Throughout the past two decades that I've spent being a fan and student of music, there have been increasingly too many moments in pop culture where time seems to somehow stop and the world inexplicably feels differently afterward.
As the years pass, certain memories become fleeting, while others help collectively build a legacy that is as everlasting as it is undeniable. When you hear names such as Prince, Michael Jackson, Amy Winehouse, Phife Dawg, David Bowie and Prodigy, among dozens of others, so many of us instantly can think back to exactly where we were when everything changed. How we were feeling as we first processed that same universal heartbreak being communally felt across the globe. How these individuals influenced us in more ways than one. How each gave us so many stories to tell. Such is the case with the beloved princess of R&B, Miss Aaliyah Dana Haughton.
I was eleven years old when I saw Sean "Diddy" Combs host an episode of TRL that confirmed the news that the 22-year-old icon had lost her life in a plane crash in the Bahamas over the weekend. When school started a week or so after and I began the sixth grade, I remember friends bringing CD copies of her latest album, Aaliyah, to class and crowding around sticker-laden Walkmans at lunch to share headphones instead of chat.
In the years that followed, if I learned as a teenager that you were an Aaliyah fan, I automatically liked you. When buying my clothes second-hand, I sharpened my eye for anything that could fall under that "tomboy chic" category she helped pioneer. She was the cooler older sister so many of us growing up in the late 90s and early aughts had only ever dreamed of. As I grew older, my fandom became both solidified and better informed. Her voice would consistently go on to bring me comfort in ways that millions of others still find solace in with each and every play.
As the music community reflects on her promising talent and infectiously pure spirit all these years later, on what would have been her 39th birthday (Jan. 16), her influence is not only present in today's music and fashion landscapes, but her warm soul can still be felt as well.
While celebrities, colleagues and fans are blessing their timelines in tribute with photos and kind words of the late star—reminder, no Aaliyah slander will ever be tolerated let alone flourish—another probing fact strikingly stands out: her full music catalog is still nowhere to be found on streaming services in its entirety. While her R. Kelly-produced 1994 debut, Age Ain't Nothing But a Number, is legally available for digital purchase on iTunes, her sophomore album One in a Million (1996) and what would be her third and final work, Aaliyah (2001), are still inexplicably being held hostage by her uncle, music executive Barry Hankerson. It's unbelievable and it stings.
Hankerson, who played an integral role in helping launch Aaliyah's career, as well as those of her frequent collaborators, including Missy Elliott, Timbaland and R. Kelly, has infamously refused to comment as to why he has held such an airtight grip on his niece's music, with a handful of lawsuits, overall confusion and a rumoured post-humous album all woven into the complex and at-times unspoken story.
Despite her music being essentially temporarily vaulted (as far as millennials and the transitional music industry are concerned), the staying power of Aaliyah's influence is impressively in tact, with her brand curiously maintaining through the madness.
In the 17 years that have followed since the visionary's untimely and tragic passing, countless artists have drawn influence from her playbook and simultaneously put respect on her name, including the likes of Drake (who even commemorated his love for Aaliyah by getting her portrait tattooed), Beyoncé (throwback to that priceless red carpet interview where Queen Bey was visibly star struck), The Weeknd, Ciara, Rihanna, Tink, Alicia Keys, Solange Knowles, Tinashe, Nelly Furtado, Chris Brown and Kehlani, to name a few.
The hip-hop-leaning alternative R&B sound so prevalent across today's airwaves has Aaliyah to thank, with her effortlessly cool and reinventive approach to singing R&B-style vocals over funky, futuristic rap beats—many of which were crafted by forward-thinking legends themselves, Missy Elliott and Timbaland—helping change the game and forge a new path for the next era to follow. As a result, her music holds a timeless quality, one that shows she was both ahead of her time and stolen from us far, far too soon.
From her impeccable voice and laidback, sultry vocal style to her flawlessly composed outfits and equally killer abs, Aaliyah's authenticity could not be questioned nor threatened, further adding to both her allure and her transcendent influence. While we pray for the day where her music will become easily accessible online, we can't help but recognize the power behind her legacy thriving in 2018, against all odds.
With her sound as iconic as her style, Aaliyah was and will eternally be the one. Just look around. Thank you, Babygirl. We miss you.