Aaliyah’s Music to Return After a Decade: The Inside Story

Aaliyah’s Music to Return After a Decade: The Inside Story

Barry Hankerson is late.

It’s a Friday afternoon in July and the reclusive, enigmatic music mogul has been tied up in an Atlanta recording studio, overseeing a session involving one of the many sought-after, unreleased masters under his control, and is only just getting back home. His ranch in Newnan, Ga., stretches over 100 acres, on which he keeps horses, raises cattle and grows his own crops, which he harvests himself. At 73, a year removed from a stroke that left him contemplating his health and legacy, it’s the simple life that fulfills him, after decades in the trenches of politics, activism and the music business, where the highs were stratospheric and the lows almost unspeakable.

“I love walking amongst the cattle, letting the horses wander around the pasture and walking with them,” he says, speaking steadily while sitting in an overstuffed brown leather chair in his home. “Sometimes I’ll just go to the stream at the back of the property and just sit there and watch various animals run around. I really like being alone.”

Ranch life seems an idyllic final chapter for a man who has seen, and achieved, much in his lifetime. But there are many both inside and outside the music industry — though not everyone — who, for the past decade, have been clamoring for him to take a much more active role in the great jewel of his domain: the catalog of his record label Blackground Records, and more specifically the last two albums by his niece, the iconic R&B singer Aaliyah — whose most consequential works have been kept off digital service providers and out of print for much of the last two decades, following her tragic death in a plane crash on Aug. 25, 2001, at the age of 22.

Now, those people are finally about to get their wish. Hankerson has secured a new partnership with independent Bay Area-based music company EMPIRE that will make the entire Blackground catalog — not just Aaliyah’s works, but 17 albums by artists including Timbaland & Magoo, Tank, Toni Braxton and JoJo — available to stream for the first time ever, and for both physical and digital purchase for the first time in a decade. And after what fans have deemed an interminable wait — with several false starts and unfulfilled promises along the way — Hankerson is finally sitting for his first extensive interview in over a decade to answer the one question that everyone has had on their minds: What took so long?

“Mmm hmm,” he muses calmly as the conversation begins. “I knew you were going to ask me that.”

Aaliyah Dana Haughton was 11 years old when she first shared a stage with Gladys Knight, the great diva from Atlanta who, for a short period in the 1970s, was also Hankerson’s wife. (“She is still one of my favorite artists,” he says, then quips, “I guess she was one of my favorite wives, too — I had a few of those.”) Three years later Hankerson launched Blackground specifically to support his niece’s foray into the music business, and introduced her to R. Kelly — a management client of his at the time who was then a celebrated and sought-after singer, writer and producer.

The result of the collaboration between Aaliyah and Kelly was an album called Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number, released in partnership with Jive in 1994 when Aaliyah was 15. That same year, Kelly and Aaliyah were alleged to have secretly wed, with her age forged on the marriage documents. An annulment allegedly followed, and Aaliyah, and eventually Hankerson, broke off contact with Kelly.

But the album was a success, producing two top 10 singles on the Billboard Hot 100, and a career was born. With a budding star on his hands, Hankerson shifted Blackground from Jive to Atlantic, cutting a pure distribution deal and maintaining control of the label’s masters — a move he would stick with in subsequent deals. In an effort to find a new sound for his niece, Hankerson brought in two young, relatively-unknown songwriters — Timbaland and Missy Elliott — and the partnership took off: Aaliyah’s second album, One in a Million, was released in 1996 on Blackground/Atlantic to even greater acclaim than her debut. In the following years, she’d take a break from music to launch a film career, acting in Romeo Must Die and Queen of the Damned — her first-ever No. 1 Hot 100 single, “Try Again,” came on the former’s soundtrack, amid another fruitful songwriting partnership with Static Major — but returned beloved as ever in July 2001: Her self-titled third album, released on Blackground/Virgin, debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200, a high-water mark in her career.

At the same time, Blackground was expanding, first by signing Timbaland & Magoo, then R&B crooner Tank and, eventually, the pop prodigy JoJo. “I always looked at artists as special [people], because they articulate our culture,” says Hankerson. “An artist helps you bring forward what your people are about, and I had the good fortune to work with some of the biggest artists who ever lived.”

Aaliyah, however, was his shining star — and as great as her impact was in life, it has only radiated further since her death. “Let’s face it — R&B music today is based upon the groundwork that Aaliyah laid in 1996,” says Kathy Iandoli, author of the forthcoming book Baby Girl: Better Known as Aaliyah, due Aug. 17. “Aaliyah just has continuously looked and sounded like every single era we’ve entered in the 20 years that she has passed. That has allowed her an immortality that no one has ever had before, because she doesn’t look like a relic of an era that’s no longer there — she looks like someone who continuously grows with every new fan that finds her.”

Aaliyah’s shocking death, in a tragic accident that also claimed eight other lives, at such a young age and at such a high point in her life and career, made headlines around the world, and came right in the midst of Blackground’s run of success. The company carried on — it would release eight subsequent top 10 Billboard 200 albums through 2007 — but much of its momentum effectively ground to a halt. The label’s deal with Virgin fell apart within weeks, a new deal with Universal Records resulted in diminishing returns, and cracks began to show in the label’s facade. A series of lawsuits — by Braxton, Timbaland, JoJo and others — over unreleased material and breaches of contract brought the reputation of the label and Hankerson down further.

By the end of the 2000s, Blackground’s distribution deals with various Universal Music Group-owned subsidiaries had wound down, leaving those artists with works owned by Blackground — the entire discographies to that point of Tank, JoJo and Timbaland & Magoo — in limbo, feeling “trapped” and with little leverage over their own careers. (JoJo would eventually rerecord the two albums she put out through Blackground and release them through Atlantic in 2018; Tank has said that he is trying to regain control of his masters from that period. Both declined to comment for this story.) The label seemingly floated into nonexistence, never fully engaging with the emerging music business shifts toward streaming or the digital exploitation of music. In all, 17 albums and two soundtracks, including Aaliyah’s best works and her unreleased demos, commercially disappeared.

For the past decade, even as fans have called for the catalog’s release, that has been the state of affairs. Several false starts over the years, often fueled by comments made by Hankerson or his son and Blackground co-founder, Jomo, led to hopes that it would be made available, only to peter out as Aaliyah’s estate — run by Aaliyah LLC on behalf of her mother, Diane, and brother Rashad — would distance itself, followed by Timbaland and Elliott. In 2012, after Hankerson sold a portion of the Blackground publishing catalog to the boutique rights management company Reservoir, there was even a new track released on SoundCloud featuring vocals from Drake, along with officially announced plans for a posthumous album of new material, helmed by Drake and his producer Noah “40” Shebib. Soon after, they, too, distanced themselves, saying they weren’t comfortable moving forward with the project. (“Aaliyah’s mother saying, ‘I don’t want this out’ was enough for me,” Shebib told Vibe at the time.)

In 2016, Complex published an article pinning the blame for the holdup on Hankerson, outlining his many prior lawsuits and saying that it was Hankerson’s grief over his niece’s death, as well as his inability to bring himself to approve of unreleased material, that held up any deal. (Hankerson declined to comment for that story.) One of the Complex claims as to why the catalog remained in limbo — that Hankerson’s “grief turned to despondency; despondency turned to inertia” — was at least partially true. But he hasn’t been alone in that grief.

During her lifetime, Aaliyah’s career was very much a family affair: not only did her uncle run her record label, but her parents co-managed her career; her older brother, Rashad, was a close confidante on every major decision; and her cousin, Hankerson’s son Jomo, executive-produced each of her albums. Her mother, Diane — a singer herself when she was young — kept her daughter grounded and made sure she finished school, which she eventually did, graduating with a 4.0 GPA. After Aaliyah’s death, that began to come apart.

“Since the death of my niece, I don’t have the same relationship I used to have with my sister,” says Hankerson. “We were very close when we grew up. I don’t know if anybody can imagine, but when you lose a child, or a niece that you really loved, it was difficult for my family. So a lot of things in my family changed.” He has not spoken to his sister or nephew regularly since Aaliyah’s death, but he says he still considered their feelings as paramount: When Blackground’s final distribution deal lapsed, and the music went out of print, he says his focus turned to honoring their wishes.

“There was a conversation we had that she didn’t want the music out, and whatever my sister told me, I tried to do what she wanted me to do,” says Hankerson. “As a parent, I would understand if she did not want the music out. Because who wants to hear the voice of your daughter who’s gone? So when she said that to me, I said, ‘OK, we’re not putting it out. I don’t know when, but one day we will.’ We literally packed everything up and went on to something else.”

That claim, however, is under some dispute. But regardless of the reason, over the years the catalog has sat on the shelf, untouched, as Hankerson says he waited for the tenor of the conversation to change. From time to time an artist or label would inquire about sampling or covering one of the songs in the catalog, but with the path to success unlikely, one source says that rarely did anyone try very hard. The early, low monetary returns from streaming in the first part of the 2010s did little to encourage a reversal, and with the record business in financial freefall, there seemed little to be gained from the endeavor but backlash.

“With Aaliyah, those albums were iconic and that was the franchise, but there were also some very important other albums in the catalog as well, and there was a whole generation of fans who didn’t have access to it,” says Matt Middleton, an attorney for Blackground. But eventually, sentiment did begin to shift — spurred by fans of the singer who felt that the unavailability of her music was dampening her legacy. “If you go back,” Middleton continues, “every year in January around Aaliyah’s birthday, around August when it’s the anniversary of her passing, there’s an overwhelming urge in the media and online around Aaliyah’s music and fans wanting to hear her music.”

And then, finally, the signal that Hankerson had waited for came.

On Aug. 25, 2020, on the 19th anniversary of Aaliyah’s death, her estate released a statement through the singer’s official Twitter account, addressed to “our loyal fans: We are excited to announce that communication has commenced between the estate and various record labels about the status of Aaliyah’s music catalogue, as well as its availability on streaming platforms in the near future. Thank you for your continued love and support. More updates to come!”

For Hankerson, the statement was a green light, and he quickly went to work. Having been in the music business since the 1970s — managing Knight and Kelly, but also the late Dennis Edwards of The Temptations, among others — he had an extensive Rolodex of industry contacts and, he knew, insatiable demand for what he possessed. But while he says he took meetings with every major music company — “It was hectic for a while; I was meeting with people every week, flying across the country to meet with executives I’d known for years,” he recalls — he was also met with plenty of skepticism, by those who had gone down this road with Blackground before, only to be burned when plans would get derailed.

“Everybody wanted to know, ‘Is it really going to come out?’” says Middleton. “And there was really no way to convince people. Everybody had their reservations — rightly so, because there were false starts in the past. But once we knew that the estate wanted the music out now, he just felt like the timing was right.”

Indeed, the Blackground catalog is one of the last holdouts of the streaming age — and one that evokes the most doubt and cynicism when the possibility of its reemergence is brought up. Ask around the industry and you’re more likely to get hit with a derisory smile and a condescending tone — “Oh, that old chestnut, huh?” one publicist said when they were told a deal was once again a possibility — than with serious engagement on the topic. Another source who worked with Blackground in the past says that over the years there was always a plan to release the catalog or a new album, that there always seemed to be momentum toward a deal — and yet nothing ever materialized.

Still, the demand from fans, both new and old, remains fervent, and now in the streaming age, there seems to be plenty of potential for the catalog to blossom. The 17 albums have sold 14.43 million copies in total, according to MRC Data, of which 6.38 million are from Aaliyah’s works; over the past decade, despite only being available largely through years-old streams of user-generated uploads on YouTube, it has racked up another 1.68 million equivalent album units, 1.01 million of which are from the Aaliyah catalog. Unopened CD versions of Aaliyah and One in a Million go for at least $100 on online resellers like Amazon, with vinyl either not available or pushing into the several-hundred-dollar range, and even used CDs are rarely below $30, usually hovering around the $50 mark. In contrast, Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number — the only album of hers to have remained in circulation, due to its masters being owned by Jive, and one that is fraught given its association with the now-indicted R. Kelly — retails for a standard $5 per CD on Amazon. And that’s just a quarter of the total releases that Blackground holds at a time when catalog (66.4%) is gaining in listener market share over current releases, according to MRC Data.

But it’s not just the commercial demand that brought suitors to the table. Today, echoes of Aaliyah’s influence on modern music are found just about everywhere. In July alone, Normani released her latest single “Wild Side” with Cardi B, which contains a drum break that fans pounced to identify as a “One in a Million” sample — it wasn’t, but the mere idea that it could be sparked over 14,000 tweets mentioning Aaliyah, according to Twitter. And in Drake’s latest feature on the Brent Faiyaz song “Wasting Time,” released at the start of the month, he raps, “Only time I play the ‘Back and Forth’ is Aaliyah record.”

“All you have to do is ask some of the biggest current R&B artists where they got their influence from, and I don’t think there are many interviews where you wouldn’t hear Aaliyah’s name mentioned in some sort of fashion, whether it was the songs, or her fashion sense, or the general spirit that she had,” says Nima Etminan, COO of EMPIRE. “I remember being a kid and getting together with friends to try to catch the ‘Try Again’ video on MTV and just watching it over and over. I think she stood for something that she didn’t even have to say explicitly — you just kind of felt it in her spirit and her soul.”

All of which factored in as Hankerson debated over which company should have the opportunity to help distribute these albums to the market. “It has been a long time since the fans could enjoy Aaliyah and other artists on our catalog, and there has been a lot of changes in the music business since we took the music off the market,” says Hankerson. “We wanted to be sure to be with the right people, the right executives, and to give ourselves the right time to do the different things. So when you add all that up, it was a couple of years before we could even really consider putting the music out.”

EMPIRE founder/CEO Ghazi was 15 years old, lugging around his vinyl collection to DJ at house parties, when he first got his hands on Aaliyah’s “Back and Forth” record. “I still have the vinyl for that sitting in a crate in my mom’s house,” he says. “It was probably one of the first 20 records I ever bought.”

Ghazi (who goes by his mononym) founded EMPIRE in 2010, after years as a musician and producer himself, as an independent, digital-first distributor that emphasized speed and flexibility, nonexclusive deals and deep roots in the hip-hop world. That has allowed the company to grow rapidly in the streaming era, putting out early albums by Kendrick Lamar, Anderson .Paak and XXXTentacion, along with singles like DRAM’s “Broccoli” and Fat Joe and Remy Ma’s “All the Way Up,” both of which earned Grammy Award nominations.

EMPIRE quickly outgrew its distribution roots and launched a label, as well as partnerships with Atlantic Records and, in 2018, Universal Music Group; in 2019 it opened a Nashville office; and in 2020 it launched a publishing division, augmented its merchandising wing with the purchase of Top Draw Merch/Electric Family and focused on expanding internationally. By the time the opportunity with Blackground came along, the company had grown enough to merit a seat at the table in negotiations.

It was during the pandemic that Ghazi began speaking to Hankerson in earnest about the Blackground catalog, and the idea of EMPIRE being the one to rerelease it became a reality. “They’re a smaller company with very hands-on executives,” says Hankerson about his reasons for going with EMPIRE. “Ghazi is almost a reflection of what I would be doing if I just came into the music business — I would try to have my own distribution company. So he was just a match for me, and when we sat down and talked in San Francisco it was a no-brainer to give him the opportunity of working our music.”

From EMPIRE’s side, the trepidation that others had felt toward the possibility of a deal was secondary to the opportunities it could open up. “The easiest way to approach it is to say, ‘If it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen,’” says Ghazi. “You are entering into something that is quite possibly one of the most monumental things you’ve encountered as an executive, for me. So you’re excited, but you’re a little anxious, because you want to make sure you do everything right, that you don’t fumble and that you treat everything with a certain level of respect.”

The plans for the catalog’s reintroduction are now in place, and they mirror the rollout schedule of a record label lining up a lucrative quarter. On Aug. 20, EMPIRE will release One in a Million, followed weekly by a rough approximation of the original chronology of Blackground releases: Aug. 27, Timbaland & Magoo’s Welcome to Our World, Indecent Proposal and Under Construction Pt. II albums, as well as Timbaland’s solo album, Tim’s Bio; Sept. 3, the Romeo Must Die and Exit Wounds soundtracks, as well as Aaliyah’s “Are You That Somebody” single; Sept. 10, Aaliyah and the music video to her single “Miss You”; Sept. 17, Tank’s trio of albums for the label, Force of Nature, One Man and Sex, Love & Pain; Sept. 24, JoJo’s first two albums, as well as Ashley Parker Angel’s Soundtrack to Your Life; and in October, Toni Braxton’s Libra and two Aaliyah compilations, I Care 4 U and Ultimate Aaliyah.

“All of these artists have serious fans, and if you do it wrong — especially in this cancel-culture world of social media — the attacks will start happening,” says EMPIRE vp A&R Tina Davis, an executive with extensive roots in R&B/hip-hop. “So I think that one of the main things was trying to make sure that we represent them properly, thinking of how long it has been, how we approach it, how we make sure that the fans are OK with how we do approach it and how we do market it, considering them in every aspect. That was the only way for us to put it together.”

The plans go beyond just the rerelease of the catalog, and into new ways of introducing the music to the platforms that didn’t exist five, 10 or 20 years ago. “It allows us to bridge the gap — her era was very much a brick-and-mortar marketing approach,” says Ghazi. “So to be able to bridge it into Instagram and Facebook and Snapchat and Twitter and TikTok, and so on and so forth, is going to be fascinating to watch generations that are aware of her mystique and have heard her music be able to access it and consume it more readily. We’ll see how impactful that will become.”

Along the way, Hankerson will also be rolling out a new streaming app called Music360, which will have licensing deals with a wide swath of record companies as well as video features, a vinyl-scratching tool and new Blackground remixes and releases that will initially only be available through the app. And, should anyone think this is all a swan song to his career, Hankerson will also be relaunching Blackground as a new front-line label, with distribution through EMPIRE, to which he has already signed one artist, Autumn Marini, from Atlanta.

“I really hope that in this next phase of Blackground, we can spot talent that maybe doesn’t fit the cookie cutter of what an artist is and bring them forward on our own platform to give them an opportunity to be seen,” says Hankerson of his plans.

Of course, releasing the back catalog and relaunching the label are akin to restoring a historic omission — what Etminan calls “adding the missing piece of a puzzle to music history.” But the final piece of the Blackground puzzle is more fraught with tension: the release of Aaliyah’s unheard music, which has been sitting around for years and has been the reason behind much of the public rancor over the past decade. There are plans to release a posthumous album of new Aaliyah music, though a release date has not been announced, and Hankerson has been hard at work on new songs — staying late at sessions and keeping himself away from other distractions, like interviews, for example.

Hankerson says that he has new music that includes features from Drake, Future, Ne-Yo, Chris Brown and Snoop Dogg, while Timbaland has remixed and produced some of the sessions and Hankerson says Tank has indicated his willingness to lend his services, too. (Tank, along with several other former Blackground artists, declined to speak for this story.)

“It has been really nice,” says Hankerson about his work on the new recordings. “The only part that has been a little distasteful has been so many people being angry with me because the music didn’t come out when they wanted it. But I learned to live with that. There’s nothing I can do about it.”

On Jan. 15, 2021, the day before what would have been Aaliyah’s 42nd birthday and five months after the tweet that label negotiations had begun, Aaliyah’s estate posted another message addressed to fans on the singer’s official Twitter account. “We hear you and we see you,” it read. “While we share your sentiments and desire to have Aaliyah’s music released, we must acknowledge that these matters are not within our control and, unfortunately, take time. Our inability to share Aaliyah’s music and artistry with the world has been as difficult for us as it has been for all of you. Our priority has always been and will continue to be Aaliyah’s music.

“In the meantime, however, we are working diligently to protect what is in our control — Aaliyah’s brand, legacy and intellectual property,” the statement continued. “While we understand this may be challenging, we need the support of the fans Aaliyah loved so dearly, until we can resolve all the issues in freeing her music.”

Those issues, Aaliyah LLC attorney Paul LiCalsi said in a statement to Billboard, stem from Blackground’s failure to account to Aaliyah’s estate according to the terms of the singer’s recording contract. “Aaliyah’s estate has always been ready to share Aaliyah’s musical legacy but has been met with contention and a gross lack of transparency,” LiCalsi said in the statement. “For almost 20 years, Blackground has failed to account to the estate with any regularity in accordance with her recording contracts. In addition, the estate was not made aware of the impending release of the catalog until after the deal was complete and plans were in place. The estate has demanded that Blackground provide a full account of its past earnings, and full disclosure of the terms of its new deal to distribute Aaliyah’s long embargoed music.”

“The estate will receive everything that it is entitled to receive pursuant to the terms of our agreement,” a Blackground representative said in response, noting that a royalty payment was made earlier this year. “Blackground has shared our rollout plans with representatives for the estate and provided them with the opportunity to participate and provide input and the estate elected not to do so.”

While Hankerson took the estate’s first statement on Twitter — that it had begun communicating with labels about releasing the music — as a sign of a new willingness to engage, he has not personally spoken to his sister about the matter. Instead, Blackground and the estate have communicated through representatives. “I’m prayerful that she supports what we’re doing, but at the end of the day we’ll all find out [whether she supports the deal] probably at the same time,” says Hankerson. “I miss her and I love her. I wish we had the same relationship that we had years ago. I love my sister.”

But Hankerson’s version of events is not one that lines up with what representatives for the estate tell Billboard. First and foremost, they contend that the conversation Hankerson says he had with his sister, wherein Diane expressed a desire to take Aaliyah’s catalog off the market, never happened. Instead, said LiCalsi in his statement, “Other than that first album, virtually the entire remainder of her catalog, including many never released tracks, has been inexplicably withheld from the public by Blackground Records.”

Blackground owns the masters to Aaliyah’s recordings, and because she did not write her own music or lyrics, the estate also has no stake in the songs’ publishing copyrights, which are now being administered by Blackground through Kobalt. But when it made the statement last August that it had begun speaking to labels, the estate reached out to Blackground and expressed a desire to be involved in the process of finding a distributor, conversations it says went on for an extended period of time. Ultimately, the estate says it was informed that the EMPIRE deal was happening only after it was final, without having any input. (Hankerson “has made several efforts to share his plans directly with the estate and those efforts were met with silence,” said the Blackground rep.)

During the course of the reporting for this story, the Aaliyah estate hired a public relations firm and made clear that it would not be supporting the deal between Hankerson and EMPIRE. Interviews with Missy Elliott and Timbaland were canceled, and the status of Timbaland’s work on the new Aaliyah recordings is currently unclear. In short, the old dance began again: rumblings about new music, rumors about the catalog’s release, then a distancing of all parties out of respect for the estate’s wishes.

This time, however, it appears that the final outcome will be different: Blackground and EMPIRE are moving ahead with the plans to roll out the catalog. And, for now, at least, the estate has expressed a hope for “forgiveness” — moving forward with the releases, even as it says issues of accounting remain unresolved. As of now, there are no plans to take legal action to stop it, sources say.

“Protecting Aaliyah’s legacy is, and will always be, our focus,” reads a separate statement sent to Billboard attributed to the estate, which was then released online before the publication of this article. “For 20 years we have battled behind the scenes, enduring shadowy tactics of deception in connection with unauthorized projects targeted to tarnish. We have always been confused as to why there is such a tenacity in causing more pain alongside what we already have to cope with for the rest of our lives. … Ultimately, we desire closure and a modicum of peace so we can facilitate the growth of the Aaliyah Memorial Fund and other creative projects that embody Aaliyah’s true essence, which is to inspire strength and positivity for people of all creeds, races and cultures around the world.”

In the meantime, the rollout remains on track to begin Aug. 20, and EMPIRE is not taking that lightly. “It’s going to be a pretty emotional moment for a lot of people — it’s emotional for me to think about it,” says Ghazi. “Every modern-day R&B artist has a little bit of Aaliyah in them, just like every NBA player has a little Michael Jordan in them. Reintroducing this to her fans is probably one of the greatest things we’ve ever done as a company, if not the greatest.”

For Hankerson, Blackground represents a life’s work — his niece’s, as well as his own. And when he’s asked about her legacy, he suddenly sparks back to life, telling stories about conspiring with Quincy Jones about how to get Aaliyah’s career off the ground, going around the backs of the Jive promo department to get “Back and Forth” played on the radio, how a connection through an old fight promoter pal got the video played on MTV, how her sense of style became instantly iconic — but then he stops short. “I can’t talk about it much,” he says. Taking a moment to compose himself, he looks for one final word to describe her, then starts when he finds it: “Spiritual. That’s all.”

A version of this article originally appeared in the Aug. 7, 2021, issue of Billboard.

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