She was the complete triple threat who captured our hearts.
She could sing, dance, and act.
She was our baby girl.
She was more than a woman.
She was one in a million.
She was that somebody.
She was Aaliyah.
It has been exactly 20 years since a tragic plane crash in the Bahamas, where she was filming the video for her song “Rock the Boat”, claimed the life of a true pop princess.
Aaliyah was at a point in her life where she had it all.
Her third album, the self-entitled Aaliyah garnered high reviews for its bold statement of a young woman who had come into her own and had officially made the transition from teen sensation to adult star a success.
The tracks “Try Again” “We Need a Resolution” “More Than a Woman” and “Rock the Boat” spoke to her growing mature sound.
She made it clear that she wasn’t to be pigeonholed into a box where oftentimes female artists find themselves stuck in a state of perpetual childhood and adolescence and be forbidden from growing up.
In an era where pop stars such as Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera had their bodies and songs routinely policed by those wanted to box them into youth, Aaliyah let it be known that she can grow with grace and edge
She was also riding high on the success of her 2000 film debut Romeo Must Die co-starring with Jet Li and the late DMX and had finished shooting her then latest movie Queen of the Damned and had secured a deal to star in the second and third Matrix movies.
Aaliyah also had a blossoming love life as she was in a relationship with record executive Damon Dash. She was on top of the world and under the most tragic of circumstances it was all taken away at the age of 22.
It is hard to fathom that Aaliyah has been gone for 20 years and this devastating anniversary has reminded the world of who she was and what she represented.
Born in Brooklyn, New York and growing up in Detroit, Aaliyah grew up surrounded by music. Her mother Diane was an opera singer who stepped away from the business to care full time for Aaliyah and her son Rashad. She also had an uncle in Barry Hankerson, an entertainment lawyer who eventually married Gladys Knight.
As a child, Aaliyah would sing all the time and her voice and captivating presence wowed everyone she came into contact with and all knew that she was destined for big things in the future. In elementary school, she would perform in plays and sing every chance she got.
Her first major break came when she made an appearance on Ed McMahon’s Star Search in 1989 at ten years old.
Her song for choice was “My Funny Valentine” a family staple growing up. Although she didn’t win, it was one of little to no setbacks she would encounter.
She came into the public eye at age 15 with the release of her 1994 debut album Age Aint Nothin but a Number distributed by her uncle’s record company Blackground Records. The album was produced by R. Kelly and thankfully Aaliyah got out from under his thumb as quickly as possible.
She then moved onto to Missy Elliott and Timbaland who were the chief engineers behind her later successful releases One in A Million in 1996 and Aaliyah in 2001. The three became a triple threat of innovation and creativity and their fresh, dynamic, and versatile sounds struck a chord with audiences that continues to this day.
She went on to cultivate an image all her own that made you pay attention to the music and let the music speak for her more than anything. In a time, specifically in hip hop, where women were often compartmentalized into select categories, Aaliyah was able to blend all those various elements together. She was Missy, Lil Kim, and Lauryn Hill all wrapped in one and didn’t have to choose one paradigm over another paving the way for future female hip hop/R&B artists such as Ciara, Megan Thee Stallion, and Rihanna to do the same.
It was also during this time period, 1996–2001, that she began to harness her talents on the silver screen in the films listed above and was on the cusp of movie superstardom.
In her short life, Aaliyah became one of the most influential artists of all time and her mix of street but sweet lyrics and imagery made her an icon.
To get a broader sense of Aaliyah’s legacy, I had the honor of speaking with music journalist Kathy Iandoli, who has written for some of the most prestigious hip hop publications such as Vibe, XXL, and The Source.
She is also the author of the new book Baby Girl: Better Known as Aaliyah.
Can you believe that it has been 20 years since Aaliyah passed away?
No I really can’t. I think the combination of, considering the fact that she has become such a fixture still in music, it is hard to remember that period of time where you felt like she wasn’t here at all. The idea of it being 20 years is bizarre because it feels like it was yesterday but also feels like it was forever ago.
What was it about Aaliyah that made her standout as an artist?
Aaliyah was one of those audiences where when you looked at her you heard her music. When you heard her music you had a very specific picture of her in mind. She was just an all-around package and she just embody every aspect of her artistry from her look and her sound. Very rarely you encounter a real trendsetter, an artist that legitimately creates the trends that everyone follows. Seeing that in an artist like Aaliyah, you don’t usually see the effects until 20 years later and you still see her and hear her in all these artists. Just watching that unfold with these new generation of artists it is amazing to watch.
Given the trajectory she was on with “Rock the Boat”, “More Than a Woman”, “We Need a Resolution”, she was entering that stage in her career where she was coming into her own as an artist. In today’s musical landscape, if she were still around, where would she fit?
She would fit right in because when you think of the artists that are popular right now they have taken pages from the Aaliyah playbook. She influenced them all. There would be no question about where she would fit because she was the one who birthed so many artists. I am curious to see who have adopted those things if Aaliyah was still actively doing them and who have adopted those sounds if Aaliyah was actively doing them.
That makes a lot of sense not just with her music but with her acting as well. She was really coming into her own as a legitimate actress, obviously with Romeo Must Die put her on the map and then she did Queen of the Damned. She was about to do The Matrix series and I wonder if she was around to the rest of those movies, would that have made that series a whole lot better than they actually were?
The Matrix would have been a huge thing for her. I think that would have really changed everything.
What made you want to write this book about Aaliyah?
I had written about Aaliyah for 20 years in the music industry in journalism. There is part that would have written and spoken with her if she was still here. I realize that more and more after writing the Lil Kim book, given how close they were, there is my part of me in my heart that says that I would have done this book with her. All hopes and wishes aside, coming off God Save the Queens, I wanted to create another book honoring a female legend who changed everything. The way that women in hip hop changed music, I wanted to create a book honoring the contributions of a female artist who set the tone for an entire generation and that is what Aaliyah did. That was really my whole reason for doing this.
Over the course of your, did you ever have conversations with Aaliyah?
Actually no. I always felt that we were a constant missed connection. I would show up to an event and everybody knew that I was an Aaliyah fan. There were times where I would show up and was told “you just missed baby girl” and so I would show up to places and either she would have just left or had seen her in a distance. I had my own fan girl moment at the 1998 Budweiser Super Fest where I literally jumped on the seating at Giant Stadium to try to be front row for Aaliyah and this was a year before I entered into the music industry. I remember I interviewed Quincy Jones a few years after she passed away and we were having a conversation and he paused and said “weren’t you one of Aaliyah’s friends?” and I said “No. I wish.”
He said that “you would have been somebody that Aaliyah would have hung out with.” I remember him finishing that and I was like “I am going to hold onto this forever if you don’t mind Mr. Jones.”
How you would sum up the legacy of Aaliyah?
I think that Aaliyah’s legacy is one that continues to unfold. It is made up of some many parts. Certain parts have lasted 20 years and others will last 20 years more after that. When you have this multidimensional artist who packed so much into seven years, the legacy is timelessness and how that will continue echo with every new artist she inspires because there will always be a piece of Aaliyah in each generation and everyone who adopts certain aspects of her. She will keep going.
That she will.
Then, now, and forever, the memory of Aaliyah will never vanish and music fans everywhere will always keep a special place for her in our hearts.
We never forget.
Rest in Power to Aaliyah, Scott Gallin, Douglas Kratz, Eric Foreman, Keith Wallace, Christopher Maldonado, Gina Smith, Anthony Dodd, and Luis Morales III.
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