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Michael Grecco

From The Vault: Poetry In Motion - The Director, John Singleton (Fall 1992)

John Singleton battles racial tension in L.A. as he takes his road movie, Poetic Justice.

Simi Valley, Calif. — April 29, 1992

Today an all-white jury in this predominantly white community found a group of police officers charged in the beating of Rodney King innocent. As the old folks would say, it is the Day of Reckoning. Generation after generation of African Americans in Los Angeles had grown up saying don’t trust the police, and, finally, the videotape of King’s beating showed millions outside the hoods just what they’d been talking about. President Bush would later declare on prime-time television that he found the verdict “hard to understand.” Whether or not the system failed, things certainly look that way.

Hard thoughts run through John Singleton’s mind as he hears the verdict on the radio in his Pathfinder all-terrain vehicle. He’s driving to the set of his new Columbia Pictures film, Poetic Justice. Singleton, the 24-year-old director of last summer’s explosive, money-making Boyz N the Hood, is livid. Impulsively, he decides to drive directly to the courthouse. With him is his assistant, a 6’7” man named Shorty, who used to work for Tone-Lôc and was hired to keep Singleton insulated from the masses that besiege him during a shoot.

On the courthouse steps, Singleton and Shorty are immediately pressed by newspaper and television reporters barking questions. In the quiet, steady voice he adopts to make a point, Singleton tells them: “The judicial system feels no responsibility to black people—never has, never will. We have too many lawyers who don’t practice true law. They had a chance to prove the system works and they messed it up.” His piece said, he heads for the Pathfinder.

Back on the set, everyone tries to carry on business as usual. But the King verdict has turned Los Angeles into a tinderbox, and film crews are not immune. Some crew members say they feel there’s a schism between whites and blacks on the set, though there are no overt incidents. The blacks are visibly angry, the whites either silent or apologetic. The racial split on this crew is about fifty-fifty, unusually integrated for a big-studio production. But holdovers from Boyz, whose crew was almost entirely black, feel the added white presence.

It doesn’t help that, on a street only yards away from the set boundary, a dozen police patrol in full riot gear. It’s almost as if they think Singleton might lead a riot, then and there.

The first shot goes up. The scene is set in an old-fashioned open-air drive-in theater. Because the initial shot is panoramic and doesn’t involve any of the actors, most of the crew, including Singleton, aren’t directly involved. They spend the time crowded around Singleton, who’s sitting in his director’s chair holding a small television on his lap. The two dramas unfold concurrently—one starring Janet Jackson, the other starring the angry throngs of Los Angeles. On the small television, the riot looks surreal, a Hollywood concoction of burning buildings, cars on fire, helicopters circling and people in the streets.

All three days shooting continues in Simi Valley as the riots rage on. Although the physical violence never reaches this suburban area, other kinds of violence do. The whole time, crew members alternate between watching the news and the scene being filmed. By the weekend, the worst of the riots have passed, but upon returning home, many of the cast and crew find that their neighborhoods have been hit hard. Singleton’s own neighborhood of Baldwin Hills, a pleasant middle- and upper-middle-class black area, was only brushed by the violence. It takes days for the blunt anger to dull and the miasma to lift. To many on the set, the whole idea of making a movie amidst all the destruction of property and spirit seems an aberration.

But, like everyone else in Los Angeles, the cast and crew must get back to work.

Flashback

John Singleton sold Boyz N the Hood shortly after graduating from the University of Southern California’s film school. Because of its relatively minuscule $5.7-million budget, it generated the most pure profit of any film last year. Boyz was straight-up family drama—with the twist that it was set in the hellish epicenter of South Central Los Angeles. Its sleeper success started a tsunami brewing, one that Roger Ebert promptly dubbed the black new wave. To Hollywood, it proved there was a new way to sell pictures. And it earned Singleton all of the town’s most valued perks, including creative freedom, numerous ducats, and representation by Hollywood’s most powerful agency, CAA. It also created for his second picture the kind of expectations that can only be called unrealistic.

Poetic Justice is the story of a young black woman named Justice who has known more than her fair share of tragedy. She writes poetry, hence the movie’s title. Through a blind date and a crazy road trip, the winsome poet is thrown together with Lucky, an around-the-way boy who teaches her a thing or two about men. But make no mistakes, Justice couldn’t have been directed by John Hughes. It is populated by black women you know and love: mamas, aunts, and grandmas; best friends and sisters; rappers and chit chats, divas and hootchies. After the male-heavy Boyz, Singleton decided to focus on women’s stories this time around.

Even before casting began, Singleton and casting director Robi Reed were besieged by black actresses asking to read for parts — from the famous (Robin Givens, Lisa Bonet) to the vaguely familiar (Jada Pinkett from A Different World) to the unknown. It has been said that sexism is a bigger monster than racism in Hollywood. For black actresses, who must deal with both, meaty roles that move beyond simple stereotypes (hooker, welfare mother) are few and far between. In the end, the lead went to pop singer Janet Jackson. She did not supply her own poems, however—they were penned by Dr. Maya Angelou.

Jackson isn’t new to acting, of course. As a child and teenager, she appeared on such television shows as Good Times, Diff’rent Strokes and Fame. Understandably, there were doubts that the Encino-bred Jackson could play a girl from South Central. But Jackson, sporting the de rigeur Fendi bag and Nefertiti-like braids, went to town in the screen test. The head honchos at Columbia were duly convinced.

In the movie, Jackson is teamed with another musician, rapper Tupac Shakur. On a recent solo pin from Digital Underground, Shakur landed a smooth one-two earlier this year with a hit movie, Juice, and a boomblasting debut album, 2pacalypse Now. Ice Cube, for whom Singleton wrote the role of Lucky, turned it down because he was “too busy.” Ultimately, Shakur and Singleton made a fine match. The scene in his video “Brenda’s Got a Baby,” in which Shakur’s seen holding an infant, reminded many of Singleton’s point in Boyz that the black man must be a real father to his children.

Poetic Justice also features Boyz co-stars Tyra Ferrell, Baha Jackson, and Regina King. Roger Smith (Do the Right Thing, Deep Cover) gets a lot of laughs—at singer and co-star Keith Washington’s expense. It’s a very musical cast that also includes rappers Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest, Tone Lôc, Dina D., Miki Howard, and a cameo by rapper Nefertiti. Singleton insists that the musicians were the best actors that auditioned, (Likewise, music videos have become a stage for many would-be actors.) He’s also confident that this movie will be better than his first because “it has rhythms—ups and downs, drama and humor, like a good song.”

Los Angeles — Spring 1992

The song begins. It’s the first day of principal photography, and, because the crew hasn’t become comfortable with one another yet, tension hangs in the air. Everything is brand-new, including the director’s chair. The logo on the back of the cast’s and crew’s chairs reads: POETIC JUSTICE: BACK TO THE HOOD. Singleton is dressed in his usual B-boy uniform of T-shirt, baggy jeans and baseball cap, a Malcolm X pendant dangling from his neck.

We’re in a predominantly black Los Angeles community, near where many of the scenes in Boyz were shot. It’s a street scene: Lucky is driving up the street to visit somebody he knows in the neighborhood, and on the way he runs into a few old friends. While that encounter unfolds in the street, non-actor neighbors peer out of their windows and around the corners of buildings, out of range of the cameras.

The street is full of cars and people. But it’s hard to tell which are the studio cars, which people are actors, and which live in the area. In some circles in Hollywood, fantasy is out and reality is in. Particularly African-American reality. Singleton knows his strengths: every hour or so, he says to whoever wants to listen, “This is it, this is the real shit.”

As a practical matter, the experience of shooting Boyz N the Hood made Singleton a stronger filmmaker. He admits, “With Boyz, I didn’t know how to direct a movie. I just went with my feelings. Somehow, it came out right. I was really intense in film school, a lot more intense than I am now. Whenever someone foils a person’s ability to be creative, they make that person dangerous. A lot of people should be glad I’m making movies. I could be out somewhere robbing cars.”

Culver City — Later

Singleton drives onto the Sony Pictures lot, blasting Leaders of the New School on his sound system. He is happy because Boyz is up for two big Academy Awards—Best Original Screenplay and Best Director. He is the youngest person ever to be so honored.

As Singleton approaches the lot’s gate, two young brothers guarding it shout, “Whaddup?” They give him dap for the nominations, obviously proud, even a little in awe of him. Singleton thanks them, shaking their hands.

“These are the people I make movies for,” he says, driving on, “the regular brother and sister on the street.”

Many expected the writing nomination, but best-director is a surprise. With it come two firsts. Not only is Singleton the youngest director ever nominated (Orson Welles was 25 when he was nominated for Citizen Kane), but he is also the first African-American director to be recognized by the Academy.

The latter is a fact that makes him both proud and uneasy. He says, “It’s all political. Spike should have got it first. If not for School Daze, then for Do the Right Thing." Spike Lee and Singleton have a close friendship, with Lee functioning as a mentor to the younger filmmaker.

Lee is many things, but he is not a darling of the movie industry. He lives in Brooklyn and doesn't play on Hollywood's social lots; he's a no-show at industry parties and refuses to join the Directors Guild. On the other hand, Singleton is Los Angeles born and bred. Although he won't win an Oscar this year, the industry likes the USC grad. If nothing else, they like the fact that he made a movie for $5.7 million that took in ten times that much at the box office. Politics, racism, and class struggle go over a lot of these people's heads. Money does not.

Los Angeles — One Week Later

The cast and crew have moved to a different location, a residential block in a more upscale neighborhood. This neighborhood is also predominantly black, but it has bigger houses, with pretty gardens and lavish, rolling lawns around back. About fifty people, cast and crew, stand disconsolately inside and around a comfortable-looking house, doing nothing, burning up studio dollars and valuable production moments. It’s a couple of hours after lunch, and Singleton is sitting outside, quietly fuming.

The trouble is, an important video segment hasn’t arrived as scheduled. Today’s scene can’t be shot without it. It’s a scene in which Justice sits in the living room of her home watching television; the missing segment contained the images that were supposed to be played back on the television. Production assistants point at one another, saying, “I thought you were supposed to bring it,” and, “Like hell I was.” Because of the timing and location, there’s nothing else that can be done until the tape shows.

Singleton is characteristically even-tempered. Sanguinely, he says, “It should’ve set us back an hour, but it’s taking most of the afternoon.”

While many directors habitually rant and rave, Singleton has never been known to blow up. He admits to getting frustrated and says he often wants to vent. But he doesn’t believe overt anger has ever made something happen more quickly on a set.

For some reason, the delay has raised the tension level to its highest pitch yet. It’s still relatively early in shooting, and the crew has yet to settle in. Everybody looks uncomfortable. Trying to cope, Singleton locates a box. He puts on Rick James’ “Super Freak” at block-party decibel level. A few of the crew members start dancing. Singleton says, “I should have thought of this sooner. Play some music when things are getting tense. We used to do this all the time on Boyz.” The earlier film was shot in six furious weeks; the box was out a lot.

The Poetic Justice shoot must be going smoothly, because he hasn’t had to pull out Rick James until today.

Los Angeles — The Next Day

A 12-year-old girl visits the set with her mom and two brothers in tow. She wears a key on one of her hoop earrings and a “Rhythm Nation World Tour” T-shirt. Looking around anxiously, she explains that she is “Janet Jackson’s biggest fan.” Her little brother pipes in, “You should see her room. Janet Jackson everything.”

The girl explains that she met Singleton last year when he visited her elementary school. When she heard Jackson was co-starring in Singleton’s new film, she wrote him a letter asking to meet her. “John liked the letter and invited me to the set,” she says. The girl keeps one eye cocked, looking for Jackson at all times. She spots Jackson’s chair and squeals, “Oooooo. She’s here. This is her chair.” Like Goldilocks in the Three Bears’ house, the girl and her two brothers take turns sitting in Jackson’s chair.

Singleton comes out and greets the family as respectfully as he would any studio vice president. Then Jackson comes out to meet her fan, trailing two bodyguards who try to stay unobtrusive. She looks like any of the very pretty black women on set, the sort of girl who’s always told she should be a model or an actress. Face to face, and not projected larger-than-life on a video screen or dancing around a stadium stage, you realize that she’s a real person. It’s oddly comforting and reassuring.

Although not very tall, Jackson has an almost regal grace and posture. Perhaps the most-avoided subject on the set is the fact that she’s the youngest member of America’s First Family of Soul. Clearly, to this little girl, meeting Jackson is like meeting the Queen. After burbling a few compliments, the girl and her family is shuttled offset so that the actress and director can continue. The meeting is a rarity; the schedule is so tight that every interruption, be it from fans or press or studio heads, takes away precious minutes.

Los Angeles — Two  Weeks Later

A month into shooting, the barrage of visitors continues: press, industry, and financial-types, hangers-on and hopefuls, most of them gunning for Singleton. The array of suits constantly dogging him includes his legitimate Sony colleagues, as well as the enemy—writers and producers who bluff their way onto the set and try to woo Singleton with big talk and outrageous promises.

So, the two white men in suits standing near the camera truck could be anybody. They’re talking to another white guy, a member of the camera crew. The suits, who obviously haven’t read the Poetic Justice script, ask him what the movie is about. “It’s a love story,” the camera guy says. The suits pause.

“So, it’s a nice story?” one of them asks.

“Did you see Boyz N the Hood?” the camera guy says, looking at them dubiously.

“No.” The suit shakes his head. “But I saw New Jack City.”

It’s a minor moment, but it makes you think. There will always be those who throw Singleton’s work into that big grab bag called Films About Black Folks. Those who will never be able to tell the difference between Superfly and Lillies of the Field.

Baldwin Hills — Two Weeks Later

On location in a Baldwin Hills hair salon, Singleton is reading Rising Sun by Michael Crichton between takes. A fictional diatribe against a perceived Japanese threat to our way of life, the book is being made into a film—a major production—starring Wesley Snipes and Sean Connery. So Singleton is especially curious about this novel, though he is always working his way through one book or another. That is, when he isn’t playing Lynx, a hand-held video game system. Either way, he has the ability to concentrate on the book or game despite the bustle of activity surrounding him.

The mood on set is light. It usually is while shooting scenes in the hair salon, where Justice works. They are typical on-the-job comic riffs, like sitcom set pieces—Cheers meets the ghetto. Shampoo for afros. Today’s scenes strike the giddy crew, at least, as the film’s funniest so far.

Singleton looks up from his book and shouts, “Action!” Jackson and Tyra Ferrell cut up, almost losing their self-control in a maelstrom of giggles. Their timing is right-on, but after film stops rolling, Peter Collister, the director of photography, says that the shot was no good because one of the screens used for lighting purposes shows in the shot.

“Maybe it will just show a little bit,” Singleton says, hopefully.

Don Wilkerson, unit production manager and first assistant director, shakes his head. “John, at a drive-in, that screen will look a block long.”

Singleton looks annoyed. “But the performance was so good. It gets no better. Damn, I hate when this happens.”

Seizing an opportunity to nag, Collister says, “Now if we were on a soundstage….”

Singleton just smiles at him, acknowledging the point. He fought for location shooting, even though Hollywood lots make work much easier. Defiantly, Singleton says, “I didn’t want to be on a soundstage. It’s too artificial. I wanted to be on location. With my people.” To emphasize his point, he turns and hugs the person standing next to him. He does this a lot.

The screen is cleared and the picture’s up again. Singleton whispers directions to the actors between shots.

After one good take, he yells from his chair, “Now that was perfect. Let’s do it again.”

The cast and crew groan. They’ve heard the line before. And they’ve also heard what comes next: “I love you and I love myself. Action!”

 

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TBT.... Me at my purest time... 1986.... Graduating Blair High School.... On my way to USC Cinema School where is planned to make my mark on the world.... Today is October 2015.... Four years after this picture was taken... And 25 years ago I began principal photography on Boyz n the Hood... I was only 22... Now today I'm blocks away from where Boyz was shot doing scenes from SNOWFALL my first TV series... More dreams to be fulfilled and soul to capture on film. Give blessing to God that I've survived when so many of my folks didn't make it... I think our purpose is to honor those that came before us and pull as many of us trying to get ahead forward as well... I was a kid with lofty dreams in this picture now I'm a general on the battlefield.... Time to work!!

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* This article originally appeared in a 1992 issue of VIBE Magazine.

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EDITOR'S NOTE: Photographer Michael Grecco wrote a passage reflecting on John Singleton's passing. Read below:

Monday was a sad day knowing that great American artist John Singleton passed away. John was a truly extraordinary creative artist, and in his memory, I wanted to share a special moment we had many years ago.

I had the privilege of photographing John in 1992, in a shoot that marked my career transition from photojournalist to an artistic portrait photographer. On a personal level, John has come to represent this final switch from covering events to developing my own vision.

At the time of our memorable shoot, I had spent five years in L.A. working for People Magazine. Moving from the Boston Herald on an invitation to be one of their regular shooters was hard for me. I loved the storytelling aspect of being a news photographer but wanted to explore my personal vision as an editorial and commercial photographer. This was uncharted territory. Little did I know John Singleton would help me take the first steps in this direction.

Prior to the Singleton shoot, I had just purchased the Holga camera to experiment with. The Holga was a plastic camera with plastic lenses that took artistically slightly soft images. It also gave me the ability to use my strobes (flash) outdoors.

On that early spring day in March, I picked John up and he suggested that we go to South Central for a location. I didn’t know that area at all, but I figured the legendary Watch Tower was a good symbol of the neighborhood, and so that’s where we went. I pulled the Holga camera out for the first time. John truly understood how to collaborate and make the elements of the photograph tell a story. During our shoot, he was a true creative partner, contributing his ideas, patience, and intellect.

The experience and resulting portrait were unfamiliar in a new and tantalizing way. With John’s help on that day in 1992, I had broken ground into new photographic territory. Since then, I have moved my career into a more creative and stylized direction of portraits, capturing celebrities all around the world. Thank you John, for taking that first step with me. I will miss your achievement and contribution to this world.

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VIBE Vault: Jada Pinkett / August 1994 Issue

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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Illustration by Alvaro

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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