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Aaliyah sounded like the future. 20 years after her death, we keep looking back
In the run-up to an Aaliyah-themed drag show at a Brooklyn gay bar this month, drag performer Dèvo Monique is concentrating on “commissioning a look.”
The look, which they are keeping secret until the big night, will be unveiled at Metropolitan Bar, where several New York City drag queens will take the stage in various states of Aaliyah dress. To Dèvo Monique, it shouldn’t be something that replicates one of the late singer-actress’ iconic looks — maybe her vampire drag in “Queen of the Damned,” or an all-white leather pantsuit à la her “More Than a Woman” video — but something she’d wear today if she were still alive.
A hallmark of drag is paying tribute to Black women from Detroit. Diana Ross’ LGBTQ anthem “I’m Coming Out” was born after producer and musician Nile Rodgers’ trip to a New York City gay club, where he saw numerous drag queens dressed in costumes inspired by Ross, performing her hits. Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” and “Think,” too, are drag staples. But Aaliyah is not known for bouffant wigs or beautiful gowns. A show honoring her has to be different.
“Aaliyah is known for [being] sporty and also for being very futuristic. So how do you mix sports and futuristic-like looks? Do you do like a complete Tommy Hilfiger-like look?” Dèvo Monique said, referencing the singer’s penchant for pairing the American designer’s crop tops with baggy jeans. “Or do you do the iconic sparkly bras and the latex pants?”
In describing Aaliyah, Dèvo Monique sometimes speaks of her in the present tense — she is known for sporty looks, they said. But they also refer to her as someone who was “always looking to the future.”
“I don’t think any brown girls were doing what Aaliyah was doing. Like, I love Beyoncé, and I love Destiny’s Child, but Aaliyah was trying new harmonies and new production styles,” they said. She “was really pushing the idea forward [that] not only music could go, but where R&B music could go.”
Today, it can feel like Aaliyah is back on the scene. The singer’s image appears on retro-styled T-shirts everywhere from Bushwick to the ‘burbs. TikTokers recreate her music videos. R&B singers, in diapers at her peak, now interpolate her style. And drag queens, in Brooklyn and beyond, are paying tribute. At least in conversation with Dèvo Monique and other fans, Aaliyah never left.
To be an Aaliyah admirer has meant safeguarding what’s left of her legacy all this time. Her full discography has never been available on streaming platforms. But now, 20 years after Aaliyah’s death, Blackground Records plans to release all her albums to streaming services, starting Aug. 20.
It fills a gap: Before, “essential” Aaliyah playlists on Spotify felt so non-essential without selections from the genre-shattering work of “One in a Million” — featuring collaborations with Missy Elliott and Timbaland, relative newcomers at the time — and her third and final album “Aaliyah,” released just weeks before she died in a plane crash at 22. For many music fans, it may bring closure to a chapter that has lacked an ending for years. For others, it allows space for reassessing a brief but spectacular career — and where it could’ve gone.
Steven McEnrue, general manager of the Metropolitan Bar hosting the Aaliyah drag show, remembered what it was like to be a teen, listening to all those singular-named artists on the radio in the 1990s.
“I’m the same age as Monica, Brandy, and all of them … and [Aaliyah] just seemed to be the most cutting-edge of them all. She just exuded this cool I can’t really explain.”
“Beyond the music, there’s a lot of mystery there,” he added.
Journey to the past
To contextualize where Aaliyah was going, one would have to — as she sang in an Oscar-nominated best original song — take a journey to the past.
Aaliyah Dana Haughton was born in Brooklyn, but raised in Detroit, the city she would most closely identify with throughout her lifetime.
Between 1979 and 2001, when Aaliyah was alive, Detroit was solidifying its stature as America’s largest majority-Black city. It no longer claimed Motown Records, which had decamped for Los Angeles seven years before Aaliyah was born. Yet the city was home to then-current and eventual superstars: Franklin, Anita Baker, The Clark Sisters, Cherrelle and The Belleville Three among them.
Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, a professor at the University of Michigan, was two years older than Aaliyah. When the singer’s first album came out, she was attending DSA, the Detroit High School for the Fine and Performing Arts, while Thomas was at another high school across town. Detroiters of their generation grew up during the last years of a fleeting golden era to be Black and creative from Detroit.
Before the late 1990s, when the state of Michigan took over public schools in the city, funding for music education was excellent, said Thomas, an associate professor in the educational studies program.
“And [Detroiters] had a relatively high income compared to Great Migration communities because of factory jobs. So there was disposable income, you get that [musical] instrument for your young people” she said.
With upbringing in the city’s tony Sherwood Forest, some private Catholic schooling and an uncle — soon to be a recurring figure not just in life, but in legacy — once appointed by the city’s first Black mayor, Aaliyah’s early life embodies the element of a city once referred to as the capital of the Black middle class.
That variety of Blackness in Detroit gave some space for experimentation from those of Thomas’ generation. She considers Aaliyah’s body of work to be an example of Afrofuturism — a concept that blends traditions from the African diaspora with speculative, fantastical visions of the future.
“She was embracing Afrofuturistic imagery,” Thomas said, pointing to her body of work after her 1994 debut album. But Thomas highlights two standouts: The 2001 “We Need a Resolution” video, which shows Aaliyah as some sort of time traveler playing with new, metallic tech, and her star turn in the 2002 vampire flick “Queen of the Damned.”
“There’s so much talk about Octavia Butler, ‘Black Panther,'” Thomas said.”You go from Sun Ra to Janelle Monáe, if you’re thinking about the history of Afrofuturism, but Aaliyah gets overlooked. Her later work is all Black speculative, and she’s doing it across genres — her music projects, but also her film projects.”
Thomas said her generation embraced speculative and fantastic imagery, but “[some] Generation X and some Xennials were trying to ‘keep it real.’ You got clowned back in my day for being into spaceships and wizards. Those of us who couldn’t hide it and got bullied and beat up on those Detroit playgrounds — the North remembers,” she laughed, referencing the fantasy epic “Game of Thrones.”
“She was such a beacon of light, letting me know I wasn’t alone, and I wasn’t the only weird Black girl from Detroit.”
‘The most exalted one’
In the latter half of the 1990s and into the 2000s, a new generation of young singers, most of whom debuted in their teenage years, grabbed pop and R&B radio listeners by the neck and held on.
These performers, crossing genres and the accompanying Billboard charts that measured their performance, mostly fell into two aesthetics: They were “urban” — think Monica, Brandy, Usher or Mýa, all of whom were tailor-made for music blasted from Jeeps — or teen pop, the Backstreet Boys, Jessica Simpson, Mandy Moore, Christina Aguilera-types whose music flowed from New Beetles.
Aaliyah “was refreshingly different,” said Spike, a mononymous radio host who has co-hosted “Mojo in the Morning” for two decades on Detroit’s Channel 95.5. “And if you remember the pop culture of the early 2000s, Aaliyah was an alternative to the squeaky-clean manufactured pop acts like Britney Spears and ‘NSYNC, who were all over the charts at that time.”
In 2000, Spike had arrived at Detroit’s leading pop station after a stint at an alt-rock station in Dallas. “One thing I made clear to the bosses was, ‘Listen, I don’t like a lot of the music you play,'” he remembered. (The only hometown artist he’d regularly play at his old station: A then-budding Eminem, who found an early audience on alt-rock radio before becoming the highest-selling rapper in music history and a premier Detroit artist.)
Something about Aaliyah recalled the “edginess” of the darker music he used to play at his old Dallas station. “The production was just avant garde. The beats from Timbaland and Missy Elliott were just so much different from anything that was going on in R&B or pop at the time. I saw one of my favorite artists, Trent Reznor from Nine Inch Nails, considering collaborating with her, and I thought, OK, [Aaliyah, Elliott and Timbaland] caught his ear.”
Detroit radio typically welcomes back its signature artists with pride, allowing them to speak at length with deejays about their lives and careers. Eminem and Aaliyah had both become ambassadors for Detroit.
“She grew up in a house that was a mile and a half from our radio station at the time,” Spike said. There was plenty to ask about the city’s place in the changing musical landscape. But Aaliyah was so busy in her final years, Spike said. Catching up with her was a challenge.
“We would always try to grab her, but she was just so in demand,” he said. “They were just sending her around to do [non-musical] projects.”
She was promoting her movies and doing television specials, and when she became a spokesperson for Tommy Hilfiger, she did magazine interviews about fashion. “So she kind of evaded us for radio interviews,” Spike said.
‘I’m here to tell you’
By the year 2000, Aaliyah was making the rounds to promote the movie “Romeo Must Die,” her first foray into film. At this point, she was also two albums deep.
In 1998, she had a smash hit with “Are You That Somebody,” an infectious song off the “Dr. Doolittle” soundtrack famous for its baby coo sample. She was the youngest artist to perform at the Oscars with her version of “Journey to the Past” for the animated movie “Anastasia.” And Aaliyah starred alongside Jet Li in “Romeo Must Die,” Andrzej Bartkowiak’s 2000 film that blended martial arts with Shakespeare.
Yet Aaliyah, then 21, was still introducing herself.
During an appearance on “The Late Late Show,” Craig Kilborn, rattled off a list of her attributes: Beautiful. Talented. Young. “You’re just gonna get bigger and bigger,” he said of her career. But he couldn’t pronounce her name correctly.
Video by Aaliyah VEVO
“Say your name. Aaliyah?” Kilborn asks.
Aaliyah gently corrects Kilborn on how to correctly say her name. “Aaliyah. Like Muhammad Ali.” (Her 1994 debut album, “Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number,” had the pronunciation of her name on the cover: “ah-lee-yah.”)
Kilborn again tries saying her name correctly. He says he’s been saying it wrong for weeks. Aaliyah lets out a small sigh and assures him, “I’m here to tell you.” There’s a smattering of noises from the studio crowd.
The moment appears frictionless, though, as Kilborn again tries sounding her name out and then asks, “Do you know what it means?”
Aaliyah quickly says, “Yes. It means the highest. The most exalted one. The best.”
That confidence was an Aaliyah trademark. On 1996’s “One in a Million” album cover, she’s in dark shades, her hair, pressed and covering her left eye, over her sunglasses. Danyel Smith, a veteran music journalist, author and host of the “Black Girl Songbook” podcast said that classic Aaliyah look — when she’d glance over the top her sunglasses — was “just very, like, ‘I”m going to give you all a second of my time — a second — before I go back behind the curtain where I can see you, but you really can’t see me.'”
It was sometimes with a smile and sometimes not. Sometimes playful and at others, irritated. “It’s just so seductive and so powerful,” Smith said.
By the time she appeared on the cover of her third, self-titled album in 2001, the shades were gone. Her hair no longer covered part of her face.
Aaliyah’s sartorial influence is palpable — her laid-back style has been duplicated and recycled on runways and by pop stars for years.
“There was a consciousness around Y2K, cyberpunk. What we imagined as the future in 2000 is very different than the future we are imagining in 2021,” Thomas said. “If you look at that turn-of-the-millennium, sort-of futuristic vibe, she sort of has it.”
Aaliyah was “exceptionally young when she started,” Smith said. With the slight shift in how she presented herself to the public, “I’m sure there was some self-consciousness on her part,” adding that you can see this reflected now in H.E.R.’s sunglasses or Billie Eilish’s baggy clothes. It’s, in part, the journey from girlhood to womanhood.
“All that was in front of her,” Smith said of Aaliyah. “I think she was just starting to turn that corner and really coming into her own.”
In a 2001 cover story for Vibe, released the month she died, Aaliyah said she was aware of the way people “feel like they own you in this business, and — to a certain degree — they do.”
“But there’s a part of me that will always be just for me,” she added.
A few weeks later, Vibe had a new cover story. Below a black-and-white photo of Aaliyah, her hair slightly covering her left eye, read: Aaliyah Dana Haughton 1979-2001.
‘Still at the funeral’
“It’s the fans who have been holding it down for all these years, more so than anyone else,” said Sandy, a longtime superfan in the U.K.
The 32-year-old, who shrouds her full identity online, founded the fan page Aaliyah Archives, an online repository of photos, forums and biographical info about “Baby Girl,” in 2013. She revamped the site this year, on Jan. 16, Aaliyah’s birthday.
On the “About” page, Sandy, whose passion has long been music, wrote that the digital tribute to Aaliyah blossomed out of grief, starting out as a “catharsis of blogging” following her own grandmother’s death. Sandy said she wanted to create a space for fans that didn’t quite exist back in 2013. And posting tidbits about Aaliyah’s life, music and influence helped her get through a tough period of her own.
The work crescendoed from there. Today, Sandy maintains the site, balancing the demands of keeping fans informed on the latest Aaliyah news alongside her freelance work.
“It was my duty to make sure that her legacy was kept alive,” said Sandy, adding that she’s driven by a responsibility to introduce Aaliyah to a new generation of fans.
The planned Aug. 20 rollout of Aaliyah’s music to streaming platforms also means a bevy of physical copies — vinyl, CDs, cassettes — that have long been unavailable. Sandy said this flood of memorabilia grants access to newer fans to the objects that older fans have cherished for years.
And the memorabilia is indeed in high demand. New physical copies of Aaliyah’s albums can run up to $150 on Amazon. McEnrue, the Brooklyn bar manager, has collected several items of her memorabilia over the years, including a promotional poster for her last album. He decided to display that poster, along with posters from Janet Jackson, Madonna, The Cranberries and Björk, “and I figured out a device to hang them on the wall to prevent them from being stolen, but Aaliyah was the first one they tried to steal.”
In some ways she’s become an icon relegated to a screen print found in Urban Outfitters, Target or Hot Topic. “I feel like at the moment, she’s just seen as some kind of aesthetic on a T-shirt, kind of like Marilyn Monroe,” Sandy said.
At the top of the Aaliyah Archives website is a ticker that rotates a few quotes that’s attributed to the singer. One reads: “It’s hard to say what I want my legacy to be when I’m long gone.”
The quote, which isn’t quite verbatim, is from a 2001 interview with MTV. In the original footage, Aaliyah continues her thought: “I want people to look at me as a full-on entertainer.” She briefly pauses. “And a good person.”
“You know, we’ll talk a few years down the line, and we’ll see where my head is at then,” she added. “But, that’s what I want for right now.”
Getting to the point where fans, new and old, can fully engage with Aaliyah’s music has been tumultuous. Aaliyah’s master recordings, along with some work from Timbaland, Toni Braxton, JoJo and others, have been under lock and key by Blackground Records, which is controlled by Aaliyah’s uncle, Barry Hankerson.
In 2017, an Aaliyah greatest hits collection was removed mere hours after it popped up on iTunes and Apple Music. And, for the longest time, her first album “Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number” was the only full-length work that was available for streaming. It was also produced by her former husband R. Kelly, who begins his trial for sex trafficking this month and has long been accused of abusing her and others.
Hankerson, a Detroit native who went from working in former Detroit Mayor Coleman Young’s cabinet to a marriage with Motown diva Gladys Knight that provided him entry into the music industry, told Billboard this month that, among other reasons, he was waiting for the blessing from Aaliyah’s estate — run on behalf of his sister, Diane Haughton, Aaliyah’s mother, and nephew, Rashad Haughton — to move forward with re-releasing his niece’s music. But, as Billboard laid out, there is still dispute within the family.
The estate doesn’t support the move, nodding to the long history of Aaliyah’s mother and brother being seemingly at odds with Hankerson and Blackground on how to preserve the late singer’s legacy. Previously, statements about the possible release of her music bubbled up around Aaliyah’s birthday in January or the anniversaries of her death in August, but then they’d fizzle out. The back-back-forth-and-forth is familiar to fans, who have endured many broken promises to having Aaliyah’s discography made more widely available. This year, though, an actual date was set. Blackground heavily promoted the #AaliyahIsComing hashtag. And fans met the news with celebration, hesitation, and every emotion in between.
“My immediate thought was like, why now? Why now, why after all this time when we’ve been begging for it. It feels like a cash grab,” Dèvo Monique, the drag performer, said.
For many fans like Dèvo Monique, who is excited that Aaliyah’s music will come to those who were unfamiliar with her during her peak years, listening still comes with reservation.
“My boyfriend’s younger than me, so he had no idea who Aaliyah was. She’s not in [his] immediate cultural zeitgeist. Do I sit and show my boyfriend the albums and play it full and we listen to it and experience it for the first time?”
Fans mourning an artist whose life was cut short also means there’s this lingering wonder of what could be.
“I can’t say anything like, ‘Wow, now we have a young Black woman angel looking down on us and still leading us with her style and grace.’ That’s probably for someone else to say,” Smith said. “For me, I’m a little bit still at the funeral, so I’m not ready to just sort of accept her into that magical space of [her] looking down on us.”
“I’m sure she probably is, but I wish that she was still among us,” Smith added.
During the digital void, fans have kept Aaliyah’s legacy alive. They blasted her music. They dressed like her. They put her image on walls, on jackets, on their backs, to honor her. They sampled her voice. They play the opening notes to her cover of The Isley Brothers’ “At Your Best (You Are Love)” — the album version, which begins a capella — letting Aaliyah’s gentle vocals pull them in closer.
Ever since Aaliyah died, Missy Elliott has memorialized her best friend in her music videos and songs. A tribute to Aaliyah, as well as the late Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, appears in the “Work It” music video, their faces airbrushed onto a car hood. A moving image of Aaliyah plays inside a picture frame on Elliott’s desk at the beginning of the “Pass That Dutch” music video.
“Aaliyah, baby girl, I’ve learned to love those while they’re still awake,” Elliott is heard saying in her “Baby Girl Interlude.”
“The highest honor that you can show somebody like Aaliyah after she’s gone is to participate in what she made. To listen to it — not just on the fly — but listen to it deeply, look for the layers. Talk about it like it’s the serious art that it is. Lift it up, like the genius that it is,” Smith said.
“So often Black women make all this genius art and it’s just like, ‘Oh that’s what they do. They sing, and they dance, and they look cute.’ That’s work, and that’s art, and it’s important for it to be acknowledged as such. That’s the highest honor that you can pay Aaliyah or any Black woman that makes anything.”