How R. Kelly Preyed on and Controlled an Underage Aaliyah
When 27-year-old R. Kelly married 15-year-old Aaliyah, it was brushed off as another celeb scandal. But as his trial nears, a new book explores how deeply disturbing it all was.
Days before R. Kelly’s trial officially gets underway, his relationship with Aaliyah is already poised to take center stage. This week, his defense lawyer seemed to let slip that the R&B singer had a sexual relationship with the underage teenager before trying to backtrack on the admission.
It seems like a fruitless argument to try and defend, as it’s publicly documented that in August 1994, the 27-year-old Kelly married rising superstar Aaliyah, then 15 years old, in a hush-hush ceremony in a Chicago hotel room. Among the stack of felony charges against Kelly, prosecutors allege he bribed an Illinois official in order to secure a fake I.D. for Aaliyah that would list her age as 18 so they could marry.
It’s a strange twist of fate that the start of Kelly’s sex-trafficking trial in New York City, in which the late singer is listed as a Jane Doe in the case, also coincides with the 20th anniversary of the 22-year-old’s tragic plane crash death on Aug. 25, 2001. It could be why, after two decades, her uncle and former manager Barry Hankerson is finally releasing her entire music catalog, with Spotify and his record label Blackground Records confirming the news on Thursday.
But still, as the trial is set to get underway and every mention of Aaliyah is sure to become the focus of headlines, it’s time the media reckoned with how they brushed off the alleged abuse the teenager was enduring.
It’s something that’s always stuck with acclaimed music journalist and author Kathy Iandoli, whose book Baby Girl: Better Known as Aaliyah is set for release on Aug. 17 from Atria Books.
“It started to really bother me because I realized, we never give Aaliyah the credit for being a survivor,” Iandoli tells The Daily Beast. “All we remember, in terms of her life at the end, is that she did not survive a plane crash. But she survived something far greater that we never gave her credit for because we misrepresented it, we mistitled it. We decided they were a ‘couple.’ I’d be doing a disservice to her title of survivor if I didn’t at least discuss what happened.”
At the time, while Kelly and Aaliyah’s marriage was considered scandalous, there was no real outrage directed at Kelly. A Vibe magazine cover story addressing the controversial marriage labeled Kelly as simply a “superfreak,” as the journalist wondered if Aaliyah’s appeal to Kelly was because he was “lame and unable to deal with the mind of a grown-up girl.”
There was no real concern for Aaliyah other than snarkily questioning how her parents allowed this to happen. Instead, the marriage was portrayed as just another celebrity scandal—a mentor falling for his mentee, a repetitive Hollywood trend of older men dating much younger women. It also didn’t help that Aaliyah’s debut album, which Kelly’s fingerprints were all over, was titled, Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number.
Looking back, Iandoli feels that Aaliyah was failed even as a teenager, getting booed on stage and essentially blacklisted by the music industry over the annulled marriage, while Kelly faced no repercussions.
Now, as the evidence mounts against Kelly, who has been trailed by allegations of statutory raping minors since 1996, was charged with the production of child pornography in 2002, accused of running a sex cult in 2017, and now faces federal charges of sex trafficking and racketeering, Iandoli demands to know why Aaliyah hasn’t been given an apology and proper recognition as a survivor?
Iandoli says when she first began writing her book about Aaliyah’s life, music, and lasting legacy, she had zero intention of mentioning Kelly, feeling the conversation had been exhausted and not wanting to give him credit for Aaliyah’s success. But after watching Lifetime’s bombshell documentary Surviving R. Kelly, she knew she had to address it.
And so, she does. The first two chapters detail how Kelly infiltrated every aspect of Aaliyah’s life, first introduced through Aaliyah’s uncle Barry Hankerson, who discovered Kelly. The two spent hours together, both inside the studio and out over the course of nine months while creating Aaliyah’s first album. Iandoli noted that lyrics were clearly from Kelly’s signature bump ‘n’ grind playbook, but this time “sung by a little girl.”
During promotion for the record, they played coy. Aaliyah would only divulge they were “very close” and that Kelly was her “best friend in the entire world.”
Kelly even dictated how Aaliyah would dress, steamrolling stylists for the album cover photoshoot, insisting she would be dressed in baggy clothes, wear dark shades, and even have an Illinois license plate—his home state—attached to the back of her jacket, despite Aaliyah hailing from Detroit and New York.
While Kelly’s behavior was dismissed as being pushy, it now serves as disturbing foreshadowing. A damning expose by journalist Jim DeRogatis, who’s covered Kelly’s alleged sex crimes for a number of years, had concerned parents and former members of Kelly’s team accusing the singer of running a sex cult.
They claimed that Kelly would have the young women in his entourage hide their figures in baggy clothes or jogging suits because he didn’t “want them to look appealing.” When men entered the room, the girls were allegedly made to turn around and face the wall in order to prevent men from looking at them.
“The patterns of the diabolical behavior snowballs with every piece that someone can get away with, it grows in intensity from victim to victim,” Iandoli explains. “We wrote off Aaliyah wearing those dark glasses, right? It’s only if you put the pieces together. Aaliyah wore dark glasses and R. Kelly’s later victims face a wall when men are in the room. He was hiding her eyes. His other victims, he would put in extremely baggy clothing. He started that when he was styling [Aaliyah]. It’s all textbook, it’s all just very much part of a long [pattern].” (Kelly did not respond to requests for comment.)
It’s still unclear exactly what events led to their hush-hush wedding on Aug. 31, 1994. Neither Kelly nor Aaliyah’s family talk in plain terms when referring to the marriage, which they annulled in February 1995. Aaliyah wouldn’t speak about it either, telling Vibe in 1996, “I don’t like to get into the details on it, because it was a very… scandalous thing. I had a lot of drama back then, and I don’t really want any more. And out of respect for my family and what I went though, I just answer, I’m not married. At all.”
But Iandoli brings up a September 1994 document discovered by DeRogatis in his book Soulless that was signed by Kelly, Aaliyah, and both of her parents that essentially was a non-disclosure agreement. Kelly paid $100 (rumored to actually be $3 million) to Aaliyah in “exchange for cutting ties altogether and never mentioning their relationship again.” In return, Aaliyah would also be restricted from talking about Kelly.
Still, it didn’t prevent some members of Kelly’s camp from talking about what they witnessed between the two. Lisa Van Allen, who previously came forward to claim she was trapped in an abusive relationship with Kelly when she was 17, has been adamant that Aaliyah was pregnant when they married, and a panicked Kelly arranged the sham marriage to allegedly protect himself if word got out before Aaliyah had an abortion. In a harebrained scheme, Kelly allegedly believed he’d avoid any criminal charges due to Aaliyah being underage because they were married.
The claim was also made by another Kelly associate, Demetrius Smith, who admits he helped forge documents to pull off the stunt in his 2011 book The Man Behind the Man: Looking from the Inside Out.
Iandoli’s book points to Kelly’s alleged pattern of behavior of getting minors pregnant and urging them to get an abortion. In 1996, Tiffany “Tia” Hawkins was the first teen to claim she had a sexual relationship with Kelly when she was 15 and he was 24, alleging she was pushed to “handle” her own pregnancy and not speak of it again.
Over the years, other women detailed similar experiences. In 2019, a Patreon account claiming to be his former live-in girlfriend, Joycelyn Savage, claimed that Kelly had forced her to get two abortions. Patreon ended up removing the account over concerns of “impersonation” but Savage’s family indicated that they believed the account belonged to her.
Iandoli personally believes that Aaliyah was pregnant and Kelly was trying to save his own skin, although she says she kept her opinion out of the book, making sure to allow the reader to draw their own conclusions.
“I don’t know if it’s true or not,” Iandoli says. “We’re only going with what we’ve been told and the way the events unfolded. But again, you look at the pattern... a lot of missing pieces. All we can do is lay them out and kind of decide for ourselves.”
“I don’t think she would be in a rush to marry this man; I don’t think she was in a rush to marry him at all,” Iandoli reasons. “If the story that was told is correct, she found out she was pregnant and frantically hit him like, ‘What do we do?’ Not like, ‘Come marry me because by the way, I’m pregnant.’ I don’t think a pregnancy was the bargaining chip to become Mrs. Kelly.”
It frustrates Iandoli that the lone Aaliyah album available on streaming platforms is Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number—which was written and produced by Kelly, who still makes money off it. Days after this interview, Hankerson’s revived Blackground Records 2.0 announced it would be releasing her entire discography in the coming months. However, Aaliyah’s estate and her immediate family have torched the news, calling it an “unscrupulous endeavor.”
Iandoli says she could understand the family’s reluctance. How do you appease a demanding public who feel they deserve to have this small part of a beloved artist in order to honor their memory, versus being respectful of the grieving family who might not want to open old wounds, or simply would like to keep something to themselves?
“It’s a very dangerous ground, because you’re messing with people’s feelings here,” Iandoli concedes. “So again, I just have no choice but to respect their decisions. That being said, I really hope that the music hits the platforms at some point because I’m just sick and tired of only seeing that one album.”
Iandoli hopes that her book invites a younger generation to discover not only Aaliyah the actress and talented dancer, but mainly Aaliyah the gifted musician who dazzled her peers with opera vocal warmups and wrote many of her later songs.
“In the absence of Aaliyah’s music, we don’t get to focus on that,” Iandoli says. “Even when we do focus on it, we talk about the genius of the producers. Not the genius of the person whose voice is blanketed over that production. The book honors Aaliyah as a musician just as much as it does Aaliyah as an all-around icon.”