I was three years old when Aaliyah passed away in 2001. I was young, but I could feel the massive impact of her tragic death around me and through me.
I recall hearing the news of her untimely passing alongside my cousins and aunt. They were sad and in shock like most of the world. They were teenagers in a pre-Instagram era when 106 & Park was one of the only platforms broadcasting black pop culture to the masses. So of course they were avid fans who would sing her songs in the car and try to recreate her smoothly choreographed moves. I was right there with them - desperately wanting to be apart of the magic.
As I grew older and developed my own taste for music, Aaliyah’s discography became my go-to. I loved how complementary the experimental Timbaland-assisted tracks were to her classic, angelic vocal tone. She reminded me of the cool older girls from my neighborhood; the ones who played double dutch in the street and whose mothers allowed them to get blow-outs and press-and-curls. I didn’t realize it then, but she was one of the few brown-skinned women in the musical sphere who helped shape my black girl existence.
I placed her picture on my wall next to Whitney Houston, Brandy, Tyra Banks, Beyonce, Janet Jackson, and Selena Quintanilla. All of these women resembled aspects of me that I didn’t necessarily know how to love. Their collective representation steadily reassured me on my not-so-secure days that there was nothing wrong with who I was. Yet there was always something relatable about Aaliyah.
She hailed from my native Detroit, bearing an Arabic name meaning “the highest exalted one.” She donned mysterious shades and a side swoop bang. It was as if she secretly knew how amazing her sound was and we all just needed to catch up. Her music was powerful and incorporated feminist ideas. Her songs articulated strength and a knowing of self as she told boys to accept her standards all while she played hard to get.
She called out discrepancies in relationships and rooted for other girls. She wasn’t into playing the side chick role. She also embraced real love, unapologetically sharing her feelings without abandon in lyric form. She wasn’t anyone else’s, she was hers. Through her music, I learned what it meant for me to be a black feminist well before I ever read a page of Audre Lorde or bell hooks.
Glimpses of self-sufficiency were evident in the way she believed in herself and her message. She never wanted to conform, she just wanted to make dope music and be a great entertainer. Her tomboy aesthetic defied standards of how women were supposed to dress as most R&B starlets wore long black gowns. She even had enough street appeal to make guys give her songs a listen. She was ahead of her time - you can look at any R&B female artist today and see the influence Aaliyah has had.
More than anything, Aaliyah was a survivor. She endured naysayers and the patriarchal nature of the music industry, which serves as a microcosm for the world at large. In the wake of the pending R. Kelly charges regarding her marriage to R. Kelly as a minor, I sense that so much of her story went untold. And though Aaliyah is not presently here to defend herself or tell her side of the story, I find comfort in the fact that other black women and girls can look to her music for some kind of direction and some much-needed healing.
The fact that she is no longer living on this earth is a travesty that goes way beyond music. It speaks to how we all have so little time to carve out our space in the world, to make it, to be seen, and to be remembered. She passed away at 22 years old - the same age I am today. That alone makes me feel close to her, not only as a fan, but as a young woman. I can just imagine where she was in life prior to her transition. I have a feeling that she was like the rest of us, trying our hardest to navigate young adulthood.
Her career brought her to a turning point where she finally shed her teenage image. She was falling madly in love with her boyfriend Damon Dash and expressed desire to marry him. She too was a Megan Thee Stallion-defined “hot girl” who prioritized her education first as she made time for her career. Aaliyah led a life like myself and so many other young women I know. It was a life that was lived freely and full to the brim.
"I don't want to abandon one work for the other, and I don't think I need to sacrifice anything to put my all into either one of them. " -Aaliyah
My only hope is that we continue to remember Aaliyah fondly because so many black girls do not have the privilege to be missed when they are unjustly taken from us. I vow to keep her memory alive for as long as I can, whether that’s through wearing my usual oversized men’s sweater and red lipstick or when I style my hair in a side bang for a night out.
I find it extremely honorable that a person could touch so many lives in 22 years. We should all aspire to live our lives in such a way. Aaliyah was truly loved and “highly exalted." I am convinced there will never be another.