Millie Jackson
Photo by Paul Natkin

Music Sermon: Millie Jackson - The Original Bad Girl

Singer Millie Jackson has been called “the queen of raunchy soul” and “the Godmother of rap” because of her signature, no-holds-barred "raps."

You know that auntie who you were nervous to bring your young male friends around back in the day because she might proposition them in the kitchen when nobody was looking? Or the auntie liable to cuss out a family member or two after dinner for something that happened 12 years ago? The one that women in your family whispered about, warning not to leave men around alone? Who your mama didn’t want you to spend too much time with, but you were always excited to see because she was entertaining and was gonna slip you a little pocket change?

That auntie listens to Millie Jackson.

Millie Jackson is not just an R&B singer. She’s a Rhythm & Blues singer. She’s card party music. Your parents having people over and you’re not allowed to come downstairs music. Working class black folks hanging out down at the VFW after a long week with some well liquor music.

She’s been called “the queen of raunchy soul” and “the Godmother of rap,” because of her signature, no-holds-barred lyrical content and her long “raps” – profanity-laced, sexually explicit stories and jokes – interwoven through her songs and live sets. Auntie Millie is part singer and part outrageous comedienne – but don’t take her as a joke. She’s a deceptively serious artist, with career highlights that went largely unnoticed because of the raunch.

In our continued celebration of bad-ass women in music for the month of March, we present 11 essential Auntie Millie facts.

1. Her Singing Career Was an Accident

One Thursday night, Millie Jackson was hanging with friends at the Psalms Café on 125th Street in Harlem. The restaurant hosted an open mic on Thursdays, and Millie was clowning a young woman for her terrible singing. Her friends bet her $5 to get up herself and sing, and she did it – even though she had no training as a singer. A club promoter in the audience offered her a gig the following week, someone saw her there and offered her more gigs, and that continued. She sung around New York and New Jersey for a couple of years while still working full time, and eventually landed a spot touring with Sam Cooke’s brother, LC. After one short-lived recording contract, she signed with funk and soul label Spring Records (co-founded by the father and uncle of Loud Records founder Steve Rifkind). She was so unsure her career would stick, she asked for a leave of absence from her job instead of quitting. It became an extremely extended leave.

Her trademark “rapping,” the long intros, interludes and dialogue breaks Millie masterfully blends into her songs and live sets, was also an accident. Millie had no formal vocal training, so she wasn’t a strong singer at the beginning of her career. When people in supper clubs and lounges would start talking to each other and turning their attention away from the performance, she started talking to them to keep them engaged. It became a key part of her artistry. Millie doesn’t just sing you a song, she tells you a story.

2. She Developed Her Raw and Raunchy Style Because of Gladys Knight

Millie and Gladys sound alike. It’s hard to hear in Jackson’s grittier songs; in those, she sounds more like Teddy Pendergrass’s voice and Tina Turner’s voice had a vocal baby. In her ballads, though, you can close your eyes and imagine Gladys. Or at least Gladys after some brown liquor. Comparisons started almost immediately in Millie’s career. It was potentially a problem– the label held back a single because they thought people would hear it and ask for a new Gladys album – so she began to separate herself from Knight with her raw sound and lyrical content.

Over time, that separation also included cursing. “Gladys started rappin’ on (“Help Me Make It Through the Night”) and I’m like ‘Ok, now she’s gonna rap? I guess I’ll just cuss,’” Millie once explained. “She’s too much of a lady to curse.”

Jackson leaned all the way into the explicit language and topics - the Washington Post called her “a veteran virtuoso of vulgarity” in 1986 - until those two factors nearly overshadowed not only her raw talent, but the fact that her songs were also technically fantastic, complete with incredible arrangements and expert live instrumentation provided by the Muscle Shoals Swampers, one of the best rhythm sections in music history.

3. She Flipped the Concept of the Concept Album

Caught Up is the concept album "Trapped in the Closet" wanted to be when it grew up.

While Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye were creating cohesive bodies of work that reflected community, racial and environmental turmoil, Millie focused on what was happening in the home. Spring Records paired the singer with producer Brad Shapiro, whose credits include Wilson Pickett and James Brown, and he took her to the famed Muscle Shoals to record with the studio’s legendary session musicians, the Swampers.

Millie knew she wanted to make an album where “one song keeps going into the next song,” like a long story. Caught Up is a narrative about an affair, but from two perspectives: the first half of the album is from the mistresses point of view, the second half is the wife’s.

“We knew we were onto something (after “If Loving You Is Wrong”),” Jackson explained in an interview. “Then somebody in the studio asked ‘what now?’ And I said, ‘we finish the story. We’ve heard from the girlfriend, but what about the wife?'”

Concept albums were still new, and Spring Records didn’t know what to do with a project featuring nine-minute songs and no clear radio tracks. They brought in one of the most influential black radio DJs in New York, WBLS’s Frankie Crocker, and played it for him. He left the label with the only pressed copy of the LP so he could play “If Loving You Is Wrong I Don’t Want to be Right” immediately.

Jackson has admitted to being the other woman multiple times in her own life, but wanted the representation on the album to be “fair,” and include the wife’s experience. Her interpretation of the betrayed wife wasn’t a broken-down woman crying into a pillow, either. The songs cycled through a full range of emotions, from shock and anger to sadness, defeat, defiance and pettiness.

The label’s skepticism was unfounded; Caught Up reached No. 4 on the Billboard R&B album chart and No. 21 on the Pop chart. The success prompted a follow-up album, Still Caught Up, but the original is considered Jackson’s definitive work.

4. She Helped Turn Cheating Into an R&B Genre

Torrid affairs and adultery weren’t new topics in music, but they were relatively new to R&B. In the early ‘70s, songs about cheating – not about the aftermath, but basically celebrating cheating - were mostly found in juke joint blues and country western music, and were rarely from the woman’s perspective. “These were conversations that women had with each other on the laundromat. You didn’t hear them on records,” Millie explained in a recent interview about Caught Up. “You especially didn’t hear them on the radio.” Billy Paul, Luke Ingram, Johnny Taylor, and Millie – all singers who straddled the line between blues and soul - helped change that. By the mid-70s, adultery R&B was a full-blown subgenre, with songs like “Woman to Woman” and “From His Woman to You” (because “Woman to Woman” apparently required a reply), then later came “As We Lay,” “Secret Lovers,” and a long list of others. Songs about the wife calling the side, the side responding to the wife (the temerity!), the husband talking to the side, the wife proclaiming love to her side. It was a mess. But the songs were hits, so you might need to ask your parents and grandparents some honest questions about exactly what the hell was going on in the ‘70s and early ‘80s.

Millie’s unfiltered and uncensored take on cheating was the centerpiece of her career. “(Infidelity is) my whole repertoire,” she explained once when asked about crafting the stories for her songs. “Do you decide whether or not you want to talk about a certain part of an infidelity? Is it a man? Is it a woman? Is it both of them? Or do you want to go and start talking about what infidelity calls to life, or how it ruins a relationship, and not pertaining to anybody in particular. But, see, just like that you can write 25 songs on infidelity.”

5. Millie Was a Women’s Advocate

The primary topic of Millie’s music, after infidelity, was sex. Not making love. Sex. As in, “you got to handle this.” Like infidelity, sexual demands from the woman’s point of view was topical fare for dirty blues, not R&B.

Don’t start something you can’t finish
Frustration ain’t no fun
Half way lovin’ just don’t get it
Stay there ‘til the job is done.

I would be remiss to not point out the breakdown in “All the Way Lover,” wherein Auntie Millie plants seeds that bore fruit for future generations, advocating for enthusiastic participation in oral sex, or what she called “parteè.”

We thank you for your service and advocacy, Millie.

With the songs hitting close to home about husbands cheating, wives kicking those husbands out, side chicks getting fed up, and calling men out to get focused in the bedroom, Millie believed she turned the male demographic off. “Men did not want my records in their house,” she claimed in an interview. “They wouldn’t come to see me live. Because I spoke truth to women, I got a reputation for being rough on men.”

But Miss Jackson would get at women sometimes, too. She took time, often, in her live show to address “saditty b**ches” who were being too lazy or too uptight to take care of business at home. This was also a form of advocacy, though, in the form of “Sis, stop bullsh*ttin.’”

Millie was a new kind of voice for women’s independence and agency. “Women loved it. I was speaking to them,” Jackson explained to her hometown Atlanta Magazine. But she was talking to women in a way some didn’t consider proper or respectable. She didn’t care. “I didn’t sell record to bougies. It was the poor people who bought my music. The women who bought Diana Ross did not buy Millie Jackson. The people in the projects understood me. I was down and dirty. I told you like it was.”

She once compared men to bad credit, which I’m laughing about even as I type this because it’s so genius and perfect that I can’t even. It’s an analogy all women understand too well – and we also understand the plot twist on the end when she gives it up anyway (Kanye shrug). She kept it real.

6. Low Key, She’s a Hip-Hop OG

Millie had already established a reputation for her “rapping,” which in the ‘70s meant long dialogue during song breaks, a style made popular in soul music with Isaac Hayes. Millie expanded the technique, telling full narratives that connected her songs. After “Rapper’s Delight” became a hit, her label wanted her to give the new style of rap a shot. In 1980, she recorded a track called “I Had to Say It” that she meant as a spoof of “Rapper’s Delight,” but she was spitting bars on the low. The subject: black men who start dating white women once they’re successful. It would set the timeline on fire today.

She told Song Facts in a frank 2010 interview that the song’s inspiration came unexpectedly. “I was thinking of what the next album (was) gonna be, and I had run out of things to talk about,” she shared, “So we’re on the tour bus and I’m going through Jet Magazine, and I’m saying ‘Okay. There’s Arthur Ashe – with a white woman. There’s the guy that plays Shaft on TV with a white woman. Damn, there’s O.J. Simpson – with a white woman… Somebody needs to say this. Why don’t I say this? I have to say this.” And she said it with her signature IDGAF delivery and candor.

Now I got your attention again
I wanna speak to you about white girls
On the arms of our black men

Millie was just playing around, but Coca Cola explained to her, when they reached out for Sprite's 1999 Obey Your Thirst campaign, that she technically held the distinction of being the first woman to cut a rap song. The campaign, “5 Deadly Women,” featured rappers Eve, Amil, Angie Martinez (remember when Angie was a rapper?), Mia X and Roxanne Shante.

Jackson makes a surprise appearance at the end of the series as The Master, and I applaud Sprite for doing their homework and including her. She was kind of an easter egg, because not many people in the spot’s target audience knew who she was on sight.

Her hipping and hopping on “I Had To Say It” aside, Millie’s been credited as the foremother of Salt-n-Pepa, Lil’ Kim, Foxy Brown, and all female rappers who didn’t take no sh*t from the boys and unabashedly harnessed the power of sexuality in their music. She’s also been heavily sampled in hip-hop for decades: J. Cole, Prodigy, EPMD, Too Short, Poor Righteous Teachers, 50 Cent, Memphis Bleek, Lil’ B, Boogie Down Productions, Young Jeezy, Trick Daddy, Blacksheep, Cam’ron, Geto Boys, Yo Gotti, and Fat Joe have all cut Millie a publishing check.

At least three rap acts have sampled/covered her “Phuck You Symphony” alone, which I understand because it’s perfect for hip-hop – just like she is.

7. Her Live Show is Off the Chain

Millie doesn’t just give you a stage with a spotlight and some crooning (and I say “doesn’t” because Auntie still performs). No ma’am, no sir. There’s a full band, including a tight ass horn section, background singers, the whole nine. Also, she doesn’t just sing, it’s part comedy act. She’s a cross between Richard Pryor and popular ‘90s comedian Adele Givens (I truly believe Adele studied Millie).

Millie Jackson’s Live and Outrageous album is essential listening. The show’s energy is palpable even through audio. At her peak, Jackson’s concerts were regularly sold-out. She served costumes, flair, choreography, dramatics, and powerful vocals. Even as her stage show scaled down in later years, Millie Jackson live was no less of an experience. She’s also known for audience participation - if you’re sitting in her line of sight you might become part of the show. Be ready.

8. She’s a Boss

Millie Jackson is absolutely not a contrived artist. Her image is all hers, her musical choices are hers, her career path is hers. There are no Svengali stories, no tales of the label pushing her in a direction she didn’t feel comfortable with. None of that. Millie did what she wanted. Her label did try, in the beginning, to change her sound. They sped her vocals up on records so her voice would be in a higher pitch than her deep, earthy alto. But after “Hurts So Good,” they let her fly.

Millie has been self-managed her entire career. Her one marriage, at the beginning of her success, lasted only eight months because her husband tried to control Jackson and her business. “He thought we were gonna be the next Ike and Tina Turner. He thought that he was gonna tell me what to do with my life, and I decided that was not gonna happen. Case closed.”

Millie has also always maintained a large degree of creative control. She co-wrote most her songs from the beginning, and starting with Caught Up, she also co-produced her albums. And she fought when her record label tried to minimize her contribution. “I went down to Muscle Shoals to show (Brad Shapiro) how I do what I do, and co-produced the album. And when the album came out, it said ‘Album concept by Millie Jackson,’ and I hit the ceiling,” she shared in an interview. “I stood up in the middle of the floor and cussed like a banshee. And finally (Spring Records co-head) Roy Rifkind said, ‘Can we please go to lunch? You gonna be the death of me yet.’ And (Spring Records co-head) Bill Spitowski said, ‘We’ll put it on your tombstone: Produced by Millie Jackson.’”

Self-management is a choice Millie realizes probably held her back from big deals and moves that would elevate her to a higher level of stardom, but it as one that allowed her to follow her career on her own terms. In the same interview just mentioned, she explained her unconventional decision. “I write a lot of songs, and I publish them, and I go to work when I feel like it. That’s why I never had a manager; I don’t need anyone to tell me when to go to work. I know if I want to work or not.” She’s also enjoyed a normalcy that her peers who reached higher heights of fame had to sacrifice. “I like being able to go shopping for myself. I go to the supermarket and nobody bothers me. I don’t have a bodyguard. I like that. I think I live a very decent life. I’m a long way from starving, and I’m still me.”

9. She Can Sing Anything

Jackson has half-joked often in her later interviews that people don’t pay attention to the more diverse aspects of her catalog.

“If you listen to Millie Jackson on the radio, you ain’t gonna hear nothing but ‘Back in Love By Monday,’ ‘Hurts So Good,’ and ‘If Loving You is Wrong.’ Like I haven’t made any more songs,” she once complained. “I’ve got thirtysomething albums, only got three songs to be played!” Well, a lot of her songs aren’t exactly radio-friendly, but she’s right. With the expansive discography she has (Millie kept recording until 2001), the cheating songs and the raunchy songs are most popular and well-known. Ironically, while critics bemoaned her resistance to growth over the years, she quietly released two country-inspired albums and a rock-inspired album, in addition to more weighted material. “I write a lot of meaningful songs, but nobody ever heard them,” she’s said. “Because in my case most people would rather only listen to infidelity.”

Her very first single, in fact, leaned more towards the social commentary that ‘important’ soul artists were embracing at the time.

Millie has always said she didn’t want to be a crossover artist, but she didn’t want to stay in an R&B lane sonically, either. Millie always wanted to explore rock and country. “Rock and roll is my spirit, really, but nobody cares,” she shared in a conversation about her lesser-known music. “Tina Turner came through and (everyone) forgot about that.” We’ll get to Millie and Tina in a minute.

Because of her willingness to explore a wide range of music, Jackson’s cover song game rivals that of Luther Vandross. Starting with Luther Ingram’s “If Loving You is Wrong, I Don’t Wanna Be Right,” Millie has put her stamp on hits from Prince, Toto, The Stylistics, even country artist Merle Haggerd. Jackson released her version of his hit “If We’re Not Back in Love on Monday” less than a year after its release, changing the title to “If You’re Not Back in Love by Monday,” and switching up the song from a story about a husband wanting to work it out with his wife, to a mistress encouraging a husband and his wife to try and reconcile.

10. She Intentionally Didn’t Seek Crossover Success

One of the reasons Millie is damn near an obscure artist given her long career and tremendous output is her is because she stayed in a blues and R&B pocket – on purpose. “I was never looking to become that crossover pop star,” she once explained. “Let white folks cross over to me.”

Critics searched for explanations over the years why such a talented singer with Muscle Shoals production wasn’t reaching the pop stardom soul singers like Gladys, Aretha and Tina had achieved, and they usually blamed her language and lyrical content. In 1977, the New York Times opined “…with just a bit more attention to hooks, she could have consistent hits. That wouldn’t constitute selling out, if she’s worried about that, and it would help convey the underlying seriousness of her art to a broader public.”

But Millie was happy to fly under the radar. It gave her more freedom. “When you had all the problems with profanity in the music, nobody mentioned me. The senator’s wife never knew I existed. So I didn’t have to go to Congress.” Jackson was talking about the 1985 congressional hearings spurred by the Parental Music Resource Center, an organization founded by Tipper Gore after she purchased Purple Rain for her daughter, and “Darling Nikki” made her clutch her pearls. Most remember the hearings for the eventual result of Parental Advisory warnings on albums just as rap was emerging, but pop artists were the initial target. Prince, Madonna, Frank Zappa, even the Mary Jane Girls were in the roundup. But not Jackson. “Nobody mentioned my name. Nobody knew I was doing it. I didn’t have to deal with any of that.”

She did enjoy some pop success with Caught Up, but her biggest potential moment for a breakthrough was a 1985 duet with Elton John. Pop/soul duets were in fashion, but though the single was a moderate success in the UK, it never broke in the US.

11. She Has (Possibly One-Sided) Beef with Tina Turner

The two contemporaries Jackson has most been compared to vocally are Gladys and Tina – for example, Elton John approached Jackson for “Act of War” after Tina declined. Millie adores Gladys and counts the fellow Georgian among her favorite vocalists, but there’s something about Tina that just doesn't sit right with her. It’s unclear what the source of her dislike is, but I suspect it’s centered around Tina entering and dominating the rock/soul space as a solo artist just as Millie was plotting a move in that direction.

Jackson did finally record her rock-inspired album, titled Rock n’ Soul, in 1994. She told her audience at a Howard Theater show in 2012 she made the LP because “I wanted Tina Turner to know she wasn't the only black bitch to sing rock’n’roll.”

But then, according to Millie, Tina jacked her single. “I recorded (John Waithe’s) ‘Missing You,’ and I was all excited about it, it was gonna be my next single. And the guys at Muscle Shoals said, ‘Boy you got the song out quick! I heard it at a truck stop.” And I’m trying to figure out how in the world did they hear my song when it won’t be out for two week. And of course, it was Tina Turner, and we had to pull the single and come back with a different one.”

That was in the ‘90s, but Millie was throwing subs at Tina in the ‘80s. Jackson’s 1988 album The Tide is Turning included a song called “You Knocked the Love (Right Outta My Heart).” Listeners will easily hear the Ike and Tina influence in the song, but the track, a song about a passionate love turning into domestic violence, was a shot. “I did that one messin’ with Tina,” Jackson admitted in 2010. “It was about Ike and Tina, and the proceeds for that are supposed to go to battered women. But I didn’t call any names.”

After Millie stopped recording in 2001, she didn’t retire. She spent 13 years hosting a drive time radio show, continued to tour (when she felt like it), and wrote and produced a stage play based on her album Young Man, Older Woman which toured successfully for four years.

Now she’s posted up at home in Atlanta, and a few years ago she was working on a reality show concept for her family (please, contents gods, let this happen while she still has the capacity to do it).

But Millie should be out here at these awards shows and tributes with her contemporaries. She should still be mixing it up with younger artists who emulate her energy without even realizing it (she loves Rihanna, by the way). Auntie Millie is deserving of far more recognition and praise than she’s received. Not just for her outrageous and explicit music and performances, but as a complete artist: as a writer, a producer, a businesswoman, a creative, a pioneer. Alladat. Just because she didn’t go the route of No. 1 hits and stadium tours doesn’t make her any less accomplished. Respect Millie Jackson’s gangster.

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#MusicSermon is a weekly series by Naima Cochrane that highlights the under-acknowledged and under-appreciated urban artists and sub-genres from the '90s and earlier. The series seeks to tell unknown and/or forgotten stories that connect the dots between current music, culture and the foundations of the past.

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The first thing you notice about Jada Pinkett is her long, curved, scarlet-enameled fingernails—“ghetto Vogue,” she calls them, laughing. Describing her meteoric ascent from the Baltimore School of Arts (where her best homie was Tupac Shakur) to overnight Tinseltown success. Pinkett coos for a few moments over her continuing romance with former Duke star hoopster/future NBA player Grant Hill, and those acrylic claws click like miniature castanets.

With close-cropped hair and a pearly smile, the tiny, gamine Pinkett is even prettier in person than she was as Lena in A Different World or as Ronnie in Menace II Society. Her compelling feature film debut as the heroic teenage single mom at the center of Menace’s world of adolescent violence and moral indifference catapulted the 22-year-old actress to the top of Black Hollywood’s A-list and into starring roles in three major movies this year.

Those nails actually belong to Peaches, Pinkett’s loud-mouthed, sassy character in Keenen Ivory Wayans’s A Low Down Dirty Shame (tentatively due this fall). Peaches brings Pinkett a sharp 180 degrees from Menace’s serious, responsible Ronnie. Her performances as Lauren, the upper-middle-class BAP brat in Matty Rich’s The Inkwell “who only worries about boys spending money on her,” and as Lyric, a fragile rural rose blooming from the dusty back roads of a Houston ghetto in Doug McHenry’s Jason’s Lyric (due in November), showcase her range further still.

The challenge of playing four radically different roles back-to-back could unsettle a young film newcomer, but Pinkett’s characters are always grounded in her own sometimes difficult life experience. “Ronnie is very close to my mother; she graduated high school with me in her tummy,” Pinkett says. “Lauren was also familiar because my Jamaican grandmother raised me in that upper-middle-class background before she died.” That loss and the divorce of her parents (both substance abusers at the time) plunged 13-year-old Pinkett into a very different world, one she says equipped her at age 18 for the Hollywood jungle—and for a character like Peaches. “I have a really obnoxious nature,” she admits, laughing. “I can get stank sometimes, all attitude and just being forward with it.” In contrast, she says, “playing Lyric allowed me for the first time to be loving, vulnerable—to let the walls down and say, ’Here I am.’”

The self-confident Pinkett, who counsels troubled teens across the country in her spare time, seems particularly savvy about her career. “I’m extremely lucky not to have been typecast, even though I’ve done only black films by black filmmakers,” she says. “It’s not, ‘Let’s get Jada for the homegirl and blasie-blah.’ That leaves my opening to grow.”

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Revisit Aaliyah's August 2001 Cover Story: 'WHAT LIES BENEATH?'

With a new album and the romantic lead in the upcoming Anne Rice-adapted flick Queen of the Damned, Aaliyah is ready for superstardom. But don’t think you can get too close to her. Hyun Kim tried and found out that some things are best left alone. Illustration by Alvaro. Styling by Angela Arambulo

Aaliyah lives the perfect life. To hear her tell it, she wouldn’t change a thing. “This is what I always wanted,” she says of her career. “I breathe to perform, to entertain, I can’t imagine myself doing anything else. I’m just a really happy girl right now. I honestly love every aspect of this business. I really do. I feel very fulfilled and complete.”

It’s true that a young woman with a burgeoning career in music and film might as well be ecstatic about her life. In fact, there’s nothing more annoying than hearing some spoiled star whine about the pitfalls of success. So, while Aaliyah’s comments are refreshing, you can’t help but wonder if things sound, well, too good to be true. She speaks like a veteran politician – well prepared and press savvy, like she’s reading from an unseen teleprompter.

Of course, 22-year-old Aaliyah has been preparing for stardom since childhood. And now that she’s made it this far, it’s impossible to determine when she’s in performance mode, or just honestly being herself. A trained actress who is quickly becoming a hot property in Hollywood, Aaliyah has mastered the art of hiding herself from the public. It started back in the day, when she always rocked dark sunglasses. Because her eyes were rarely seen, a rumor quickly spread that she had a lazy or glass eye. She soon took to covering just her left eye with her long, straight, black hair. She hid again when, at 15, reports of her marriage to 25-year-old mentor and producer R. Kelly – the story broke in the December ‘94/January ’95 VIBE – scandalized the R&B world.

"IT'S IMPOSSIBLE TO DETERMINE WHEN SHE'S IN PERFORMANCE MODE OR BEING HERSELF. A TRAINED ACTRESS, AALIYAH HAS MASTERED THE ART OF HIDING HERSELF FROM THE PUBLIC."

If you bring up the marriage with her, she sort of changes the subject. And we’re left searching dying for a glimpse inside this intriguing, mysterious woman.

It’s a bustling Thursday evening in May, and Aaliyah is lacing up her clunky bowling shoes at the AMF Chelsea Piers Lanes in New York City. She goes unnoticed by the rowdy, drunken group of Wall Street types in the next lane. Her tight, red sleeveless top and slightly faded blue jeans give more of a girl-riding-the-subway look than girl-on-MTV. She playfully tiptoes to the line and stomps her feet when her ball ends up in the gutter. But somehow you get the feeling that she isn’t particularly interested in rolling strikes either. She barely pays attention to her score, listed under the name Baby Girl. Aaliyah’s entourage – her stylist, makeup artist, and hairstylist – are more engaged than she is. The entire scene feels very staged, starring Aaliyah as the around-the-way superstar who’s kicking it with her peoples. “I like the simple things in life,” she insists. “When I have time, I stay home a lot, do things like this or play laser tag. I’ve always been a homebody.” It couldn’t have been scripted any better.

Brooklyn-born, Detroit-raised Aaliyah Dana Haughton has been playing her roles well for as long as anyone can remember. All it took was a one-line speaking part as an orphan in her first grade’s production of Annie to convince Aaliyah that performing was her… From ages 8 to 9, she would sing Stevie Wonder and Whitney Houston songs at weddings around Michigan. A faithful watcher of Star Search, Aaliyah was dying to compete on the show. At 11 years old, she got her shot. She sang “My Funny Valentine,” lost, and cried. Ed McMahon, the host of Star Search, who introduced the world to Justin Timberlake, Destiny’s Child, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and countless others, recalls Aaliyah’s performance. “There’s a thing that you see when somebody walks out on the stage,” he says. “I call it the fire. They got that inner fire, which has nothing to do with the schooling, nothing to do with the teacher, nothing to do with the parents. There is a desire in that person to please the audience. You see enough of it to recognize it. And that’s what I saw with Aaliyah.”

It wasn’t long before she recovered from her Star Search loss and hit up the stage again. Her uncle, Barry Hankerson, was married to Gladys Knight when he took his then 11-year-old niece on stage to perform with the R&B legend for five nights at Bally’s Las Vegas casino. Knight would call Aaliyah out to perform “Home” and then duet with her on “Believe In Yourself.” Soon after, Hankerson introduced his niece to R. Kelly, whom he was managing. Kelly ended up writing and producing 15-year-old Aaliyah’s 1994 debut Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number. Her life as a shy schoolgirl from an upper-middle-class neighborhood was officially over.

Not that she cared. Aaliyah is not one of those former child stars who complains of missing out on the innocence of adolescence. So what if she had a full-time bodyguard attending classes with her at Detroit High School for the Fine and Performing Arts? She was living her dream, right? Well, sort of. While she enjoys performing and being a celebrity, she doesn’t want the extra strings – like reporters probing her deepest fears and desires – that come with the package. She makes sure to give only the “right” answers, because she wants to hold onto whatever is left of her private life. So she only alludes to her relationship with R. Kelly when she says, “Of course, everybody’s had hard times. I’ve had hard times. I don’t really think I will go into detail as to what it was. But when you go through something so painful, it just helps you become a stronger person.” When asked if she’s ever been in love, she says with a bright smile, “Private life! I don’t want to share that.”

She’s like the Teflon diva, nothing ever sticks to her. After Kelly, rumors linked her romantically to Ginuwine, Jay-Z, and, most recently, the co-CEO of Roc-A-Fella Records, Damon Dash. In May, Aaliyah hosted a bash for Dash’s 30th birthday at a New York City club where they were spotted together; one person said they were “inseparable” – he even walked her to the bathroom. “I think rumors are hilarious,” she says. “I don’t pay any attention. It goes in one ear and out the other. When you’re in the business, you hang out with people, and people are like, ‘I wonder, are they seeing each other?’ I never dated Jay. I never dated Ginuwine. Damon and I are very good friends. I’ll keep it at that right now.” It’s hard to believe her when she’s wearing a small platinum and diamond Roc-A-Fella pendant on her neck. She claims that it’s hers and that it’s “just a little symbol of a record” and changes the subject, insisting that she’s briefly dated just two men in her whole life.

Over the course of her career, the only thing Aaliyah has seemed willing to reveal about herself has been her highly touted body. Her slim frame has become a favorite from fashion figures to frat boys. “She made that hip hop look sexy for women wearing men’s clothes,” says Andy Hilfiger, who cast Aaliyah in the 1996 Tommy Jeans ad campaign also featuring Mark Ronson and Kidada Jones (daughter of VIBE founder Quincy Jones). The ads showed Aaliyah sporting men’s boxers under baggy jeans with a tight tube top. “It created a whole new look,” says Hilfiger. “It was sexy but classic.” By the time the sultry One in A Million hit in 1996, Aaliyah’s sound and look became a lot more mature and darker. Searching for a new style, Aaliyah’s mom suggested her daughter cover her left eye with her hair just like her mom’s favorite classic film actress Veronica Lake. It gave the 18-year-old an enigmatic touch. “She’s got an incredible sense of style, maybe the best of anybody I can think of,” says MTV’s Carson Daly. “She’s really cutting edge, always on step ahead of the curve. [The TRL audience] looks to Aaliyah to figure out what’s hot and what’s new.”

"MY MOTHER ALWAYS SAID I HAD SEX APPEAL," AALIYAH SAYS. "EVEN WHEN I WAS VERY YOUNG, WHEN I WOULD TAKE PICTURES, THERE WAS SOMETHING SEXUAL ABOUT ME. I DO FEEL SEXY FOR SURE. I ENJOY IT."

She doesn’t have the best figure or best voice, but it’s the way she uses what she has that makes her so alluring. “When we dance together, it’s like synchronized swimming,” says Fatima, Aaliyah’s choreographer. “She is naturally sexy without effort.” Aaliyah’s singing voice, while not all that powerful, sounds like she’s whispering in your ear from the pillow next to yours, slowly seducing you over Timbaland’s simmering beats. “My mother always said that she feels like I always had sex appeal,” Aaliyah says. “Even when I was very young, when I would take pictures, there was something sexual about me. I do feel sexy for sure. I embrace it, and I’m comfortable with it. I enjoy it.”

This confidence, her mastery of her assets, is what landed Aaliyah, who had no previous film experience, a costarring role with Jet Li in last year’s Romeo Must Die. Combining hip hop (the movie also featured DMX) and kung fu, Romeo had the perfect formula for box office success. But the critics tore up the highly remixed Shakespearean plot for both its simplicity and lack of any romantic chemistry between Li and Aaliyah. “This movie needs a screenplay,” critic Roger Ebert wrote.

Still, any were impressed by Aaliyah’s depth. The New York Post heralded her performance, which ranges from crying to killing, as a “revelation.” And as for the absence of sex scenes, Warner Bros. decided to edit them out. “We did a [scene with] Jet and I kissing, and we ended up going with a hug,” Aaliyah says. “I guess they thought it was a little sweeter and left more to the imagination.” Maybe audiences weren’t ready to see one of hip hop’s prized young kittens getting it on with an Asian kung-fu master 16 years her senior.

If moviegoers weren’t ready for interracial heat then, they’d better brace themselves now. In the upcoming Queen of the Damned, Aaliyah plays Akasha, an ancient-Egyptian vampire. Based on a combination of Anne Rice’s The Vampire Lestat and The Queen of the Damned, the movie is slated to show Aaliyah in intimate scenes with her Irish costar, Stuart Townsend. Perhaps what’s more striking than the eroticism of her role is that Aaliyah is the biggest star in the movie. The blockbuster Anne Rice movie Interview With the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles boasted Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, Antonio Banderas and a big Hollywood budget. Queen costs $35 million and has no marquee actors. This doesn’t concern Michael Rymer. “There were two factors for casting Aaliyah. I was very keen that Akasha, an Egyptian queen, not look like Elizabeth Taylor,” he says, referring to 1963’s Cleopatra. “And not only did [Aaliyah] do a good job on Romero Must Die, but people went to see her. This is a really difficult role, and she took on a huge challenge. She worked her ass off for this film."

Aaliyah trained hard for her role, working closely with her acting coach for a month and then another month with a speech coach in New York. While filming in Australia, she worked with a personal trainer because she wore revealing outfits and a stunt coordinator for her flying scenes. “I have to exude power and be regal,” she says of her role as the mother of all vampires. “I love Egypt. I love vampires. It was the dream role, so I worked very hard.”

During her four-month shoot, Aaliyah somehow found the time to finish her new self-titled album. She began recording it in 1998 before Romeo. She stopped, wrapped the film, and released the super-catchy number-one single “Try Again” off the soundtrack. She traveled to Australia, shot Queen during the day, and hit the studio at night. The new album focuses more on her voice, bringing it to the forefront as opposed to hiding it behind the layered production. It was never her plan to take five years to follow up the double-platinum success of One In A Million. In between, her infectious 1998 hit “Are You That Somebody?” off the Dr. Dolittle soundtrack not only reminded her old fans that she still had it, but introduced her to new fans as well. At the time, “Somebody” was the biggest hit in Aaliyah’s career. She gave us just enough of the tasty appetizer to keep our palates whetted. “When it comes to overexposure, that’s something that I will always be aware of,” she says. “Because I never want that. This is my life, I love it, but it’s important for me to take breaks. Don’t want to overload anybody.”

Aaliyah’s career, like her personal life, is observed in lashes. She comes and goes when she wants. Unlike Mary J. Blige, Lauryn Hill, and Madonna, who pull the public across the fine line between their private and public lives, Aaliyah puts a velvet rope between hers. While most artists scream for creative control of their songwriting and production, Aaliyah–who modestly refers to herself as an “interpreter”–is primarily interested in performing.

“I’m not one to give everything and pour my heart out in one of my songs,” she says. With Hankerson, her uncle, as the CEO of the label she signed to, her mother, Diane Haughton, as her manager, and her cousin Jomo Hankerson as executive producer of her albums, it’s obvious that the marketing, promotion, and sale of Aaliyah is the family’s business. And her father, Michael Haughton, used to comanage her until he fell ill (her family won’t reveal with what). Aaliyah runs every decision by her older brother, Rashad. Her entire world is a tight, closed network, open only to those close to her.

When the people who know her best describe Aaliyah, you would think they were speaking of an angel. Fatima says, “Aaliyah is the sweetest artist I know.” Her best friend of five years, Kidada Jones, uses the words “grounded,” “emotionally balanced,” and “unaffected.” And according to Jones and Aaliyah’s mom, she has a great sense of humor. She’s good at imitations, especially of her mother’s deep voice. Aaliyah likes to make prank phone calls with Jones to what she calls “public establishments.” When asked to go into more detail, Aaliyah chooses not to–for personal reasons, of course.

Even when Aaliyah was young, she was private. “She was a very quiet child,” remembers Dr. Denise Davis-Cotton, whom Aaliyah says guided her education in high school. “Very polite, personable, conscientious. She knew her goals in life at a very young age.” Her mother attributes it to her daughter’s creativity. “She’s quite a complex young lady,” Haughton says. “She’s always been like that. It’s just a part of the genius of herself.”

As a child, it was apparent that Aaliyah was ahead of her peers. During her audition for acceptance to her high school, Aaliyah sang the aria “Ave Maria” in Italian. She was only 14. With the help of private tutors and independent-study programs, Aaliyah graduated high school with a 4.0 GPA. Her home life was pet-packed, with ducks, dogs, and iguanas running around her suburban Detroit home. Her exposure to varied cultures has influenced her approach to music. Aaliyah encourages Timbaland to get as creative as he wants when making up her beats. “She always likes to go to the left,” he says. “She’s the only one who’s willing to use those tracks. It wouldn’t be right if she didn’t.”

"I'VE ALWAYS BEEN MYSTERIOUS. THERE ARE TIMES WHEN I DON'T KNOW MYSELF...I THINK I'M A BIT OF A VAMPIRE IN REAL LIFE, AND THERE ARE TIMES WHEN I JUST WANT TO BE MYSELF."

After bowling a low 73, Aaliyah decides that she wants to play video games before heading to her Upper West Side apartment to read Harry Potter books. She wants to get as much rest as she can. In a month, she’ll head back to Australia to play Zee in Matrix 2 and 3. After that, she’ll play the lead in the Whitney Houston-produced remake of the '70s film Sparkle, which is still in its embryonic stage. But for tonight, Aaliyah just wants to be a regular girl. She blasts away would-be killers with her pink gun in the hyper-violent Time Crisis II.

When Aaliyah eventually gets shot to death in the game, she decides she’s had enough. “I’ve always been mysterious,” says Aaliyah. “My mother and father always used to ask me, ‘What are you thinking, what’s going on?’ There are times when I don’t understand myself, you know what I mean?” You do understand, and you can’t help but believe every word she says as she continues, “I have black-out shades in my apartment, I push a button, it’s totally dark. I think I’m a bit of a vampire in real life, and there are times when I just want to be myself. I wanna be alone.”

So instead of hiding from the world, maybe all the secrecy is Aaliyah’s way of discovering herself; her way of holding on to what’s true in a hazy world of glitz and imagery. “People feel like they own you in this business, and, to a certain degree, they do,” she says. “But there’s a part of me that will always be just for me.”

-

This article originally appeared in the August 2001 issue of VIBE Magazine | Written by Hyun Kim | Cover illustration by Alvaro.

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(L-R) Phillipa Soo as Eliza Hamilton, Renee Elise Goldsberry as Angelica Schuyler and Jasmin Cephas Jones as Peggy Schuyler in the filmed musical, ‘Hamilton.’
Courtesy of Disney

Watch: Lin-Manuel Miranda & The ‘Hamilton’ Cast Speak On The Musical’s Significance In Today’s Fight For Social Justice

Independence Day is about to hit different. As America takes part in another 3-day holiday weekend filled with socially distanced cookouts and quarantined binge-watching sessions, family and friends can finally see Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda's groundbreaking musical, on the small screen. Alas, that subtle, 5-year feeling of envy felt by those of us who missed the opportunity to see the original cast at a sold-out showing can finally be let go. Thanks to streaming platform Disney Plus, musical theatre enthusiasts and followers of the Broadway production will now be able to relive the cultural phenomenon that debuted on January 20, 2015, after it went on to win nearly a dozen Tony Awards, a Pulitzer Prize of Drama, and a Grammy.

With the ongoing protests around the murderous killing of George Floyd, the unwavering #BlackLivesMatter movement, and the exposing spotlight on the systemic racism that has plagued America for centuries, Hamilton's film premiere couldn't arrive at a better time. There's a melting pot of actors, rappers, and singers of color telling the stories of figures in American history through the lens of hip-hop, R&B, and popular music. But what brings all of this full circle is the irony of how monuments dedicated to many of America's forefathers (and slave owners) are now being torn down in protest.

"Listen, I didn't care about these people either. I was not a history fan prior to reading Hamilton's book," shared Miranda—the filmed musical's protagonist Alexander Hamilton and producer behind its book, music, and lyrics—in an interview with VIBE during an on-camera interview. "All I knew about him was he was the white guy on the 10 and he died in a duel. And then I picked up this history book and my way in was that he grew up in the Caribbean and he came from somewhere else. And so, that was my way into the story. And I think that if you tell it that way, you see it through a kind of different lens. It's not an accident that we have Black and brown bodies playing these founders."

"And clearly, in this moment where we exist, it feels like if this show can give energy and momentum to the movement, then the show is serving the moment. And that's all that we can do..." adds Hamilton's director and producer, Thomas Kail. "Our hope is," he continues, "by putting it on Disney Plus where tens of millions of people can see it in one day, that maybe we're doing some kind of service towards that and just trying to participate and contribute."

Ahead of the Broadway play's cinematic debut, VIBE correspondent Jazzie Belle not only sat Miranda and Kali, but also members of the illustrious cast: Daveed Diggs (who plays Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson), Renée Elise Goldsberry (Angelica Schuyler), Christopher Jackson (George Washington), Jasmine Cephas Jones (Peggy Schuyler/Maria Reynolds), and Leslie Odom, Jr. (Aaron Burr). They talked hip-hop, today's climate around civil rights, and who they'd create a musical around if given the opportunity.

Lin-Manuel Miranda  and Thomas Kail

On the decision to have the musical's characters inspired by hip-hop/R&B artists of past and present:

Miranda: My goal with it was I wanted to have as big a tent in terms of the casting as possible. I wanted people who had never auditioned for a musical to audition. I wanted musical folks who loved hip hop but had never been able to bring that, to come in. So, every character description was a half a musical theatre reference and half a hip hop reference. I think George Washington was a Mufasa meets ...

Kail: John Legend.

Miranda: Oh, John legend. Yeah. And Angelica's character was Desiree Armfeldt, who's the smartest character in Little Light Music meets Nicki Minaj because she's just got the fastest raps in the show and the hardest raps in the show. And it was the intelligence. That's the secret about Angelica. She's smarter than Alexander, she's smarter than Jefferson, but because she is a woman in this time, she only gets to exercise it in a few ways. And so, that was the thinking behind each of the characters. I'm trying to think of some of the other ones. King George was like Rufus Wainwright meets King Herod from Jesus Christ Superstar. I can't remember, but the fun of it was this mashup of a musical theatre character and a hip hop artist. And in contradiction, figuring out what actors would do with that.

It's Mobb Deep, it's [Big] Pun, it's Biggie, it's very East Coast '90s. There's even a little sneaky Brand Nubian in there. It's just sort of—

Kail: Wait, and Hercules Mulligan was Busta Rhymes. So, when Busta Rhymes raps or Hercules Mulligan raps in the mixtape, it was beyond anything you could comprehend.

Renée Elise Goldsberry, Jasmine Cephas Jones and Leslie Odom, Jr.

On the "Dear White American Theater" open letter and the tough conversations around systemic racism within the musical theatre industry:

Odom, Jr.: There are two important talks that are happening. There's the talk that we're having with our white brothers and sisters, our white colleagues and peers, and then there's the talk that we're having amongst each other that sometimes we have never spoken about, about trauma. What everybody's asking themselves right now, what I think the most important questions are...white supremacy is upheld by systems. And so, it's like am I actively upholding the system? Do I have hiring power? Am I actively upholding the system, or am I being used to actively uphold this system?

And that's what that letter is about. It was crafted to this industry that we love so much, and we're saying to them, "Are you being used?" It's going to take work to dismantle this thing. I'll say this. Don't wait. If you love and care for Black people, don't wait for us to get murdered by the police to care about our Black lives. Don't wait for me to get murdered by the cops. Care about my Black life right now. That's what we talking about.

On the women rappers/singers they pulled inspiration from when preparing for their roles:

Goldsberry: I actually studied female rappers my whole life...It's one of those things you never know, when you're kind of feeding your soul with things, what you're preparing yourself for. We [Jasmine and I] almost had the opportunity to do a big tribute to Salt-N-Pepa. We were going to do "Shoop."

What we love... It also mirrors Hamilton. This is a show about a group of men fighting for something, and what our hip-hop queens represent is, in this seemingly very male world, the power of women. They're standing there saying, "I'm here, and I own this, too." They [Salt N Pepa, MC Lyte, etc] were my model way before anybody asked me to play Angelica Schuyler.

Jones: For me, I didn't rap that much at all in this, but what I loved about my number in "Say No to This," it was a huge ode to an R&B ballad. The fact that even Jill Scott sang "Say No to This" on the mixtape was like...I've seen Jill Scott like five times. You know what I mean? I love Jill Scott so much, so it's just full circle for me, even the fact that she was able to do that on the mixtape. And that's who also influenced me as an R&B singer.

On the significance of seeing Hamilton today as Black and brown people fighting for racial equality in America:

Jones: It's about inspiring, and it's about seeing diversity on stage. It's about going out, getting people to vote to make a change. If you can't feel like you can't do it yourself, then go out and reach out to your friends and come together. There are layers to this show. And as Leslie said, it's the beginning of a conversation. Have it open the conversation, and let's continue to talk about it.

Odom, Jr: The premiere on Disney Plus, we hope—in the same way that I felt before the show opened off-Broadway—was the beginning of a conversation. It's the beginning of critique. There can be an honest critique of the work. There's a lot of love and hard work that went into it, but it can be looked at with new eyes and picked apart if somebody wanted to. Again, I hope it's the beginning of a conversation. I leave it to other people to sell stuff, but I think that the show is about them, but it is also so clearly about us, and you feel that when you watch it. It's about Thomas Jefferson, but it's about Daveed. It's about Alexander Hamilton, but it's about Lin, and so that's worthy of your time.

Goldsberry: This is a show about this ragtag group of people that were the voices of a revolution, and they won. We won, we won, we won, we won, right? We are in a revolution right now, and we need to win it. The risk that these people took is an example and actually reflects the risks that people are taking right now. Not to mention, don't get it twisted. This is not a country that was made by others. This was a country that was made by our people, too. And seeing people that look like you play it is the first step in acknowledging that. I think that's really hugely important.

Don't write off your history because of the pictures that they put up and showed you to tell... It's the same thing like, how do you deal with your spirituality? Because of the picture somebody showed you of Jesus? No, you claim that. You claim that, and you should claim this country. You should claim that, too. We would hope that the work that's been done in the show breaks down some of those barriers and that people look with new eyes.

Daveed Diggs and Christopher Jackson

On how he wasn't initially sold on the idea of Hamilton:

Diggs: It was Tommy [Kali] who told me what Lin was cooking up, and I told him it was a terrible idea. I stand by that, by the way. (Smizes) It was a terrible idea...The second that he sent me the sort of demos, which are not great. They're nothing like what we have now, but it was so clear that it was going to be amazing. The fact that it is a terrible idea has nothing to do with it being a great show. And as soon as he sent me the music, I was like, "This is a great show and I really, really want to be a part of it." It's still a bad idea. If you pitched me that idea today, I would tell you it's a bad idea.

On how his love for hip-hop began in his entertainment career:

Jackson: I grew up in Southern Illinois, right? My family, we didn't have cable and we didn't have what would be known as urban radio. We didn't have Black radio back there. Any of my friends, anytime they would go visit family in Chicago or St. Louis, we would all rush over to their house with blank tapes so that they could then record the mix shows on a loop and bring back whatever we could get. I remember running through the house singing Run DMC and "Roxanne, Roxanne" just had my mind. I had no idea what this was, but I was like, "Ahhh." I used to get in trouble for rapping at the dinner table because back then, you didn't sing or do anything at the dinner table. But I'm 44 years old. Hip-hop has been a presence in my entire life. Just as pop music has and just as Michael Jackson and any country artist because I'm from the South. It's just the amalgamation of all of these different musical things, which is why Lin and I get down so well because he's constantly mining for that kind of stuff in his work. I found that I have a little reservoir that I always get to pull from when we do stuff together.

On how Hamilton should be interpreted in light of America's forefathers' monuments being torn down today:

Diggs: I think we have to accept the fact that there are sides of the people that we have considered heroes for a long time that don't deserve to have monuments about them, that those monuments don't serve us. I don't think that is a reason to not learn about them. I think it's actually an argument to learn about them in their totality and struggle with the idea of what is useful about the things that a dude like Thomas Jefferson came up with or penned what is instructive about them. And what about him do we disagree with? He was a human being. You know what I'm saying? I think the same argument is true of watching the show.

Jackson: Hamilton shouldn't be confused with hero-worship. It shouldn't be confused with the type of veneration that historically, we viewed a history through that lens and that's not what we're doing. I think that one of the many statements that are made happen to be about the fact that we're bringing these men and women down off of pedestals, we're looking at them in their most trifling states. The founding of this country was always aspirational and was always meant to not live up to it because the men that were actually in charge at that point were not capable of being their greatest selves in regard to the way that we view this now. But slaves back then, sure enough, didn't see any greatness in them.

Interview's music bed provided by Gus.

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