As I celebrate the annual ritual called my birthday, my day of joy is always tempered by the fact that I also acknowledge on this day that we lost the “Princess of R&B” who was just beginning to scratch her vast potential, the beautiful Aaliyah Dana Haughton.
Eleven years ago today, I was in New York celebrating my big day when news flashed across the wires that Aaliyah’s plane had gone down over the Bahamas, killing all nine passengers including the young star. Ironically, Aaliyah had just completed the video for her single, Rock the Boat, which is exactly what her premature death did to the her legion of fans.
The 22-year old singer, songwriter, actor was just beginning to tap into her vast talent. Over her brief seven-year career, Aaliyah released three albums (Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number, One in a Million and Aaliyah), which sold between 24 -32 million units, worldwide, two films (Romeo Must Die and Queen of the Damned) with reportedly an offer to star in the reported Sparkle film (which was released this year with Jordin Sparks in the title role) as well as several notable TV apperances.
The fact that her beautiful light was distinguished really before it could illuminate so brightly is what pained her fans so much. It also led me to think, what was it that made Aaliyah so special? In this self-centered, attention-seeking, me first artistic environment of today, Aaliyah was an artist who personified class, beauty, confidence and talent while managing to stay humble and grounded. Her fans didn’t mind that her mentor, R. Kelly, tricked her into an illicit marriage while she was just 15, which was soon annulled – her fans loved “street but sweet” persona even more.
Critics expressed that her “silky vocals are more agile than those of self-proclaimed queen of hip-hop soul Mary J. Blige.” Combining gentle” vocals over a “hard” beat, Aailiyah songs were often uptempo and melancholy, revolving around “matters of the heart.” Her influencs included Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Sade, En Vogue, Nine Inch Nails, Korn, Prince, Naughty by Nature, Johnny Mathis and Janet Jackson and she was praised for her “clean-cut image” and “moral values.”
Aaliyah left an indelible imprint on the music industry as a whole and has also been credited for helping redefine R&B and hip hop in the 1990s. It is unfortunate that her fans and the rest of the world did not have the opportunity to watch her evolve, she provided a brief glimpse of her unrealized talent. While her light may be extinguished, her legacy continues to live on – and for one fan, it always serves an annual reminder that one person’s celebration is a reminder of another’s pain.