The digital discography of the late R&B legend is unavailable and incomplete. Only her uncle, mysterious music industry exec Barry Hankerson, knows why.
It has been 15 years since Aaliyah died in a plane crash, ending a life and career that were only beginning to realize their full potential. The three albums she released while alive influenced some of today’s most significant artists—Drake, Beyoncé, the Weeknd, and many more. But you won’t find most of her music online. In fact, Aaliyah’s most popular, most important works—the albums One in a Million and Aaliyah, and late-career singles like “Are You That Somebody?”—aren’t available for streaming or sale on Spotify, iTunes, Amazon, or any other online music service.
Digital voids like these can result from legal battles over uncleared samples (as with De La Soul), or from musicians holding out for better royalty terms (the Beatles, until recently). Other times they’re the result of ideological stands against the devaluation of artistic output (Joanna Newsom), or cranky nitpicking about audio quality (Neil Young). But Aaliyah’s internet absence is different—there’s no logic to it. It’s not an artistic statement or a play for more money, and there’s no dedicated Aaliyah-only streaming service in the works.
Instead, there’s a single, stubborn man, sitting on a catalog that includes almost all of her most famous work, as well as albums from Timbaland and Toni Braxton, and a trove of unreleased original material that’s never before been heard. The situation puts her entire musical legacy at risk of fading from memory. Year by year, streaming accounts for a greater portion of an artist’s visibility and reverence among the next generation of listeners. And he refuses to budge.
To understand Aaliyah, and the fate of her iconic catalog, you have to understand her uncle, Barry Hankerson, who groomed the singer for stardom from a young age as her manager and the co-founder of her label home, Blackground Records. The 70-year-old Harlem native was an extraordinary figure in the music business, who helped launch not just Aaliyah’s career, but also those of R. Kelly, Ginuwine, Timbaland, and Missy Elliott. But his achievements remain shrouded in mystery. “I’m consistently amazed by the things Barry Hankerson has accomplished,” says veteran music journalist Jim DeRogatis, one of the few members of the press ever to talk regularly with Hankerson, mostly during his long tenure at the Chicago Sun-Times. “He is this Zelig-like figure. Almost nothing is known about this man.” Despite multiple requests for comment, Hankerson declined to participate in this story.
Hankerson was not, by training, a music man. In the late 1960s, he attended the historically black Central State University in Ohio, majoring in sociology and developing a reputation as a campus radical. He also played starting safety on the school’s football team, and after graduation, had auditioned for a roster spot with the New York Jets. But he never made it past the development league, and hung up the cleats after a year, seeking a career in politics.
By the early 1970s he was employed as a community organizer in the office of Coleman Young, the mayor of Detroit. It was there that he first met the singer Gladys Knight, who was scheduled to perform while working at a local fundraising benefit. Love at first sight it was not. The taciturn, serious Hankerson viewed Knight as a “pampered singer,” according to a January 1975 Jet magazine cover story. Knight, in turn, described Hankerson as “very evil.”
But the two remained in contact, and within a few years they were married. It was an odd union. Both Hankerson and Knight already had children from previous marriages. Knight’s, whose signature hit, “Midnight Train to Georgia,” had just been released, was world famous at the age of 30; Hankerson, 27, was a complete unknown.
Hankerson began to use Knight’s connections and capitalize on her celebrity. He appeared with her on that Jet cover, sporting a tasteful leisure suit, a trim goatee, and an Afro. He convinced Knight to leave her backing band the Pips, and negotiate better terms with her label. He produced her movie debut, the aptly named Pipe Dreams, a box office flop about Alaskan oil workers. And, in his first foray into the music business, he started a management company to handle her affairs.
When they divorced in 1979, Hankerson abandoned Detroit politics for Los Angeles glamour. He spent most of the ’80s pitching unproduced screenplays and managing a gospel group, the Winans. It was only after a decade in the trenches that he found his next breakout star: Robert Sylvester Kelly, a Chicago train station busker.