There’s a clip going viral of Aaliyah appearing on BET’s 106 & Park on August 21, 2001. In the video, the then 22-year-old singer is just as you remember her: confident, yet a little soft spoken; stunning, yet understated and funny without intentionally pandering for laughs. The context couldn’t get more early 2000s. She’s there for a “Get Paid in the Escalade Contest” wearing low-rise white jeans and a skinny silver belt with no functional reason for being around her waist — no support, just vibes. The hosts, AJ and Free, seem just as enamoured with Aaliyah as her fans were. Free describes her as “a superstar with a platinum voice and a heart of gold,” and it’s an apt summary of why Aaliyah, aka Baby Girl, was so beloved. Yes, she had flawless vocals and smooth dance moves, but she also had an air about her that was bubbly, affectionate and kind. Aaliyah never acted like she was above her fans, which is why we loved her like she was our friend.
Three days after this BET appearance, Aaliyah died in a tragic plane crash on her way home from filming the music video for “Rock The Boat” (she mentions how excited she is for the shoot in the clip). This would be Aaliyah’s last televised interview, and the last time we got to see her like this: candid, casual and relatable — while also being the effortless superstar we wanted to be, though her talent and charm were singular. This is the Aaliyah we want to remember today. The one who got excited about her own music videos (she says “One In A Million” is her favourite) and waxed poetic about why hip-hop artists are so good at transitioning their skills onstage to onscreen. We want to remember this Aaliyah amidst a week of headlines that put her next to her abuser, R.Kelly, as new disturbing revelations come to light during Kelly’s trial for sex trafficking and multiple accounts of sexual abuse.
This week, Aaliyah’s mother, Diane Haughton, had to release a statement calling out the author (who is white) of an unauthorised biography of her daughter, which includes salacious and unverified details about the singer’s personal life, for daring to promote her book at Aaliyah’s grave (the sheer caucacity of it all). There’s also the confusion and moral conundrum over Aaliyah’s catalogue — which is finally being released for streaming on Spotify — and the fact that her estate is vehemently against the release. Whether you decide to stream her music or not, we stand in solidarity with Aaliyah’s mother who ended her statement with “Aaliyah’s life will still shine no matter what.”
Today, on the 20th anniversary of her death, the R29Unbothered team is choosing to keep Aaliyah’s light shining by looking back at our favourite moments of the R&B legend’s career — from her music videos to her lewks to her lasting influence — and focus on the fact that it’s her talent and star quality, not scandal, that has kept her in our hearts.
Chelsea Sanders, VP, on Aaliyah’s fringe and “Are You That Somebody”
Among other things, Aaliyah is and forever will be, my swoop fringe princess. Yes, she gave us iconic bops, videos that had us ready for TRL, and a short-lived crush on Jet Li — but the bayang, that was the real gift.
That fringe was iconic, and well, one in a million – not just because it was perfectly laid and went with every single one of her fire outfits (it did), not because of those rumours that it strategically hid an imperfection (it didn't), and not because I tried to recreate it with a pressing comb and a pink foam curler only to end up with half my burnt bayang on the floor (I, unfortunately, did). It was iconic because she managed to make it look so damn EASY. It was the way her hair moved in perfect step with her body, the half-smile knowing look she gave from under it in the 'Are You That Somebody' video – while holding a whole-ass hawk. At a time when my own hair and body felt out of place, inconvenient, and just an awkward pre-teen mess, Aaliyah was doing it for all of us who needed a little more time to figure it out.
Watching that video now, like all things with Aaliyah, is bittersweet. But most of all, it's a reminder that THAT bang still bangs today, just like her energy does. And look, I'm not going full Drake and tattooing her on my person, but that fringe? I'd rock it to. this. DAY. — if my edges ever decide to agree.
Venesa Coger, Associate Social Content Strategist, on “We Need A Resolution”
I often think about “We Need A Resolution,” my favourite music video by Aaliyah, for many reasons. For one, I’m still trying to find the blue shades and perfect red glossy lipstick to recreate that epic close-up moment in the video in real life. Her fashion evolution during this time was incredible. She went from coming of age to grown and sexy but subtle. Though I was only six when I was watching this video, I was enamoured with Aaliyah’s beauty, charisma, and the futuristic visuals she created. This specific video has many themes that captured the essence of Aaliyah, like her fearless side (the scene with real pythons and how unfazed she looked with them crawling on her), the vampire-gothic scene which featured (an ode to her role in Queen of Damned), and the choreographed dance to remind us that she is still smooth with it. She still gave us her tomboy style, but more elevated than before.
Stephanie Long, Senior Editor, on Aaliyah’s longevity
I was 11 when Aaliyah died. Nothing could have prepared me for the deep well of sadness that filled my chest as I watched MTV News’ coverage of her plane crash. It was a strange and almost inexplicable feeling for me to have at that age; at just 11 years old, I’m not sure I entirely understood what grief was yet, or that I had ever experienced it. Still, even though I did not know Aaliyah personally, I knew that I would miss her deeply.
My best friend and I knew every dance move from the “Are You That Somebody?” video. I had memorised every lyric to most of her hits, including “One In A Million '' and her fetching Romeo Must Die collab with DMX, “Back In One Piece” (which isn’t discussed enough, if you ask me). Around first grade, I’d sit in front of my Casio and write songs in a purple notebook, aspiring to be a singer just like her. Alongside TLC, Brandy, and Destiny’s Child, Aaliyah was my childhood. In spirit, she was — and still is — my friend.
Alongside TLC, Brandy, and Destiny’s Child, Aaliyah was my childhood. In spirit, she was — and still is — my friend.
It goes without saying that Baby Girl touched just about everyone in the music industry; look no further than the countless songs that include lyrics written about her (see: Kendrick Lamar’s “Blow My High,” Foxy Brown’s “Big Bad Momma,” Static Major’s “Aaliyah Aaliyah,” among many others). Today, Aaliyah lives on through many contemporary R&B artists, including Jesse Boykins III, Frank Ocean, and my personal fave, Rochelle Jordan. Jordan, who recorded an intoxicating Aaliyah tribute titled “King A” in the early 2010s and has cited Aaliyah as one of her biggest influences, refers to Aaliyah as one of her “five vocal mothers.”
“Her delicate and smooth vocal approach is something I have always admired about her, as well as her extreme and constant push for what’s next in her sound of music,” she told Atwood Magazine this year. “These two stances she took creatively made her an absolute beast.”
Although she may no longer physically be with us, when listening to artists like Jordan, her presence is palpable. And it’s almost as if she never left.
Brooke Obie, Deputy Director, on Aaliyah’s Iconic Tommy Jeans
When I was a kid, I wanted to be Aaliyah. Knowing nothing about her beyond what was public — her beauty, her sweet spirit, her iconic voice, hair, fashion and dance moves — I was content to believe that being her would equal happiness. I swooped my bang, I got the classic baggy Tommy Hilfiger jeans — the ones with one red leg and one blue leg and his name down the front of both. I got the tube top, and I would sing my heart out! She was everywhere I wanted to be: next to Ginuwine, Missy and Timbaland; in front of the camera in Romeo Must Die and singing the end credits for my favourite film Anastasia. The summertime rehearsals with my friends from church trying to learn the "Are You That Somebody" dance were epic. I still don't know it all, and I still can't dance a 4-count, but my friends and I bonded for life that summer.
When I found out she had died, I was 16, kissing my first love on my front porch. The pendulum swung from ecstasy to excruciation faster than I could've ever believed possible. Her devastating loss shook the world, and me along with it. By the time 9/11 hit the following month, followed by the D.C. Sniper, my childhood was officially over. Losing Aaliyah meant understanding that nothing is promised; safety is an illusion and the only guarantee is change. Though I cherish her work, today I won't be streaming her music; I'll be wearing out the red Aaliyah CD that I've had since 2001. And maybe I'll dig out a tube top, for old times' sake.
Maiya Carmichael, Social Coordinator, on “Rock The Boat”
My first and only real Aaliyah memory was when the ‘Rock The Boat’ video aired on BET. I was in my living room trying to learn the dance because it was one of the first music videos I’d seen that was so peaceful and serene. The melody of the song combined with the fresh and airy atmosphere of the video felt like a call to my soul. It was like one of those old school songs, where you didn’t really understand the meaning of the words (because you were too young lol), but you sang them loud and proud anyway because it just felt good. It seemed as though one minute I was watching that video then the next I was watching the news say that she had passed. At that time, I didn’t realise the impact the moment had until I saw others I loved affected by her death. Now, looking back on it, I understand the importance of her significance.
Kathleen Newman-Bremang, Senior Editor, on Romeo Must Die and “If Your Girl Only Knew”
Singers aren’t supposed to act. That’s what they used to say. But if you’ve ever seen Whitney Houston in The Bodyguard or Brandy in Cinderella or Jennifer Hudson in, well, anything, you know that we’d be missing out on so many great performances if they subscribed to that antiquated notion. Aaliyah in Romeo Must Die should go into the hall of fame of singers-turned-actors filmography. I Said What I Said Dot Gif! Sure, the reviews weren’t great when it came out in 2000 and it got a measly 32% on Rotten Tomatoes, but it’s become a cult classic in the 21 years since it’s release for good reason. To me, that reason is the sheer force of the charisma of the three leads: DMX (RIP), Jet Li and Aaliyah. Not only did Li and Aaliyah show us a sweet interracial onscreen romance that doesn’t centre whiteness, they also both had something that cannot be taught: swagger. I know we left that word back in the 2000s, but there’s really no other way to describe what Aaliyah is giving in the scene in Romeo Must Die when she’s teaching Li’s Romeo about hip hop. It’s pure, flawless, powerful, sexy SWAG.
Which brings me to another Aaliyah performance that should have won an Oscar, Emmy, MTV VMA, Grammy, and all of the above. It’s a performance that when you watch it, you think “oh, Baby girl is an ENTERTAINER who can do whatever the hell she wants” and it feels like a precursor to her acting career. It’s Aaliyah performing “If Your Girl Only Knew” (an eternal bop from the Steal Yo’ Man R&B era) on Showtime At The Apollo in 1996. This performance feels like that first cup of tea in the morning while the sunlight is streaming in and the day’s worries have yet to hit. It’s smooth like that first sip. It’s like a gulp of peace. The choreography is impeccable, but it’s Aaliyah that elevates sharp moves into a silky masterclass in putting on a show. Watching the performance is bittersweet now because it’s Aaliyah at her finest, and it just makes me think of the future of Aaliyah excellence we missed. But, as Steph mentioned, that future lives on in the R&B stars dominating the charts now. Aaliyah’s 1996 performance looks like it could have been performed in 2021 — frame for frame — and it wouldn’t feel dated, down to the baggy leather matching ‘fit.
These are just two of the many Aaliyah performances that solidify why her work onstage and onscreen will forever be timeless.