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In August 2021, on the season two premiere of Danyel Smith‘s Black Girl Songbook, she somberly opened the episode by saying, “Aaliyah’s life has always been overshadowed by her death and honestly, it’s not right and it’s not fair.” Smith later mentioned that Aaliyah’s life was also overshadowed by the men who were in it, and I couldn’t agree more.
There was very little that was publicly shared about Aaliyah Dana Haughton’s private life while she was still here. Overall, we knew that the singer, known mononymously as Aaliyah, was born in Brooklyn on January 16, 1979, raised in Detroit, and practically learned to talk and sing simultaneously. She signed her first record deal as a pre-teen and was managed by her uncle, Barry Hankerson. She released her debut album, Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number, at age 15 and was promptly immersed in scandal—with the world questioning whether or not she and then-producer-turned-convicted-felon R. Kelly had a clandestine romantic relationship and were married after a marriage certificate surfaced in the December 1994/January 1995 issue of VIBE.
Ultimately, the marriage was annulled, the two were forbidden from working together, and Aaliyah’s life briefly returned to normalcy. She graduated high school with a 4.0 GPA and then found her true sound with the help of Timbaland and Missy Elliott. Together, they created her final two albums, One In A Million and Aaliyah—in the midst of her budding film career. She made history at 19 as the youngest person to perform at the Oscars. Her innovative style set a precedence. Tragically, Aaliyah died in a plane crash at the tender age of 22 on August 25, 2001, following the filming of her “Rock The Boat” music video.
That is the very succinct story of Aaliyah, a.k.a Baby Girl, a.k.a the Princess of R&B or the Queen of Urban Pop. However, in the 23 years that’ve followed her death, many lost sight of the legacy she left behind for a multitude of reasons. It ultimately boils down to the once-powerful men in her life co-opting her narrative, and the turmoil within a grieving family. Of the latter, how someone chooses to grieve is deeply personal. It also shouldn’t be the definitive factor behind their decisions, especially involving one’s estate. That said, Aaliyah’s immediate family — her parents, Diane Haughton, the late Michael Haughton, and her older brother, Rashad — aren’t fully to blame for the mishandling of Aaliyah’s legacy.
They control her estate, but Hankerson’s in control of her publishing, masters, and royalties. For decades, Aaliyah’s discography wasn’t available online—to stream or to buy. There was no formal reason as to why he harbored her music alongside others who were signed to Blackground Records. Yet, according to a 2016 report from Complex, Hankerson “never really recovered” from Aaliyah’s death and this could be the cause behind why it took so long for her discography to be released. “Grief turned to despondency; despondency turned to inertia,” the outlet stated. As the music industry entered its streaming era, Blackground Records went dark—until twenty years after her death with Blackground 2.0.
In a rare interview with Billboard during that time, Hankerson confessed that Aaliyah’s death altered the relationship he had with his sister, Diane, naming her as the one who didn’t want the music out.
“As a parent, I would understand if she did not want the music out. Because who wants to hear the voice of your daughter who’s gone? So when she said that to me, I said, ‘OK, we’re not putting it out. I don’t know when, but one day we will.’ We literally packed everything up and went on to something else,” he explained. The estate denied said allegation, saying, “Other than that first album, virtually the entire remainder of her catalog, including many never released tracks, has been inexplicably withheld from the public by Blackground Records.”
Yet, an agreement regarding Aaliyah’s catalog was reached in August 2020 and the following year, everything was out on physical and digital formats.
Without her music being easily accessible, the generational gap between her fans grew wider as many became introduced to her through the likes of sampling, nostalgia culture by way of those she influenced, a terrible Lifetime biopic, posthumous beauty and fashion collaborations, and a game of telephone on how—in a seven-year timeframe— Aaliyah became the “it” girl of the ’90s and paved the way for those who came after her. None of which accurately explained why she was so revered without the albums and its accompanying visuals for context.
In a 2014 op-ed, Michael Arceneaux wrote, “Death does add a certain mystique to an artist, and gives people reason to constantly wonder ‘What if?'” He recalled a tweet that read, “Death does not make you a legend” and noted that while the statement is true, it doesn’t negate the significance of someone who died at such a young age and is still regarded as a trendsetter and pioneer decades later.
When speaking on how she hoped to be remembered, Aaliyah told MTV News in 2001, “I want people to look at me as a full-on entertainer and a good person.” In VIBE‘s August 2001 issue, writer Hyun Kim described her as “guarded,” similar to how Beyoncé now navigates the spotlight. The illustrator for that cover, Alvaro, said she was sweet and angelic. Her best friend, Kidada Jones, used the terms “grounded,” “emotionally balanced,” and “unaffected” as former Editor-in-Chief Emil Wilbekin, added, “She was very private and she didn’t talk a lot about her personal life, controversy, or anything.” Aaliyah cherished that parts of her that others labeled as secret. It’s a mystique that’s rare in the age of social media and oversharing.
Despite having been wrangled in the heinous web that R. Kelly weaved and the controversy of Blackground Records, once the label put Aaliyah back online, new life was given to the pieces of her she offered fans willingly—as heard/seen with her music. It’s easier to understand how she became a “full-on entertainer” and shows up in the likes of Normani, Cassie, Victoria Monét, and others. Families do feud, but this strife has put Aaliyah’s legacy smack-dab in the middle of it, causing it and her fans to suffer the most.
Granted, we are so grateful to have easy access to her music, but a posthumous album of unreleased work featuring artists that many feel don’t align with the forward-thinker Aaliyah was isn’t the best way to handle the delicacy of who she was and what she represents. Had she still been here, she’d still be pushing R&B, beauty, and fashion forward—serving as a muse and multifaceted powerhouse. She was a quadruple threat before that truly became a thing, but over the years, Aaliyah’s humanity often gets lost in shoulda-coulda-wouldas, cyclical rumor mill.
The estate told Billboard in 2021, “Protecting Aaliyah’s legacy is, and will always be, our focus,”—as it should be, but may more grace be granted to those tasked with preserving her sanctity, as it was. She was more than an entertainer, more than a woman, and at least deserves to be commemorated properly.
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