Lessons Aaliyah taught us
10 years gone, but not forgotten
I remember the very day that Hip Hop Soul died.
It was Aug. 25, 2001. I was sitting with my legs crossed picking popcorn seeds from my teeth, watching 106th & Park with A.J. and Free. The screen went black. Suddenly a message that Aaliyah died in a Bahamas airplane crash scrolled across the television.
I didn’t believe it at first, but the weeks that followed and the years without her made reality sink in. We had lost our brightest star.
Looking back on her wondrously, marvelous career 10 years after her tragic death, there are some lessons to be learned from Aaliyah’s life. These lessons give us the hope, determination and the guidance to live a fruitful life.
1. If at first you don’t succeed, dust yourself off and try again.
While Aaliyah’s tremendously successful career and rise to fame seemed supernatural, it was no fairytale. Her life was filled with many precarious decisions, rejections, and road blocks. By age 16, she had been rejected from Star Search, signed and dropped from her record label before settling in at Blackground Records, and prematurely married her 27-year-old producer, R. Kelly. When the media caught word of the marriage and annulment, Aaliyah became the center of a highly scandalous situation.
She handled it with grace, quietly cutting-off ties and forging an epic relationship with producers Timbaland and Missy Elliott. Aaliyah’s determination to move forward after a potentially career-halting scandal gave insight into her ferociously powerful will to succeed regardless of circumstance. She remained a uniquely vibrant artist amid the backlash.
2. It pays to be multi-faceted.
Aaliyah fit into the tradition of Black artists who were capable of having success in various artistic capacities. She was the return of the archetypal Black entertainer—those who had the ability to perform in an assortment of styles. She aligned herself with many iconic Black variety entertainers including Diana Ross, Sammy Davis Jr., Lena Horne, and her idol, Whitney Houston.
Beyond her ability to sing and write songs, she was the premier dancer of the Hip Hop generation, a boundary-shifting style icon and a sought-after actress. Her ability to succeed in the film industry with “Romeo Must Die” and “Queen of the Damned” elevated her into superstar status. She had also been cast to play the role of Zee in the “Matrix” sequels, a role later made famous by Jada Pinkett Smith.
For the Hip Hop generation, Aaliyah offered a well-rounded artistic approach, and she utilized her platform to inspire young women to define their own femininity.
3. Femininity comes in all packages.
When we look back on those early days sitting around the television waiting for the MTV premier of “Are You That Somebody,” we celebrate the time when girls weren’t afraid to be tomboys. Aaliyah best represented those young Black girls who wore baggy jeans, Lugz boots, dark sunglasses and bandanas. Yet, her femininity was never questioned.
Instead, Aaliyah helped urban American style gain global notoriety, ultimately making it cool for Black girls to don Tommy Hilfiger boxers and sports bras as outerwear.
She ultimately sent a silent message to society that she would not get rid of her B-girl style in favor of more socially acceptable outfits. Alongside Xscape, Mary J. Blige and TLC, Aaliyah embraced the idea that her femininity was nurtured on the inside and displayed through her music.
4. Consistency builds excellent artistry.
Aaliyah was one of the most consistent artists of the Hip Hop Soul era. After her departure from Robert Kelly in 1995, she worked solely with Timbaland, Missy Elliott and Barry Hankerson. Remaining loyal to her production team allowed Aaliyah to forge a unique sound which pushed the bounds of Hip Hop and R&B.
Her videos were always magnificent; epic in fact. She consistently elevated their quality and challenged her team to make game-changing productions. Aaliyah also worked solely with Fatima Robinson, who choreographed all of her videos. Utilizing the same choreographer gave her an opportunity to hone her craft expertly.
This commitment to excellence is the greatest of all her lessons. Aaliyah was a rare artist, one who pushed the bounds of the music industry with her rebellious fashion, Hip Hop tracks and sweet angelic voice.
While the day she died is implanted unshakably in my memory, her life, is more importantly a master class on determination, social efficacy, inspiration and the ability to be above all—one in a million.
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