New book celebrates life of Detroit’s own ‘Baby Girl’ Aaliyah

There are so many iconic women to come out of Detroit. My personal “Big 3” are Anita (Baker), Aretha (Franklin), and Aaliyah… no last name is required. 

Aaliyah Dana Haughton was not born in Detroit. She was born in Brooklyn, New York, and her family moved to the Motor City when she was 5 years old. 

But, she went to school here. Gesu Catholic School for elementary school. For high school, she graduated from the Detroit School of the Arts. Although she was already a celebrity before her junior year with a successful debut album, Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number (1994), she got a lot of leniency on her class attendance and school work. 

But, for a teenager at an arts school, she was learning first-hand what her colleagues were being taught in classrooms. The original founder and principal of the school, Dr. Denise Davis-Cotton believed in the talented teen, and after her death, Cotton ensured that the school’s recital hall would be named in Aaliyah’s honor. 

Aaliyah’s death on August 25, 2001 stunned the music world and fans around the globe. At just 22, she had already experienced dynamic success. Her third studio album, which was self-titled, had just been released. The sound was more sensual and more mature than her previous studio recordings. Critically acclaimed, the album was destined to be her breakthrough. Released on July 7, the singer only had a few weeks to enjoy its success before she and nine others tragically died in a plane crash after filming the video for “Rock the Boat.” 

Her death was quickly overshadowed by the tragedy of September 11 just two weeks later. Leaving a generation reeling with a sense of insecurity and fear not felt again until a global pandemic would occur 20 years later. 

The release of Baby Girl: Better Known as Aaliyah has incredible timing. The book was released just prior to the 20th anniversary of her passing, her music was just made available for streaming, and music producer, R. Kelly who married the singer when she was only 15 in an effort to conceal his sexual abuse of her is finally headed to federal trial. And it’s a pandemic, nostalgia is a high commodity. 

I chatted via phone with my good friend, Kathy Iandoli—author of the book who is also a music journalist and diehard Aaliyah fan. 

Iandoli, a New Jersey native, recently released her biography on the singer. We talked about what motivated her to write the book and what she learned about Detroit in the process. 

Model D: What did you learn about what Detroit means to Aaliyah’s legacy? 

Kathy Iandoli: You have a school there, Gesu? They had an amazing theater program. I was really impressed by how Aaliyah was able to cultivate her talent at such a young age because the school facilitated that. When you’re allowing little kids to express themselves on stage at such a young age… I thought that was amazing. Not a lot of schools, particularly primary schools foster that kind of creativity. That was really impressive to me. 

Model D: Her creativity was definitely nurtured all throughout her life here. When she got to Detroit School for the Arts, she was already kind of famous. It’s pretty known in our generation that she was given a lot of flexibility in high school. Her principal, Dr. Davis-Cotton, used to allow her to come and go as her career required. 

Iandoli: I think they saw in her what the world saw. They encouraged her, and supported her. A lot of people can’t support a kid to stardom, some may even make them feel bad about those goals. 

There’s a reason why she was raised in Detroit, you know? I think it was just divine. 

Model D: What brought you to this book project?

Iandoli: I was an Aaliyah fan since day one. Over the years, over the past 20 years in the absence of her music being available, I believe there wasn’t a good enough show of admiration for Aaliyah in the way that she deserved. In every generation that came afterwards, of music fans and even fans who became music stars, so much of their style…whether it’s their fashion, music, anything… you can see Aaliyah in them, and rarely did we credit the source. 

I think it was easy to not do that when you can’t hop on Apple Music or Spotify and add her to a playlist. I think that made it harder to focus on all of her achievements. That’s what the book was, by design, it was me trying to piece together this narrative in the interest in honoring Aaliyah—the icon, the trailblazer who 20 years after her passing is still the godmother of the current style. There’s something to be said about that. 

Model D: Part of the reason why it was so challenging to get her music out is because her family has been so protective of her legacy. Did you encounter any challenges working with her family? 

Iandoli: I wouldn’t call them challenges. I just reached out. I wanted them to participate, and they didn’t want to. That was really it. And I had to respect that, but it didn’t change the mission as a music journalist and as an Aaliyah fan. I totally understand why they wouldn’t participate, but as part of this music industry, if you truly love an artist and you hear the conversations that persist about them, if you have the power to dismiss that, and change the narrative in their favor, why wouldn’t you? It was important for me to lay things out in a way so that no one would speak scandalously about Aaliyah again. 

Model D: What do you hope that people take away from the book?

Iandoli: I hope that people see Aaliyah as a genius. As a strong woman, as a strong Black woman, as someone who saw her future before we did, who saw her own potential before we did. Also as someone who was just an incredible human being with a kind heart. When you work in the music industry, people have opinions about artists whether here or gone. But, people who actually were in Aaliyah’s presence never had a bad word to say about her. Even after everything she had been through, she still had a kind heart. We need more of that kindness. 

So, aside from the fact that she single-handedly changed the sound of R&B music as we know it, I want people to know and remember that she was also a woman with a kind heart.

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Read more articles by Biba Adams.

Biba Adams is a regular contributor and project editor for Model D. Formally Model D's Editor at Large, she is a longtime journalist whose work is fueled by her passion for people and her native Detroit. Find her on all social channels @BibatheDiva.