Twenty-five years ago, Aaliyah Houghton emerged as a thrilling new force in R&B with her debut, Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number. The album would eventually be certified double platinum, spawning hit singles like “Back and Forth” and “At Your Best (You Are Love).” At the time, the title appeared to be a playful dig at critics who tried to dismiss the 15-year-old due to her tender age. But now those words have taken on a disturbing significance due to allegations made against their author, and the album’s producer, R. Kelly — who is currently charged with 10 counts of criminal sexual abuse in a Chicago court.
Even back in 1994 the adult content Kelly, then 27, had written for the teenage singer led to speculation about the precise nature of their relationship, including reports of a secret marriage. In recent years, more troubling details have emerged about the personal connection between the pair.
R. Kelly (né Robert Sylvester Kelly) first met the Brooklyn-born, Detroit-raised Aaliyah soon after she was signed to his label, Jive Records, when she was 12. Impressed by her voice, he offered to mentor the young hopeful. Work began on her first record during the summer of 1993, when she was on school vacation. Kelly assumed primary creative control over the proceedings, earning sole writing credit on all but one of the tracks, in addition to his role as producer.
The pair quickly became close outside of the studio. “[She] and Robert spent a lot of time together going to arcades and bowling so that Robert could catch her vibe and write the songs that fit her and what kids her age and her friends were talking about,” Jive records executive Jeff Sledge told Vibe in 2016. Aaliyah herself would later characterize these moments as Kelly “trying to see how I thought about things and what people my age think.”
Both perfectionists, they would log long hours in the recording studio, doing take after take in an effort to wring every nuance out of her vocals. “We’d be in there all night making sure it was perfect,” she would recall. “There were times when I was tired, but I knew I had to push on if I wanted to come off.” But the frenetic activity would be interspersed with moments of relaxation. “If I got tired we’d go watch a movie, go eat or whatever, and then come back and work,” she told Vibe. “Me and him we’re really, we’re rather close.”
Her debut single, “Back and Forth,” became an instant smash upon its release on April 8, 1994, helped in large part by the song’s video in constant rotation on MTV. As a result of the runaway success, Jive Records pushed up the album’s release date by nearly a month. Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number hit the streets on May 24, and was met with widespread critical acclaim and strong commercial sales.
The album was quickly followed by a second single, “At Your Best (You Are Love),” which would be become her second Billboard Top 10 hit that summer. But the third stand-alone, the album’s title track, would stall on the charts, peaking only at number 75. Sung from the perspective of a younger girl who has fallen in love with an older man, the defiant chorus is aimed at those who reject her love because of their age gap. The message of the song, and her admittedly “rather close” relationship to its author — Kelly, who also appears in the music video — gave rise to rumors that the pair were romantically involved, or even married.
Later that year, Vibe obtained a copy of what was purported to be a marriage certificate that listed the couple as married on Aug. 31, 1994 in a Sheraton Gateway Suites in Rosemont, Illinois. Her age on the document is listed as 18, despite the fact that she was 15 at the time. It was later alleged in the Chicago Sun-Times the incorrect age rendered the marriage illegal, and Aaliyah’s parents — who were not aware of the supposed wedding and were furious it had taken place — had it annulled soon after.
Both Kelly and Aaliyah strongly denied that any marriage had occurred. “I saw [the Vibe article], but I don’t really comment on that because I know it’s not true,” she said in a December 1994 interview with the Sun-Times. “When people ask me, I tell them, ‘Hey don’t believe all that mess.’ We’re close and people took it the wrong way.” The following year, Kelly insisted that he “told people time and time again that I’m not married. I’m truly not married… I’m not married to Aaliyah whatever Vibe magazine wrote.”
However, in the July 1994 issue of Sister2Sister magazine, journalist Jamie Foster Brown wrote that “R. Kelly told me that he and Aaliyah got together and it was just magic.” She went on to claim that she had “been hearing about Robert and Aaliyah for a while — that she was pregnant. Or that she was coming and going in and out of his house…every time I asked the label they said it was platonic.”
Kelly and Aaliyah never addressed the reports of their relationship after they professionally separated in the mid-’90s and broke off contact with one another. “When R. Kelly comes up, she doesn’t even speak his name, and nobody’s allowed to ask about it at all,” a spokeswoman for Aaliyah told the Sun-Times in 2000. At the time, Kelly’s publicist Regina Daniels also told the outlet, “It ended with, ‘Maybe we’re over our heads, maybe this is too much, maybe we need to go our separate ways. I love you, I always will, I wish you the best, but maybe we just jumped in way too deep into this thing.’ And she went her way and he went his.”
Aaliyah went on to enjoy even greater fame following her involvement with Kelly, scoring a hit album with the Timbaland-produced One in a Million, and a lead role in the 2000 action film Romeo Must Die. Her career was tragically cut short by a plane crash while shooting the music video for her single “Rock the Boat” in 2001. She died at just 22 years old.
The specifics of Aaliyah’s relationship with Kelly were reexamined in January 2019 following the release of Lifetime’s Surviving R. Kelly. The six-part docuseries featured numerous wide-ranging interviews with many of Kelly’s former friends, family members and colleagues, but most notably women who claim that for decades the hit-making singer and producer used his power and influence to sexually and physically abuse women and young girls — allegations that the singer and his representatives continue to strenuously deny.
The documentary’s first episode includes an emotional interview with former backup singer Jovante Cunningham, who met R. Kelly at age 14 and claims she bore direct witness to his sexual encounters in the ’90s with underaged girls, including Aaliyah.
“We were out on the road with Aaliyah,” she says. “On a tour bus, there really aren’t many confined spaces. When you get on the bus there are bunks and so these bunks have little curtains you can pull at night if you don’t want anybody to see you sleeping. So it just so happened we were all laying in our bunks and the curtains are open, everybody’s communicating, laughing. When the [room] door flew open on the bus. Robert was having sex with Aaliyah.”
Asked what she saw, Cunningham responded: “Things that an adult should not be doing with a child.” She adds, “I can’t stress to you how people are still suffering behind things that went on 20 years ago.”
Also in the documentary, Kelly’s former personal assistant Demetrius Smith claims he was present at Kelly’s wedding to Aaliyah and admits to obtaining false documents for the underaged star, allowing them to alter her age to 18 on the marriage license.
“Robert came to me, we were in Miami,” recalls Smith. “Robert said, ‘Man we got Aaliyah in trouble.’” After asking about the problem, Smith says he got a heartbreaking answer: “Robert mentioned to me that, ‘I think she’s pregnant.’ That broke my heart right there because I really believed him when he said that he wasn’t messing with Aaliyah…Once he told me that I was at a loss for words.”
Smith went on to claim, “I was in the room when they got married. I’m not proud of that. I had papers forged for them when Aaliyah was underaged. It was just a quick little ceremony, she didn’t have on a white dress he didn’t have on a tux. Just every day wear. She looked worried and scared.” The marriage was reportedly annulled within the year. “Her parents had the last say,” said Smith.
Soon after the Surviving R. Kelly episode aired, the late singer’s mother, Diane Haughton, refuted the documentary’s bombshell claims. In a post shared to the official Aaliyah Twitter account, she denied that the sexual encounter Cunningham claims to have witnessed had ever taken place.
“My husband and I were always on tour with [Aaliyah] and at interviews and every place she went throughout her entire career,” Haughton said in the statement. “Whoever this woman is [who is making the allegations], I have never seen her before anywhere on planet earth, until now.”
Calling the account “lies and fabrications,” the statement continues: “My daughter only wanted to realize her dream of sharing her talent with the world, and give her all performing on stage and in front of the camera for the fans she adored so much. She realized that dream, thanks to those true fans who still love and support her legacy unconditionally to this day. Shame on all those involved in this project who thought it kosher to drag Aaliyah’s name into a situation that has nothing to do with her today. Once again, this will not be tolerated.”
In the wake of Haughton’s statement Cunningham stood by her account, releasing the following statement to PEOPLE:
“It’s unfortunate that there are still people trying to protect Robert when they know he has destroyed so many people’s lives. I loved Aaliyah and when people watch the documentary, they will see how much I cared for her and how much Robert’s actions deeply affected me and so many others.”
Aaliyah’s ex-boyfriend, Roc-A-Fella Records cofounder Damon Dash, spoke out in the days after the docuseries aired, claiming that she remained deeply affected by her time with Kelly. “I remember Aaliyah trying to talk about it and she couldn’t,” he said in an interview with Hip Hop Motivation. “She just would leave it at, ‘That dude was a bad man.’”
On Feb. 22, Kelly was charged with 10 counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse against four alleged victims. Three days later, his attorney, Steve Greenberg pleaded not guilty on Kelly’s behalf, according to the Associated Press. Kelly continues to deny all claims against him. He is due back in court on June 19.
If you suspect domestic violence, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233, or go to thehotline.org. All calls are toll-free and confidential. The hotline is available 24/7 in more than 170 languages.
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