Twenty years after Aaliyah’s death, will she get what she wanted out of life?
OPINION: With her music winning new respect, Aaliyah is arriving at the places she always wanted to go
I still remember getting that call in 2001 telling me that actress-singer Aaliyah had died in a plane crash in the Bahamas. I had interviewed the rising star just a few weeks before; she had even introduced me to her mother. Aug. 25 marks the 20th anniversary of Aaliyah’s passing. She was only 22 years old when she died.
The last time I talked to Aaliyah, she told me “I have no regrets.”
Twenty years later, I wonder. Was that true?
I was the music critic for Time magazine in the 1990s and early 2000s, and Aaliyah was one of my favorite performers. She helped pioneer singing soft soulful vocals over hard hip-hop beats and a lot of singers copied her signature sound.
Aaliyah also originated a “street but sweet” style, combining urban fashion with haute couture that laid the groundwork for performers with hip-hop roots to become mainstream fashion icons. In 2001, Beyoncé called me to testify to how much Aaliyah meant to singers of her generation. “Aaliyah was a big influence on all of us,” Beyoncé told me then. “We’re about the same age, so it was very inspiring to see someone like that.”
Aaliyah was also one of R&B singer-producer R. Kelly’s alleged victims. More than twenty years ago, both Aaliyah and Kelly denied having an inappropriate relationship. But in 1994, Danyel Smith published an Illinois marriage certificate in Vibe magazine documenting that when R. Kelly was 27 years old and Aaliyah was 15 (and below the age of consent in the state), the two had secretly married in Chicago.
I had interviewed Aaliyah in July of 2001, and after she died I wrote a biography of her called Aaliyah: More Than a Woman, in which I credited Smith’s scoop. The biography was a hit and the young singer, whose nickname was “Babygirl,” was embraced by teen girls as a departed star they could call their own, a kind of soul music saint. A decade or so later, Lifetime asked to buy the movie rights to what I had written.
I didn’t get to write the TV movie, and I watched from the sidelines as the production hit some high-profile snags. Controversy broke out after it became public that the production didn’t have the blessing of some members of Aaliyah’s family.
Zendaya, who had been cast as Aaliyah, dropped out, and another actress, Alexandra Shipp, took over the lead role. When Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B, debuted on Lifetime on Nov. 15, 2014, it got huge ratings, but many reviewers didn’t like it.
One of the issues some critics had with the movie is that they thought it failed to dig deep enough into sexual allegations that had been made against Kelly. In 2019, another Lifetime project, the documentary Surviving R. Kelly, won widespread acclaim for giving a platform for other women who accused Kelly of sexual abuse.
Kelly is currently on trial in Brooklyn by federal prosecutors who have charged him with racketeering and using people in his employ to recruit women and underage girls for sex.
Since Aaliyah’s passing, chart-topping rappers like Kendrick Lamar, J.Cole, and Jay Z have all sampled her songs. Singer Normani’s video for the song “Wild Side” (featuring Cardi B), pays tribute to Aaliyah’s dance moves. Rapper Drake not only sampled Aaliyah in his song, “Unforgettable,” he has a large tattoo of Aaliyah’s face on his back.
When I interviewed Aaliyah in 2001, not long before her passing, she was full of hope and ambition. She wanted to star in more movies. She wanted to make more boundary-breaking music. She wanted to build an entertainment empire. “I’m 22, I’ve been in this since 15,” Aaliyah told me. “I’m basically a veteran and yet I still have many places to go.”
With Kelly on trial and her music winning new respect, Aaliyah is arriving at the places she always wanted to go.
If she did have any regrets, I hope she can finally leave them behind.
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