The Princess of R&B inspired a generation of Black girls with her edgy swagger and musical influence that’s still felt 20 years after her tragic passing.
“Right now, it’s hard to say what I want my legacy to be. You know, what I want people to say when I’m long gone. I want people to look at me as a full entertainer and a good person.” — Aaliyah, 2001
It was the morning of Monday, August 27, 2001, as a 10-year-old me was getting ready for school when I heard my mother outside of the bathroom door.
I opened the door in confusion as she told me that “the singer I like” died and it was on the news. I followed her into the family den as the television showed images of Aaliyah and announced that she and eight others died in a plane crash over the weekend in the Bahamas. I was shattered and gutted, as I carried the weight of that in school.
She was the first celebrity death that broke my heart. I mourned her, maybe too deeply in the eyes of some adults, including a teacher, as I played her music and kept a tribute notebook with drawings and magazine clippings. Death with still something fairly new to me.
As a little girl growing up in Michigan in the 90s, Aaliyah felt like the cool girl in the neighborhood that you looked up to and wanted to be. She had the cool energy, clothes, and beauty and for many young Black girls, she defined the ultimate fly girl.
I can embarrassingly admit now that I wanted to be and look like her, from swooping my hair in front of my eyes, rocking the exact shades she wore in a Word Up Magazine and trying to emulate the choreography of “Are You That Somebody?” that was on heavy rotation on MTV.
There are moments in culture where the death of a musical artist rocks a generation who ties moments in their lives to the songs that became soundtracks. You remember where you were when Marvin Gaye died, or Otis Redding, or Elvis Presley.
Then for years after her death, I stopped listening to her music altogether. I would listen sporadically over time and recently I decided to revisit her self-titled and final album. The album she once said she was proud of and reflected who she was becoming as a woman and artist. The production, afrofuturistic style, lyrics, and growth of her artistry were reflected track by track. At the moment I could recognize why the love I had for her then was there: she was special.
Twenty years later, I still feel the heartbroken little 10-year-old staring at that television and holding the grief in my heart to see someone so young with so much promise depart. On this day of remembrance, I wish her further peace in God’s glory.