Remembering and releasing Aaliyah, 20 years later

click to enlarge It's been 20 years since the late R&B star Aaliyah released her acclaimed final record — and her untimely death. - Illustration by Rachelle Baker
Illustration by Rachelle Baker
It's been 20 years since the late R&B star Aaliyah released her acclaimed final record — and her untimely death.

On the cover of her 2001 self-titled album, Aaliyah stands in a nearly see-through mesh halter top, her eyes heavy but focused under wispy lashes, her glossy lips parted, ready for song. Here she debuted a new, futuristic logo with her name stylized so that the A's look like upside-down V's instead. The back cover reveals the same photo in reverse, with Aaliyah sporting a lower-back tattoo and curls that cascade past her bra line. Her untied halter top stays miraculously in place.

On her two prior album covers, Aaliyah wears dark black sunglasses coupled with a backwards baseball cap on 1994's Age Ain't Nothing But a Number and a side-swept bang on 1996's One in a Million. In both instances, she is in focus, but just left of frame. Not quite in the spotlight, but not quite hidden. Based on the visual cues alone, Aaliyah signals that Aaliyah, the person and the artist, is ready to show more of herself and stand squarely in her own truth. She is finally alone and finally returning our gaze.

When an artist's name becomes italicized and otherwise stylized on an album cover, the project is cemented as an official record of their life up to that moment. When an artist passes merely a month after their first self-titled release, as was tragically the case when Aaliyah died 20 years ago at the age of 22, the album that was slated to become their most important work also becomes their last.

"She was already venturing off. She was about to get it, trust," says Eric Seats, one of the lead producers of Aaliyah's self-titled album, which he refers to as "the red album."

It's been so long since we've seen Aaliyah in action that it's hard to remember the greater artistic ecosystem she was a part of, besides mainstays like producers Missy Elliott and Timbaland, who both have credits on Aaliyah. They collaborated on the inquisitive and declarative smooth jam "I Care 4 U" and Timbaland produced the lead single, "We Need a Resolution." Sure, throwback videos and images imply that Aaliyah was beholden to a certain celebrity crew, but she also existed in a liminal space. For those of us who tuned in to 106 & Park every weekday and awaited the world premieres, she was loved and celebrated. For others, she was still unknown.

Ricky Martin mispronounced her name at the 2000 MTV Video Music Awards while awarding her best female music video for "Try Again" — Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Macy Gray, and Toni Braxton were in the same category. Perhaps her name was spelled phonetically (ah-lee-yah) on the cover of her debut album, Age Ain't Nothing But a Number, to prevent mishaps like this. Just two months before, evidenced by a clip that resurfaces every year, Aaliyah was briefly interviewed on the red carpet by a blonde-highlighted, newly solo Beyoncé for MTV News during the pre-show. Can you even imagine a time when Beyoncé could be booked as a red-carpet correspondent, let alone a time when she still regularly interacted with the media or a live broadcast awards show, for a night? They bonded over a shared proclamation that D'Angelo, a featured performer for the night, was fine. Aaliyah donned a black one-shoulder Gucci gown and gold arm cuff, while Beyoncé sported a sequined yellow gown that appears to be a Miss Tina original. In their brief, yet warm interview, Beyoncé refers to Aaliyah as "one of the hottest female artists out there," then passes the broadcast back to her co-host, Sisqó. Fellow Detroiter Eminem won the most nominations and awards for the night. Aaliyah was a no-brainer for Black girl (aka urban) fame, but she was still working on breaking into the broader, more popular market. Aaliyah was a big deal on a path to becoming an even bigger deal, as international superstars do.

click to enlarge 2001 was a whirlwind year for Aaliyah. - Featureflash Photo Agency /
Featureflash Photo Agency /
2001 was a whirlwind year for Aaliyah.

Seats and his music partner, Rapture D. Stewart, collectively known as Key Beats, Inc., were one of the producer crews tasked with crafting the sound for the new-millennium Aaliyah. Seats and Stewart grew up in church together, with Seats on the drums and Stewart on the organ, but they each know how to play the other's instrument. They already had a sanctified flow going before calling Baby Girl to the altar, and they were ready to push it even further.

"Every album is a testimony," says Seats.

Seats attended Los Angeles County High School for the Performing Arts and was in the same graduating class with his choirmate, the white boy R&B heartthrob Jon B., who Seats would later go on tour with as a drummer. Around the same time, Stewart became the unofficial music director for Timbaland's musical production crew The Superfriends, producing for acts like Ginuwine and Playa. Seats got contracts from Montell Jordan and Timbaland in the same week, asking him to work more consistently as a producer for each of them. After learning that Timbaland enjoyed some throwback Key Beats, Inc. tracks, Seats decided to continue to join forces with Stewart, and the duo relocated from Cali to NYC on Timbaland's dime. The West Coast guys didn't have many East Coast friends so they stuck to the studio, where they diligently worked on music for acts like Lil Mo, Missy Elliott, 702, and Tank. Aaliyah heard their tracks and requested that Key Beats, Inc. work on her upcoming album.

"In my mind, this is your time to shine," recalls Seats. "This is probably going to be one of the projects that supersedes a bunch of other work — past, present, or future. You need to let people know who you are."

Pretty soon they were being flown to Australia with Aaliyah while she was filming Queen of the Damned, where she was cast as Anne Rice's vampire queen Akasha. Aaliyah would film for the movie during the day, then record at night. In the days before one computer could suffice to produce an album's worth of songs, all of the producers transported their MPCs, Rolands, and Tritons overseas in Anvil cases. They had too much equipment to carry on their backs. When it was studio time, Seats says Aaliyah would float between producers and hop on whatever track resonated with her. The only way to guarantee that you'd make it on the album was to make something magnetic — something Aaliyah could vibe to, and something fellow producer and songwriter Static Major could write to.

"From leaving a movie set of filming all day and then bringing your behind to the studio to bounce through four different rooms of producers and them all wanting you to sing on something and getting it done without any complaints? We never saw her tired," says Seats.

Key Beats has seven production credits on the 14-track Aaliyah. This means they produced half of the songs on the iconic album. During our interview, Seats picks up the nearby Aaliyah vinyl and reads off a list of unforgettable bangers — "Loose Rap," "Rock the Boat," "Extra Smooth," "U Got Nerve," "It's Whatever," "Those Were the Days," "Messed Up," plus the bonus track "Erica Kane" — all tracks that he and Stewart produced. Although most of the beats were made on the spot, Seats shares that he made the ethereal beat for "It's Whatever" at least a decade before, while he was working a full-time insurance job. Seats reveals that there are also two unreleased songs produced by Key Beats that were intended for the self-titled album — "Quit Hatin" and "Don't Let Em Fool You."

"I bet you every producer that worked on it probably has a full version or two or three of something that she recorded," says Seats. "We have a lot of half-songs done. We have a few full ones floating around, too. So accumulated between the crew, there's probably a bunch of stuff. There's some stuff I probably ain't even heard, and I can say that for them, too."

There's a nearly 13-minute clip on YouTube from the special edition DVD presented by Blackground Records that accompanied the album. The video is a mashup of behind-the-scenes footage sandwiched between snippets of Aaliyah guiding us through the album track by track with music snippets in between. The album's production crew — Black, Bud'da, J- Dub, Key Beats, Static Major, and Timbaland — is featured on the music video set for "We Need a Resolution," the lead single. During their interview, Seats and Stewart are seated next to each other in director's chairs wearing cream ensembles — Seats rocks oversized jeans, a cream sweater plus braids beneath a bucket hat, and Stewart is in a cream sweatsuit set.

"That's pretty much how we normally do our songs. It's music first and then writing and then we'll collab and make whatever changes we have to make to make it right," says Stewart in the 2001 video.

It was a whirlwind time for the singer. After the release of the 2000 action film Romeo Must Die, Aaliyah's first major film, where she appeared alongside martial artist Jet Li, she began filming Queen of the Damned and was also cast to be in the next two The Matrix films. She was constantly traveling to film a movie and promote her new album, so her schedule was a bit too packed to make room for romance, but if you let hip-hop entrepreneur Dame Dash tell it, they were soulmates.

"We didn't have that much time," Dash tells Metro Times.

According to hip-hop love story legend and confirmed by Dash, Aaliyah and Dash had the same money manager, but that's not what brought them together. Dash was attending a basketball game, where he met Aaliyah for the first time. She was dressed exactly as you'd imagine — a petite woman swimming in an oversized jersey. He thought she was cute, and pretty soon they got to know each other better. They were both in a phase of life where they went wherever work called. Dash was working on backing the 2002 film Paid in Full, and Aaliyah was working on Queen of the Damned, so when they had a free moment to spend together in the same city, they would; otherwise they'd keep in contact via Blackberry. They had been dating for about a year and were longing for a time when they'd be in the same place at the same time.

Dash remembers one time when his friend and model Natane Adcock brought him to a Vibe photoshoot featuring Adcock, Kidada Jones, Bijou Phillips, and Aaliyah, aptly titled Hot Girls. He spent the whole day with them, talking about big things like what happens to your soul when you leave this earth.

"We ended up really having so much fun that we didn't want the fun to stop," Dash says. "So the intention really wasn't to be, like, in love, but you fall in love — it's not something you do on purpose."

Many of the tight-knit crews we once saw Aaliyah enveloped in have dispersed or altogether disappeared because being back together again with just about everyone but Aaliyah doesn't seem feasible, and also probably feels wrong. The pop culture moments that we've made of Aaliyah are real memories for the people who actually made them with her.

"She was getting her flowers, but she didn't get to enjoy her flowers," says Dash.

click to enlarge Much of Aaliyah’s catalog has been out of print and unavailable for streaming — until now. - Kraft74 /
Kraft74 /
Much of Aaliyah’s catalog has been out of print and unavailable for streaming — until now.

We lost Aaliyah just as she was preparing to ascend, so her entertainment legacy has been left up to a lot of folks who never actually knew her or to anyone who feels drawn to it. As of this article being published, most of her songs aren't available on streaming music services. That will soon change. On Aug. 8, her long-dormant label Blackground Records emerged to announce a long-awaited, albeit contentious deal (her estate remains opposed to the project) to release Aaliyah on streaming services on Sept. 10, along with the rest of Blackground's catalog, which includes One in a Million (which dropped last week), a couple Aaliyah compilations, and albums from acts like JoJo, Toni Braxton, and Tank.

Aaliyah's catalog predates all of the music streaming services we've come to know. Aaliyah was released on July 7, 2001, three months before the first iPod became commercially available and almost a year before iTunes (now Apple Music) even became a thing. Up until Blackground's surprise announcement earlier this month, YouTube was the only place you could go to listen to all one hour, two minutes, and 28 seconds of Aaliyah in its entirety (unless you had a CD from the era). At the time of my latest listen, the video that was posted by RnBPopLover14 on Feb. 10, 2013 with a static image of the album cover had garnered more than 5 million views before abruptly being blocked by Blackground's streaming partner EMPIRE on copyright grounds. There are currently more than 11,000 videos on TikTok using "Are You That Somebody?" — a hit song that still gets radio play in Detroit, but was only ever made commercially available on the soundtrack to the 1998 movie Dr. Doolittle — as a soundtrack for daily vlogs, hair tutorials, outfit of the day uploads, and rogue BTS fan posts. For the last 20 years, people have had to get creative with their commemoration of Aaliyah.

Contemporary listeners are typically introduced to Aaliyah through the untrustworthy filter of the male ego, so Aaliyah is often flattened to the role of the quintessential R&B girlfriend. If you Google promotional photos of Aaliyah, you'd be hard-pressed to find an image taken by a woman, especially a Black woman. Many of the images we have of Aaliyah are produced and consumed by the male gaze. We could chalk it up to the white, male-dominated industries of photography and entertainment, or we can consider how much of our perception of Aaliyah is polluted by this gaze. Even after Aaliyah's passing, men have laid claim to her image and her legacy in a very forward, sometimes touching but always presumptively cringey manner. Listeners who weren't even born when Aaliyah was around are likely to hear her name dropped from the lips of a male rapper or hear her voice in a posthumous, nonconsensual "feature" or "collaboration" before actually engaging with her catalog. As the conversation around consent and justice continues with a revised look at Y2K pop icons like Britney Spears and Janet Jackson, the lines get even more blurred (and intrusive) when we think about the future assumptions that male artists in particular have pushed on Aaliyah. This infinite loop of grieving, craving, and accessing Aaliyah is not exclusive to a handful of male artists; it permeates the culture and its commitment to nostalgia.

Aaliyah is still invoked or directly referenced in today's music. Instead of sampling her voice in the garbled, barely recognizable way of other dearly departed artists, folks endeavor to preserve the cool clarity of her sound. You can liken the artists and producers in possession of Aaliyah's posthumous releases and features to vintage collectors. Music industry folks thirsting for her unreleased gems desire the never-worn-with-tags version of her discography with minimum scratches, no wear, and no tear. In order for Aaliyah's voice to call us back in time, it needs to sound just like it used to — in its purest, most untouched form before today's artists twist and flip it into a chorus, refrain, or duet.

Her rendition of the Isley Brothers' "At Your Best (You Are Love)" is New New's favorite song, which plays in the background of her first kiss with Rashad in the 2006 cult classic film ATL. Her voice opens and closes Drake's 2010 track "Unforgettable." Kendrick Lamar sporadically laments "R.I.P. Aaliyah'' on 2011's "Blow My High." ASAP Rocky's boisturous 2012 party anthem "Fuckin' Problems" interpolates "Quit Hatin," one of the unreleased songs Key Beats produced for Aaliyah. She is stuck in agreeable repetition on Drake's 2012 deep cut "Enough Said." She stands up for herself and her reputation in Chris Brown's 2013 "Don't Think They Know." "One in a Million" morphs into a bass-heavy rap ballad with Tink's 2015 "Million." Frank Ocean recalls her Isley Brothers cover about a minute into Endless, his meanderingly experimental visual album from 2016. She becomes a prototype for other nameless, modelesque girls to follow in Roddy Ricch's 2019 Billboard-topping hit "The Box." Just last month, Normani danced her way to R&B princess comparisons overnight in the music video for her 2021 single "Wild Side," which allegedly does not sample "One in a Million." Although Aaliyah has been gone now for 20 years, her energy is deeply embedded into so much modern media that her image, likeness, physicality, and voice haven't gotten any days off.

Aaliyah's voice offers Blackness and sexiness by necessity. In turn, artists use Aaliyah's voice to achieve a vulnerable coolness by proximity. It is not an even exchange, because she is not here to weigh in, so the question arises — would Aaliyah, a frequent sampler and cover artist in her own right, approve of these modern-day features masquerading as collaborations? She took the slow jams we were raised on, then remixed and rebirthed them. Perhaps she would oblige if the new track breathed life into an old sample and gave it a life of its own, like her multiple renditions of "At Your Best (You Are Love)."

As evidenced in New New's passenger-seat singalong in ATL, "At Your Best (You Are Love)" is the kind of song you can't sing without closing your eyes. The lyrics to this simultaneously beckoning and welcoming love song remain unchanged, but artists claim the classic as their own with ad-libs at the end of the song. Forever showmen, the Isleys draw out their outro. Ronald ends on a plea, "please do it for my sake, sweet love," which narrowly makes it in as the song nears the 5:23 timestamp. Aaliyah has an a cappella version and a Gangster child remix of this song, too, but ends her original cover on a definitive "stay at your best baby." Her version has 9 million views on YouTube. Never underestimate the power of a cool-ass Black girl. Frank Ocean's guitar-less, synth-forward version sounds like a somber garden, with pieces of the original song planted in the soil as something new and refreshingly simple sprouts out. Ocean's rendition returns us to the timelessness of the song. How can you actually prove Frank Ocean is referencing Aaliyah's iteration and not the Isley Brothers original? On Jan. 16, 2015, Ocean released a snippet on his Tumblr titled "You Are Luhh'' on what would have been Aaliyah's 36th birthday. What was once a breakout song for 15-year-old Aaliyah's debut album, Age Ain't Nothing But a Number, has become a tribute that is both frozen in and sauntering through time.

For Black girls like me — from Detroit, born before iPods and destined for CDs, trying to straighten our hair into a jet-black silky sheen, wanting our art to take us somewhere far, hoping to see what happens outside of the city — Aaliyah was our first Black girl tragedy, the first shocking loss in a long lifetime of them.

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Aaliyah was not granted the luxury of being around long enough to disappoint us — whether through action or art, a tone-deaf comment, a lackluster release, all the things that we nitpick our present-day celebrities over. Instead we're left with space to cling to whichever version of Aaliyah we prefer — the star, the homegirl, the girlfriend, the actress, the style icon. Aaliyah regularly trends on Twitter, even though the platform didn't go live until five years after her death. She is summoned when an R&B girl drops a cool, choreography-heavy video and when that guy we muted and canceled is finally arrested and on trial. She has stans running fan accounts and websites full of throwback pictures, videos, and what-ifs. One account even successfully petitioned MAC Cosmetics to release a line of makeup inspired by Aaliyah. Digital media is one highly questionable, deeply exhausting way to keep her alive.

There are countless memorial profiles set up for her, designed by serious fans and fast fashion girls alike. Offering us a continuous glimpse at a life that Aaliyah worked so hard to keep private and sacred. Oftentimes, our intrigue toes the line of intrusion. We have seen dearly departed young starlets like Selena live on through new media — movies, podcasts, and a Netflix series. Ever since she's been gone, we've selfishly wanted Aaliyah's estate to indulge our resurgent interest in her life and her style. But doesn't it feel sacrilegious to put someone's image to work well after they're gone?

We're all still trying to re-create her one-of-a-kind vibe, and as the '90s and Y2K trends come back in style, so too does Aaliyah. After interning at Essence, 30-year-old stylist Derek Lee was tapped by a new hire at Blackground Records to style Aaliyah for a Teen Vogue shoot on Santa Monica Beach. Her team liked him so much that they flew him back out two days later to style her "One in a Million" music video. With classic menswear, techy sportswear, nylon, funky cargos, and vests in tow, Lee began to handcraft Aaliyah's exclusive, yet inviting, high-fashion, yet hip aesthetic. He's responsible for scoring that iconic Dolce & Gabbana fit. You know, the rhinestone choker and matching bralette from the "Try Again" video that the girls recycle each Halloween season? That fit was a mutual favorite for Lee and Aaliyah.

"I really always liked that soft hard, that masculine feminine," says Lee. "I've always liked that stuff. So it was a perfect fit."

It's impossible to pick a favorite Aaliyah style moment, but one look that particularly resonates with today's fashion is the intricate all-black attire that Aaliyah wears in the 38-second dance break at the end of the "Are You That Somebody?" video. She transitions from sporty sexy silver athleisure to a leather blazer and pants set with a sparkling cranberry red bralette and G-string beneath. We didn't get to see the aforementioned trench, Locs sunglasses, and hat, so Aaliyah could be lowkey; instead, Lee served up a dramatic encore. Lee handmade costumes that consisted of a crop top, a sheer Bolero top with onyx fringe beading, and maxi skirt with slits on both sides and cut outs at the hip, falling just beneath Aaliyah's ever-visible midriff. He glammed out the backup dancers too — the men had a black button-up (with only the top button buttoned) and slacks while the women wore the same outfit as Aaliyah. In the video, they take turns dancing in stylish pairs and come together as a coordinated collective before strolling off camera. According to Lee, it was the first instance of him purposefully nudging Aaliyah deeper into her fashion journey.

"My whole equation for working with her was to come with what I know her style is, what she's going to like, and bring one thing that's going to push it a little bit to the next level so when she's ready for that, it's there," says Lee.

According to Lee, support from Aaliyah's friend and choreographer Fatima Robinson convinced her to give the daring custom black co-ord a try.

"Fatima was like, 'Aaliyah, it's time. You look fabulous. You look good ma, it's time to let 'em have it,'" recalls Lee.

Sure, the set is a Lee original, but if you were browsing for the skirt online right now, you'd enter "cut out," "side cut," "strap detail," or "waist cut out" in your search engine and open up the portal of what fashion outlets call the visible thong trend. Add "sexy" and "naughty" to your search and the skirts will populate even more quickly. Even riskier than not wearing underwear, the visible thong gives the illusion that a G-string is purposefully peeking out from a pair of bottoms. Aaliyah's visible thong moment predates Britney Spears' 2000 VMA performance and Degrassi's unforgettable episode featuring Manny Santos' scandalous undergarments in 2003. Simply put, Aaliyah was a trendsetter.

Back in the day, Lee worked with celeb clients like Frankie J, Ginuwine, MC Lyte, Usher, Wesley Snipes, and YSB for BET, but Aaliyah quickly became his primary client. The duo worked together to refine Aaliyah's cool-as-hell aesthetic to also be glamorous as hell. Lee was aware of Aaliyah's stylistic influence on the masses and declined requests from other women artists, for fear of R&B princess replicas. It was hard not to want to dress like her.

"Rarely did I do other women because they kind of wanted me to do her," says Lee. "They kind of wanted her style a little bit."

"Rock the Boat" was the last time we saw Aaliyah in all her glory, and it was the last video Lee styled for her. It was tough for him to keep styling after Aaliyah's passing. After briefly styling Lil' Kim for her 2003 La Bella Mafia album, where she rocks remixed menswear featuring a barely there black bra and suspenders attached to pinstripe pants, zipped down to there, Lee stopped styling other women musical artists. He currently styles for television and commercials, most notably MTV's Ridiculousness.

With her imaginative crop tops paired with oversized pants, her monochrome, her satin slips, her asymmetric silhouettes, and her metallic icy-blue colorways, Aaliyah was dressed for a future she never got to see. Lee had plans to create superhero-inspired ensembles next — customizing manga and anime-worthy pieces, then giving them a street edge. He imagines that present-day Aaliyah would be wearing some of today's trendy designer brands, but thinks that Japanese streetwear designers like TheSoloist, WTAPS, NEIGHBORHOOD, White Mountaineering, and Yohji Yamamoto would be more her speed.

"The swag was already there," says Lee. "She was that girl. It was just a matter of, from where?"

click to enlarge A young Aaliyah performs in Hello, Dolly! at Detroit's Gesu school in 1990. - Courtesy of Kathleen Samul
Courtesy of Kathleen Samul
A young Aaliyah performs in Hello, Dolly! at Detroit's Gesu school in 1990.

For some reason, Aaliyah is not one of those artists who is synonymous with Detroit, unless of course you're from the city. Aside from her otherworldly aesthetic, part of Aaliyah's magnetism is that she feels like everyone's coolest and most popping homegirl, a feat that is bolstered by the fact that, unlike a Beyoncé or a Ciara, her hometown was not the central focus of her origin story. After all, without intense Googling and a deep dive into Tumblr, how would anyone know that she grew up in Detroit? The back cover of her first album features an ominous Illinois license plate. At the tail end of that Aaliyah DVD, she shares a go-to dance move that she refers to as a belly roll, but would clearly register as a hip roll for any Detroiter who attended a basement party, middle school dance, or late-night skate in the city. For a certain period in time, Aaliyah was simultaneously everywhere and not really from anywhere in particular.

If you're from the city, though, chances are you or someone you know probably has at least one Aaliyah story. There's this one lady who used to babysit her or this one guy who was invited to her first listening party. Although her Detroit roots aren't really prominent in any recollection of her life story, the city holds her dear. Detroit is central to Aaliyah's life and career, in large part due to her attendance at the city's premier art school, Detroit School of the Arts. You may even know that the "Age Ain't Nothing But a Number" music video was filmed on Belle Isle and at DSA with some of her classmates. If you're a fan with encyclopedic knowledge, you'd also know that her original backup dancers, Charles Burton and Demetrius Howard, were fellow dance students at DSA. For fans all over the world, Aaliyah is an easy choice for being the ultimate Black girl R&B entertainer of our time. For Detroiters, we find pride in knowing she was one of our own.

In fact, if you use the Selden Street entrance at DSA in Detroit's historic Cass Corridor neighborhood while classes are in session, Aaliyah is the first student you see. She's peeking out from a Jonathan Mannion portrait hanging in the principal's office. Aaliyah luxuriously leans back in a chair wearing a zip-up fur jacket and cheetah-print pants. She's rocking her signature side-swept bang and glancing directly at anyone who visits her alma mater. Dr. Mayowa Reynolds is the current principal, and the picture was gifted to her from DSA past principal and founder Dr. Denise Davis-Cotton.

"She was always a student and not a star," says Davis-Cotton.

If you’re from the city, chances are you or someone you know probably has at least one Aaliyah story.

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Davis-Cotton met Aaliyah's parents at the movies and told them about the new school she'd just opened. They came to visit, and Aaliyah decided that she wanted to attend. In 1994, Aaliyah auditioned as a vocal major by singing "Ave Maria," then switched to dance. She entered DSA as a 14-year-old freshman, and by her sophomore year she was hitting the road. Luckily, DSA had previously made arrangements for Tony Award-winning Broadway star Celia Keenan-Bolger, and they used that model to accommodate Aaliyah's work schedule and school curriculum, along with her backup dancers. Whenever she wasn't physically at school, she had a professional tutor. DSA was still in its infancy — there was only one graduating class before Aaliyah's in 1997. According to Davis-Cotton, Aaliyah was deeply interested in math and science and was a member of the Detroit Area Pre-College Engineering Program, better known as DAPCEP. She had to be in attendance for state tests, but she elected to attend graduation and prom, too.

"She embraced the philosophy of the school, the ideas of the school, and how the school met the needs of a child who was aspiring to become that which she became," says Davis-Cotton.

The DSA building that Aaliyah attended a little over a mile away at 4333 Rosa Parks Blvd. has been torn down, but Davis-Cotton, who was with DSA from 1992 until her retirement in 2010, helped oversee the new building that was built in 2005. Back at the new DSA building on Selden Street, there are a few student-made portraits of Aaliyah hanging in the hall, but the most prominent tribute is on the fourth floor — the Aaliyah Memorial Recital Hall. The 150-seat theater hosts staff conferences, rehearsals, and end-of-the-year solo performances. Her fresh new logo from the Aaliyah era is even incorporated into the signage. It's the ultimate art school kid's dream — a performance space, much more grand than the one you auditioned in, named in your honor at the school that was a launching pad for your career. When you visit DSA, it's easy to imagine that you're walking through the halls where greatness once was and where greatness is to be discovered. It's hard to forget Aaliyah when her name and face ring and shine through the halls.

"We love our own, and we honor our own," says Davis-Cotton.

click to enlarge The stage at Detroit School of the Arts, where Aaliyah first auditioned as a vocal major, has been named in her honor. - Imani Mixon
Imani Mixon
The stage at Detroit School of the Arts, where Aaliyah first auditioned as a vocal major, has been named in her honor.

No matter how jovial or agreeable my interviews for this story are, there is a line I cannot cross, a question I'm cautioned from asking. Some don't want to talk about her death, others decline to share family information or whereabouts, and most cannot weigh in on where Aaliyah, the image and the artist, exists in the current cultural landscape because it's the kind of news that they actively avoid. No one wants to see their dear friend, their student, or their soulmate disparaged or discredited. Especially since she's not here to defend herself. Particularly because she kept so much of herself close to the chest.

"What I know about her was all I need to know," says Lee, the stylist.

On Aug. 25, 2001, 22- year-old Aaliyah Dana Haughton was killed in an airplane crash after leaving the set of the "Rock the Boat" music video. According to Seats, "Rock the Boat" wasn't supposed to be the next single after "We Need a Resolution," but all the producers petitioned for a public vote and selected it. Now there would be a video for it, too.

"We wanted so bad to go over there and watch them film the video to a song we produced, [but] it just didn't work out and we just ended up being at the studio," says Seats.

I don't remember where I was when I heard the news, but her loss was embedded in one of my weekly childhood activities, which makes that time in my life much easier to remember. The Aaliyah album was released one day before my baby sister Nia was born. That summer I attended math tutoring to catch up with the fourth-grade curriculum at the pretty white suburban private school I was headed to in the fall. It would be the first time I would experience being somewhere with so few Black people. I was one of only a handful Black students, one of about two other Black girls in my grade, and I bet we were the only ones who even knew who Aaliyah was. Everyone else was deep into Coldplay and Jason Mraz and Eminem and Britney and Christina and Vanessa Carlton and Michelle Branch.

Aaliyah passed on a summer Saturday when I hadn't yet started fourth grade or journalism, so it wasn't my duty to explain why this was a big deal, why this felt so major. Back then, I was always with my closest cousin, Dierra, who was a student at Gesu (another Aaliyah alma mater). We went skating every Sunday at Great Skate in Roseville, sharing quarters and snacks and sneaking looks at whoever was sneaking looks at us. That Sunday after her death was sadder, though. The DJ dedicated his set to our Baby Girl. There was no need for the clipboard request sheet; he knew her songs from front to back, and most of us did, too.

The only person who I interviewed who recalled the day that Aaliyah passed with me was producer Eric Seats. A self-identified roller-skating rink kid, he told me that the litmus test he conducted for each track he made was, "Can I skate to this?" I told him that the first place I memorialized Aaliyah's passing was at the skating rink. My pink pom-pom skates too festive for what felt like collective mourning. After all, Aaliyah was an artist for all-girls skates and couples skates — not this, never this. I told Seats that our somber skating session was something that could only happen in metro Detroit, and he kindly interrupted me.

"I think that probably happened everywhere," he says. "She had that effect."

Seats remembers being at Music Grinder Studios in Los Angeles, probably working with Tank, when he got a hesitant call from fellow Aaliyah producer Bud'da asking if they'd heard anything weird about Baby Girl. Seats assumes Bud'da was afraid to say what he knew to be true and asked Seats to call him back if they heard anything. Seats turned on the radio and knew it was bad news when Aaliyah was on repeat everywhere, because it for damn sure wasn't her birthday. It was Cancer season, and she's a Capricorn. They called Jomo, Aaliyah's cousin and manager and their manager at the time, to confirm the news, and Jomo couldn't even get a word out.

"It wasn't nothing to do but go home and cry," says Seats.

For other Black girls like me — from Detroit, born before iPods and destined for CDs, trying to straighten our hair into a jet-black silky sheen, wanting our art to take us somewhere far, hoping to see what happens outside of the city — Aaliyah was our first Black girl tragedy, the first shocking loss in a long lifetime of them.

In imagining Aaliyah's future, we can also imagine the future of her fans. As we go on to honor her legacy, my hope is that we can lay down our overprotective capes, release ourselves from the responsibility of defending her honor, and stop posthumously entering her in the best entertainer, prettiest girl, greatest dancer, best hair, best-dressed Olympics. Instead, in this glorious future, we let Aaliyah rest, because even though we never saw her tired, we can imagine her still. We look to her with reverence and care. We continue to tell the story about how one time Detroit made this one girl such a star that no one even bothered to ask where she came up, mostly because where she was going was very high and achingly far.

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About The Author

Imani Mixon

Imani Mixon is a Detroit-based and embraced writer who reports on neighborhood change, creative independence, and the overwhelming coolness of all things Black.
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