The seismic reckoning around R. Kelly shouldn’t change how we view Aaliyah’s art.
A wax figure of the singer Aaliyah, dressed in the same metallic bra, choker, and black leather pants she wore in her 2000 music video for “Try Again,” was unveiled in late August at Madame Tussauds in Las Vegas. The event, which coincided with the 18th anniversary of her death, was the latest homage to Aaliyah’s status as a pop culture icon: In recent years, she has inspired a fragrance and a MAC makeup collection. Yet all these celebrations of Aaliyah’s legacy curiously avoid her most important contribution: music.
Aaliyah was just 15 years old when her debut single, “Back & Forth,” topped the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart in July 1994. The Detroit-reared singer had her eye on stardom early, appearing on the televised talent competition Star Search in 1989. Her ascent was swift: By 21, Aaliyah had become an international star with a handful of No. 1 hits, modeled for Tommy Hilfiger, and embarked on a movie career. Her music and personal style were edgy and effortless. They reflected a future that Aaliyah wouldn’t get to experience.
She died, along with eight others, in August 2001 when the plane carrying them crashed just after taking off from the Abaco Islands in the Bahamas. She was 22. You’ll often see the phrase “frozen in time” mentioned in connection with Aaliyah. But the singer, whose influence pushed forward long after her death, is no ghost of decades past. She remains a strong point of reference both musically and stylistically.
Her sound, molded by the multitalented Missy Elliott and idiosyncratic producer Timbaland into something so novel that it ultimately propelled all three to superstardom, has become as important as it was unconventional. You can hear the breathy vocals, as well as traces of the steely syncopation of “One in a Million” and the hypnotic waltz of “I Care 4 U” in the music of contemporary artists such as Syd, Kelela, and FKA Twigs, who styled herself after Akasha, the vampire queen Aaliyah portrayed in the 2002 movie Queen of the Damned, in her 2014 video for “Two Weeks.”
J. Cole has reinterpreted Aaliyah’s work with Missy Elliott. The XX has covered her. Kendrick Lamar has paid his respects on wax. She holds indelible placement on Drake’s body — tattooed on his back, across from a portrait of his mother — and psyche. Frank Ocean released a cover of the Isley Brothers’ “At Your Best (You Are Love)” on what would have been her 36th birthday in 2015, but Chris Robinson’s 2006 film ATL gave Aaliyah’s version a boost nearly a decade prior. Rapsody’s “Aaliyah,” from her new album, Eve, praises the singer for making tomboy style cool.
Aaliyah, who was alluring even when rejecting overtly sexy looks, is also a progenitor of modern fashion. “To posit that Aaliyah is the end all be all of contemporary fashion might be a no-duh point for many of us, but until the world stops doing it, we are going to keep on positing it,” Julianne Escobedo Shepherd wrote for Jezebel in 2014. You recognize Aaliyah’s influence immediately, especially her most timeless and resonant aesthetic: the tomboy look. “As soon you see it, you’ll peg that as: ‘That’s Aaliyah right there,’” says stylist Derek Lee, who worked with the singer from 1996 until her death. “And no matter who does it, it can always be traced back to Aaliyah because she’s the one who did it right.”
Yet anyone looking to fully immerse themselves in Aaliyah has to hope her music is never pulled from YouTube. Today, the vast majority of her music is unavailable on streaming platforms. The lone Aaliyah album on Spotify, Tidal, and Apple Music is her 1994 debut, Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number, which was written, produced, and titled by R. Kelly, who illegally wed an underage Aaliyah when she was just 15 and he was 27. Now, Aaliyah’s legacy is at risk of being minimized because her music is caught in limbo — save for the project tainted by Kelly’s influence, tethering her to her abuser. Her family has spoken little about Aaliyah or the allegations around Kelly, leaving the singer more misunderstood.
So Aaliyah remains a difficult figure to reckon with. On one hand, she’s remembered fondly for the extent of her influence. On the other, she dredges up uncomfortable associations of abuse and negligence. While tragedy is an undeniable part of Aaliyah’s narrative, in interviews, those who knew the singer and her family say that her art shouldn’t be overshadowed by her ties to Kelly — and that making her music more accessible today could put a definitive end to that.
Aaliyah would have been 40 in January. Pondering who and what she would be today is a coping mechanism her fans still resort to, allowing her, like other stars who died young, to live on as a symbol of eternal youth. “She’ll be young forever, but that’s not a consolation prize for a life,” says Lee. The symbolism of her youth can’t be separated from its exploitation. In the years since her death, the true nature of Aaliyah’s enormously consequential relationship with Kelly has only sharpened and grown more disturbing to the public.
The singer, who hailed from a protective family, was 12 when she was introduced to R. Kelly by her uncle and former manager, Barry Hankerson, who also managed Kelly at the time. Aaliyah soon became Kelly’s protégé, submitting to his vision while he wrote songs for her about young women longing for older lovers. Four years after they met, an infamous Vibe cover story revealed that the two had secretly wed in 1994, with a marriage license that incorrectly stated that she was 18. In this year’s Lifetime documentary series Surviving R. Kelly, Demetrius Smith, Kelly’s former tour manager and personal assistant, claims he obtained false documents ahead of the wedding because Aaliyah was underage.
Much of this story has been uncovered by music critic and author Jim DeRogatis, who has reported on R. Kelly’s alleged sex and abuse crimes against 48 women, some when they were as young as 14 years old, for nearly 20 years. His book, Soulless: The Case Against R. Kelly, details a pattern of abuse toward young girls and women. It also includes records that Kelly, Aaliyah, and her parents, Diane and Michael Haughton, all signed a document agreeing that a lawsuit could not be brought against Kelly for “physical injury or emotional pain and suffering from any assault or battery perpetrated by Robert against her person.”
After Kelly and Aaliyah’s marriage, her family demanded that she be released from her contract with Jive Records. Hankerson moved Aaliyah, along with the rest of his Blackground Records contingent, over to Atlantic Records after cutting a new distribution deal. Aaliyah and R. Kelly severed all ties after the marriage was annulled in 1995.
The personal and professional separation changed the trajectory of Aaliyah’s career. She’s been praised for her constant reinvention, but her first rebrand came out of necessity. Her first album, Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number, was made in R. Kelly’s image, mirroring his syrupy fusion of hip-hop and R&B. But 1996’s One in a Million, which marked the beginning of her work with Timbaland and Missy Elliott, was a sharp pivot away from everything related to him. The music, bass-heavy with unusual time signatures, was unorthodox but fascinating, creating the foundation for a lot of modern R&B.
Aaliyah’s style also evolved: Her pivot to avant-garde, monochromatic looks attempted to erase the memory of the matching outfits she and Kelly wore in a notorious 1994 Video Soul Gold interview. Aaliyah’s One in a Million-era reinvention wasn’t just her blossoming through creative risks. It was an act of self-preservation.
“When you think of her, you think of — to me — young women’s empowerment and strength,” says Lee. “And no matter how old you are, or what demographic you’re from, that’s always something to be liked and admired, and will always live on.”
This continued as Aaliyah’s music grew more ambitious. On “We Need a Resolution,” from her eponymous 2001 album, Aaliyah’s vocals slink through Timbaland’s off-kilter production in elusive fashion. She weaves between the drums, ducking and dodging synths along the way. “Where most divas insist on being the center of the song, she knew how to disappear into the music,” Kelefa Sanneh wrote for the New York Times in 2001. A significant part of Aaliyah’s draw was the connection people felt to her due to the honesty of her lyrics, despite her evasive style of singing.
Now her elusiveness can also be interpreted as a safety precaution. She was intensely private, especially in the wake of the R. Kelly situation, mastering the art of hiding in plain sight. A 2001 Vibe profile notes that she “sort of changes the subject” whenever the marriage was brought up. “I remember Aaliyah trying to talk about it and she couldn’t,” Damon Dash, who was dating Aaliyah at the time of her death, told Hip Hop Motivation earlier this year. “She just would leave it at, ‘That dude was a bad man.’”
Although Aaliyah may be R. Kelly’s most high-profile victim, their connection is just a small part of her story. The absence of her music on today’s standard channels for consumption risks diminishing her legacy moving forward. A 2016 Complex piece explored the precarious status of her discography, revealing that it’s tied up in the legal turmoil Blackground Records has experienced since her death. Artists and producers including Timbaland, Toni Braxton, and JoJo have filed lawsuits against the label, which no longer has a presence on the internet. The best of Aaliyah’s catalog, still woven into so much of today’s music, is in danger of being lost to time and technological advancements. “As well-regarded and beloved as she is, it should be tenfold more,” DeRogatis said.
There are clear parallels between Aaliyah and Selena, the 23-year-old Tejana icon who was shot and killed by the president of her fan club in 1995. Both artists died young under heartbreaking circumstances, and both remain highly influential figures. There’s a good chance you’ll find Selena’s face on as many overpriced T-shirts as Aaliyah’s. But there’s one key difference, notes Jimir Davis, a producer, DJ, and filmmaker who directed the documentary Aaliyah: The Inside Look two years ago: the approach Selena’s family has taken to keep her legacy alive.
“They said, ‘We’re going to make sure we tell our daughter’s story the right way before anybody else can,” he explains. “That’s why the biopic came out so quickly in 1997. Aaliyah’s family did quite the opposite. They released the compilation album I Care 4 U in 2002, but after that, it was pretty silent.”
The silence was broken following the airing of Surviving R. Kelly, which included interviews with several people on tour with Aaliyah and Kelly who said they witnessed sexual acts between the two. But Aaliyah’s mother has denied this happened. “It’s confirmed in the settlement. It’s confirmed in the annulment,” says DeRogatis. “It obviously happened. It’s a tragedy that it happened, you don’t want to relive a tragedy, but on the other hand, you can’t deny that it happened.” In a 2013 interview with the Village Voice, DeRogatis recalled Aaliyah’s mother explaining the aftermath of her dealings with Kelly. “I had Aaliyah’s mother cry on my shoulder and say her daughter’s life was ruined, Aaliyah’s life was never the same after that,” he said.
Aaliyah was affectionately known by her family and fans alike as “Babygirl,” i.e., someone everyone sought to protect. How she died, and what we now gather that she experienced as a teenager, is unquestionably devastating for those close to her. Perhaps they — specifically her family, who have rarely addressed her relationship with R. Kelly — feel the need to protect her now because they feel they didn’t while she was alive.
But the reality is that Aaliyah is neither tarnished nor defined by that. She overcame it. “This was not a new story in pop music either, right?” DeRogatis says. “How many women? Etta James at the birth of rock ’n’ roll. It happens. But what doesn’t happen as often is that empowered recovery.”
Aaliyah’s legacy today is often interpreted as innocence corrupted by the very industry she devoted her life to. But Lee doesn’t consider Aaliyah to be a case of stolen youth; he believes she got as much out of life as possible in just 22 years. “A stolen life or stolen future? Yeah. But not stolen youth,” he says.
Aaliyah’s greatest success came post-R. Kelly. Five years passed between her second and third albums, and she remained hyperrelevant without oversaturating herself through a ubiquitous presence in fashion and releasing two of her defining singles, “Are You That Somebody?” and “Try Again,” on movie soundtracks during the years in between. She had a lead role in Romeo Must Die, a new-millennium Shakespeare adaptation the latter song was attached to. She was filming the Matrix sequels at the time of her death. In 2012, shortly before she died, Whitney Houston confirmed that she had wanted Aaliyah to play the titular character in her remake of Sparkle. Aaliyah’s name means “the highest” or “most exalted” in Arabic. She rose above her abuse.
“That she went through this as her first experience as an independent young woman at 15, raised in a sheltered way by a loving mother, father, and extended family, and then this happens,” DeRogatis says. “That she then manages to make the last two albums and really come into her own as an actress and everything else she accomplished is extraordinary. It’s a story that would inspire people, especially victims. Some of the lyrics on the last two albums are about having survived abuse.”
Aaliyah survived R. Kelly and an industry that regularly preys on the young and turns a blind eye to the gross mistreatment of women. The true tragedy is that she managed to put that behind her only to die seven years later under more circumstances she had no control over. Her memory has found new life through social media, but her legacy is in danger of being subdued because of the barrier to access her greatest offerings. And while her loved ones have no obligation to speak about what happened to her, pretending that it didn’t happen does little to preserve her legacy.
“I don’t think it would change the way people look at her,” DeRogatis says, “except to make the admiration even deeper.”
Julian Kimble has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Undefeated, the Ringer, GQ, Billboard, Pitchfork, the Fader, and many others about music, popular culture, sports, and more. He aspires to spend less time online.
Author: Julian Kimble