet the lead vocals. Fans love just about anything that does, and also ‘Back & Forth’ is the next finest thing come a new R. Kelly single.”

Even after ~ Aaliyah had created herself and her voice and everyone knew what an Aaliyah album sounded like, Age Ain’t Nothing however a Number still sounded strikingly like an R. Kelly album rather than one Aaliyah album. “It was basically like listening to an R. Kelly album, however with a small girl singing,” album sequencer Jeff Sledge called Vibe in 2014. “Obviously the subject issue wasn’t sexual, but the as whole production and also the sound that the document was favor a Robert album together a little girl.”

Kelly appears to have been will on presenting Aaliyah to the civilization as a miniature variation 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 choose him for she videos, in an oversize sweatsuit the would disclose her midriff, through dark sunglasses. He also produced a animal leather vest for her, a miniature variation of the vest that wore top top his album covers and also tours, through a license plate for Illinois — Kelly’s home state — on the back. Rainge didn’t feeling the vest specifically fit Aaliyah’s look, but both Aaliyah and also Kelly insisted she wear it. “He to be the influencer,” Kimya said. “They already had one image collection for her.”