A long-running battle between the estate of the late R&B singer Aaliyah and her uncle/ former manager and label chief Barry Hankerson broke into the open on Wednesday after teasers about forthcoming music were posted online.
Aaliyah — a former R. Kelly protégé who was briefly married to him at the age of 15 in a quickly annulled ceremony — died in a 2001 plane crash when she was just 22.
She is arguably the most popular and prominent artist whose most successful recordings are not available on streaming services, apparently due to a conflict between Hankerson and the estate that has gone on for the better part of two decades.
“For 20 years we have battled behind the scenes, enduring shadowy tactics of deception,” the estate’s statement reads, “now, this unscrupulous endeavour to release Aaliyah’s music without transparency or full accounting to the estate compels our hearts to express a word — forgiveness,” but pledges to “continue to defend ourselves and her legacy lawfully.”
The statement was a response to a social media post from Blackground 2.0 Records — derived from the name of Hankerson’s original label — promising “Aaliyah is coming.” (The social media accounts were launched last month.) Hankerson has been attempting to release a 2012 album of rare Aaliyah material — which was executive-produced by Drake — for many years.
The estate has been largely silent since the singer’s death in 2001, and few details have emerged about the exact nature of the points of contention that have prevented her final and most successful albums from appearing on streaming services. However, in recent months social media posts from both the estate and Blackground 2.0 have had an optimistic tone and said they were working to resolve the situation.
Based on Wednesday’s posts, that no longer seems to be the case. Reps for the estate and Hankerson did not immediately respond to Variety’s requests for further comment.
Most of Aaliyah’s official discography has never appeared legally on streaming services — and remains arguably the most popular catalogue not to do so since all three of her albums have been certified double platinum and would have racked up much bigger numbers had two of them not been essentially unavailable since the advent of streaming.
Her sleek, street-savvy image and innovative Timbaland and Missy Elliott-helmed hits helped pave the way for countless single-named R&B singers who followed — not least Rihanna. Yet only her R. Kelly-helmed 1994 debut, ‘Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number’, and a handful of singles are legally available on streaming services.
Initially, an R. Kelly protege — the two were briefly married, allegedly via a fake ID, when she was just 15 — Detroit-born Aaliyah Haughton hit immediately with ‘Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number.’ But after her controversial (and illegal) marriage to Kelly was annulled, she began working with the then-nascent team of Timbaland and Elliott on the 1996 One in a Million album, along with several singles and a self-titled collection released just weeks before Aaliyah’s death.
Perhaps most notable is the 1998 song ‘Are You That Somebody,’ from the Eddie Murphy-starring Dr. Doolittle remake, which featured a memorable video and one of Timbaland’s most innovative productions, based around a loop of a baby cooing. (That song is the only one from Aaliyah’s later catalogue available on streaming services.)
The disarray around Aaliyah’s business affairs in the wake of her death was complicated by the fact that all three of her albums were on Blackground, the label founded by Hankerson and his son Jomo. Barry also was Kelly’s manager for the first 10 years of his career and introduced Aaliyah to the singer.
Always a mysterious figure, Hankerson was said in a 2016 Complex article to be devastated first by his niece’s illegal marriage to Kelly, with whom he finally severed ties in 2000, and then by the subsequent revelations of the extent of Kelly’s widely reported sexual misconduct involving young women. However, he kept the label up and running for a decade following her death.
Further complicating matters is the fact that each Aaliyah album was distributed by a different label: ‘Age Ain’t Nothin’ But a Number’ is on Kelly’s former label Jive (which still holds the rights to that album, hence its presence on streaming services), while “One in a Million” was distributed by Atlantic; and the self-titled 2001 album by Virgin, which is now owned by Universal. (The latter two albums appeared on iTunes for a matter of hours a few years ago, but were quickly removed.) Blackground, which at various times also had Timbaland, Toni Braxton, JoJo and Tank on its roster, has not released an album since 2013 and has been mired in lawsuits over the past few years.
The posthumous Aaliyah album Hankerson has been attempting to release reportedly contains 16 unreleased songs, was executive produced by Drake and his longtime collaborator Noah “40” Shehib, and includes posthumously recorded contributions from Timbaland, Lil Wayne, Kanye West and Drake.
It was announced by Hankerson in 2012 and a single, ‘Enough Said’ (featuring Drake), was released that year, but Timbaland and Elliott and Aaliyah’s family distanced themselves from the project.
However, an announcement from the estate last year suggested that Aaliyah’s official catalogue will become available. “To our loyal fans: We are excited to announce that communication has commenced between the estate and various record labels about the status of Aaliyah’s music catalogue, as well as its availability on streaming platforms in the near future,” it reads. “Thank you for your continued love and support. More updates to come!” However, in a January 2021 post it asked for patience “until we can resolve all of the issues in freeing her music.”
The “communication has commenced” statement does not seem to reference the album Hankerson has been trying to release — but since he presumably controls the rights to the official catalogue, it’s possible that he’s withholding those rights until the estate agrees to release his album.
In the meantime, most of Aaliyah’s deeply influential music catalogue — which, between streaming and licensing deals alone, could be raking in millions of dollars in revenue every year — continues to languish.
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