From Drake’s reported tattoo of Aaliyah on his back to Timbaland’s admission to being in love with her, the late singer has been the talk of the blogosphere recently. Aaliyah, you recall, died at the age of 22 in a tragic plane crash with eight others weeks before 9/11. Unlike other celebrities who have died young, drama hasn’t really overshadowed Aaliyah’s legacy. Perhaps that’s because she kept her family close.
From day one, they were extremely involved in her career. Her mother’s brother, Barry Hankerson, who managed R. Kelly and had also been married to Gladys Knight, initially managed her career. When the R. Kelly marriage rumors surfaced, her father, Michael Haughton, became her personal manager with her mother Diane assisting heavily. Her brother Rashad and her cousin, Jomo, Barry Hankerson’s son, were consistently with her when she worked as well.
But potential career-ending scandal aside, Aaliyah was a promising artist from the beginning. Her debut album, Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number, was a mixture of the old, with its obvious riffs off the classic sounds of The Isley Brothers and Betty Wright, and the new, with its hard-edged, hip-hop beats. It was a nice bridge from what had been to what was.
Physically, she was a beautiful girl but her femme tomboy style, which TLC also rocked, was very age-appropriate. She was still a teenager and that showed in her dress and in her music. Aaliyah’s career was very well-planned but it was authentic as well. Aaliyah felt sincere from the start and didn’t come across as record-industry packaging. There was just something very organic about her personality and, most importantly, her music.
As her career continued, those qualities never diminished.
She never appeared to be trying to be someone else or anything she was not. When she broke from R. Kelly on the heels of scandal for her second album, One in a Million, she and her team were confident enough to invest in the talent of Timbaland and Missy Elliott, despite being very untested in the industry at the time. Because her debut album had sold over two million copies, conventional wisdom would have had her play it safe and go with more established music industry creatives.
But Aaliyah was just not known for doing the typical thing, and, unlike many new artists, she didn’t live for only the moment. Longevity in the industry was a top priority for her. In a 1995 interview with Jamie Foster Brown at Sister 2 Sister, she made that very clear.
“I want[ed] to be in this business for a while,” she told Jamie Foster Brown. “On each album I want to take my image to another level. My first album was strictly street-you know, “young.” I want to be a little more sophisticated and along with my age group. If I’m 25, I’m pretty sure the bandannas and things won’t be as prevalent as far as my age is concerned. I want to change little by little with the time so that my fans won’t be shocked as far as coming out with a dress or something, you know?”
Taking her image to another level was exactly what she did. Aaliyah became known as a trendsetter but she didn’t do things to simply shock people like a Nicki Minaj might do today. She didn’t come across as gimmicky the way Ciara, who could really fill that Aaliyah lane because she dances so well, sometimes does. She certainly didn’t thrive on attention the way Beyonce appears to. And, while Rihanna is the bad girl, Aaliyah was a young lady who could have bad girl tendencies. There is a difference.
Even as Aaliyah played vampires, she always seemed to be “doing her” without compromising others high expectations of her. Aaliyah was a throwback to simpler times. As a child, she set her sights on being in the music business and worked diligently toward that. When she made it, she kept challenging herself and her fans. She just never seemed satisfied to stay in one place. Ten years later, that’s probably the biggest reason why she’s still relevant.
Today’s music is often accused of lacking authenticity, even as hip-hop, with its clichéd mantra of “keeping it real” continues to dominate black music charts and pop music in general. During a recent tear-filled exchange between the singer Olivia and her manager Rich Dollaz on Vh1’s reality show, Love and Hip-Hop, the question of what makes an artist resonate loomed large. In the end, the answer seemed to be that fans simply didn’t feel Olivia. She has the voice and the look but lacks the openness.
Aaliyah, even as mysterious as she could be, never seemed closed off to anyone. There was something about her smile and just her very presence that made you believe you were getting the all of her that was available at the time. For young girls and young women, she represented herself with respect and dignity, even as her image sexed up. Men adored her because she really came across as the CrazySexyCool idea that was the title of TLC’s second album.
In death, her parents have guided her legacy well. A visit to her official website, aaliyah.com, illustrates this. It’s filled with endearing reminders of her life and her art. There are the behind-the-scenes details of her first Academy Awards appearance for example. To this day, causes she championed during her lifetime are still being supported through The Aaliyah Memorial Fund. So, in death, she remains as classy as during her lifetime.
The continued idolizing of Aaliyah a decade after her passing, especially by an artist like Drake who was a young man during her rising career, speaks volumes to what’s missing in today’s music, especially among young female artists in the R&B/hip-hop sphere as well as just young women in general.
“I loved the way you carried yourself, the way you dressed, the confidence with which you addressed passion and relationships in your music. I said to myself that even if we never met, I wanted a woman in my life just like you,” Drake wrote in a letter on the anniversary of her death last year, according to NecoleBitchie.com.
Like many artists whose memory lingers beyond their physical presence, Aaliyah and her music references a time that is no more. Her death symbolizes more than the passing of a beloved daughter, friend, music artist or plain celebrity. Instead, it represents the end of an innocence that might never return.
There is not an emerging female artist out there who comes close to pulling off Aaliyah’s softness and toughness. Simply put, Aaliyah was the blade of grass peeking through the broken concrete of the music industry.