Aaliyah: A Complex Legacy

Those who grew up amongst the R&B boom of the late 90s to the early 2000s will be familiar with Aaliyah. Known for her many hits, including Try Again, Are You That Somebody, Back and Forth, and Rock The Boat, Aaliyah had arguably earned the title of the “Princess of R&B”. Her rise to superstardom was only increasing in 2001, when she was set to appear in two sequels to the Matrix as well as Whitney Houston’s hit movie, Sparkle, further in the future. At the same time, she was set to embark on a concert tour, promoting her third and final, eponymous album “Aaliyah.” By all accounts, Aaliyah seemed to be racing towards her prime, when suddenly, her life was tragically cut short.

At the age of 22, Aaliyah and 8 of her crew members were tragically killed. Having finished filming the music video for her new single, Rock the Boat, in the Bahamas, Aaliyah and her crew decided to head back to Miami. But shortly after take-off, the plane crashed. After much investigation, several factors were determined to have caused the crash: the inexperience of the pilot, the pilot’s drug use, and the fact that the plane’s weight limit had been significantly exceeded. Aaliyah’s morbid and tragic end often overshadows the legacy that she has left.

It is easy to get caught up in the loss of a celebrity, without stopping to realise everything that they gave the world. Aaliyah was a mysterious character, who rarely gave anything away to the media, but she was also a visionary.

Her partnership with producers such as Timbaland helped to pave the future of R&B, carving out a sound that remarkably still sounds fresh today. Yet, when discussing the legacy of Aaliyah, it is impossible to forget the threat to her legacy that has been looming since her untimely death; her music’s lack of availability.

Whilst most artists’ discographies are easily accessible through a multitude of streaming platforms, Aaliyah’s music is largely missing. This is speculated to be due to her uncle Barry Hankerson, who Aaliyah was signed under beneath his now defunct label, Blackground Records. Whilst details are hazy, it is clear that Aaliyah’s estate has been fighting for the rights to her music for years on end, to little success. A huge kick in the teeth for not only her family, but her fans too.

Fans barely have any legal ways of supporting Aaliyah, official merchandise is scarce and streams are not available due to the aforementioned rights disputes. Whilst financial gain is important, I feel the most dangerous loss that could be occurring is the loss of Aaliyah’s legacy. Aaliyah’s forward thinking sound is becoming increasingly hard to find without resorting to piracy.

Throughout her short lifetime, Aaliyah was very vocal about wanting to be remembered as a full-on entertainer, and the absence of her music has led many fans to believe this wish has been violated.

By removing access to Aaliyah’s access on public platforms, fans have been left to fill in the gaps that her estate should have, long ago. Fans are now remastering her music videos themselves, bringing them from low quality productions, to high definition ones. Her fans have effectively had to play the role of distributor and curator, illegally uploading her music onto YouTube and remastering her videos, despite the threat of facing copyright strikes.

Whilst this has strengthened the sense of community in Aaliyah’s fanbase, it has allowed many to focus on the tragedies of her life over her many victories. It has been my experience that many individuals aren’t aware of Aaliyah’s musical legacy, but rather the details of her personal life, that were exposed for the whole world to see.

As many already know, Aaliyah was once married to R. Kelly, the singer-songwriter and producer, who is now better known for being an infamous sexual predator and paedophile. Aaliyah met Kelly when she was 12 years old, and he produced her first album, unfortunately titled, “Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number.” The reason the title is so pertinent is that it was later revealed that Kelly had married Aaliyah, at the age of 15, whilst he was 27. Aaliyah was obviously the victim in this situation , and it was revealed that Kelly had managed to obtain a forged marriage certificate that falsely stated Aaliyah was 18 at the time of the marriage. It didn’t take long for the marriage to be annulled, but the damage to Aaliyah’s personal and professional life had already been done. Aaliyah bore the brunt of the marriage rumours, shamed by the ruthlessly misogynistic society present within 90s America.

With the release of Surviving R. Kelly, Aaliyah’s name was brought back into public discourse, but for all the wrong-reasons. Details of her and Kelly’s abusive relationship resurfaced, and it was later revealed that Aaliyah had to sign an Non Disclosure Agreement surrounding her relationship with R. Kelly. Perhaps this explains why Aaliyah never discussed what occurred between her and R. Kelly. She often carefully talked around the question of her marriage, and often gave the impression that the past was the past.

Whatever her intentions were, we have to be mindful of the fact that in the late 90s and early 2000s, it was incredibly difficult to discuss these sorts of topics.

Especially, within a society that worshipped tabloid culture, which often tore women down, horrifically slut-shaming them across multiple headlines. Perhaps Aaliyah would have spoken about her experiences in today’s societal climate, breaking her NDA, or maybe she would have chose not to. Either way, that choice was taken out of her hands, after her death.

Whilst I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing, as it exposed the injustice that Aaliyah faced during her lifetime, I do feel that the image of her being a powerless victim has tainted her legacy, due to the absence of her music. The absence of her music on widespread platforms has allowed for Aaliyah to be viewed as a victim of Kelly, and she was so much more than that.

Many seem to focus upon her traumatic experience, without acknowledging the healing that occurred after. Aaliyah managed to recover from an experience that would have destroyed many, emotionally and professionally, and she managed to free herself from her abuser, blossom into adulthood and produce one of the best R&B records of the 21st century. It is okay to focus upon her tragedies, but a sense of equilibrium is lost, when individuals portray her to be a helpless victim, reducing her complexity and talent.

Her legacy, although muted, manifests itself in the modern R&B records of today, influencing artists such as Solange and SZA, allowing them to experiment in terms of musical production.

She was a trailblazer. Aaliyah and Timbaland managed to create a sound that permeated the 2000s. Most notably, the middle-eastern inspired production present in her songs More Than A Woman and We Need A Resolution were replicated in hit songs such as Toxic by Britney Spears. Yet, Aaliyah’s legacy doesn’t just permeate through her music, but through her fashion too. Aaliyah was, and still is, a fashion icon, sporting a self-described “street but sweet” look that is still replicated today. This is particularly pertinent when one considers the resurgence of the Y2K aesthetic, and the fact black artists are often ignored, whilst in truth, they helped to forge it. Y2K fashion movements such as logomania were trailblazed by black artists, including Aaliyah, and her iconic Tommy Hilfiger look.

Aaliyah’s legacy is a complex issue. With the absence of her music and remastered video, her fans have had to fill in the gaps that her estate are unable to repair. Yet this poignant neglect of her legacy has surprisingly created a fiercely strong fanbase that is protective of their Princess of R&B. They defend her image, ensuring that she is not perceived as a victim, but a trailblazer and strong individual, who helped to pave the way for the greats who were yet to come. One can only wonder where Aaliyah would be today, perhaps she would have forayed more into acting, having already achieved much success with her 2 movie roles, Romeo Must Die and Queen of the Damned. Perhaps she would found a comfortable level of fame, amongst the likes of fellow R&B songstresses Brandy and Monica. Or perhaps she would have reached an insane level of fame, that only few can tolerate and takes a toll on the recipient.

The pain resides in that exact question: where would she be today? We will never be able to answer it. Aaliyah’s music is all her fans have left, it speaks for itself, and no matter how many times it is silenced, they will find a way to ensure that her legacy is upheld.

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