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Looking Back On Aaliyah's Legacy, 20 Years After Her Death

R&B singer and actress Aaliyah poses for a photo in New York on May 9, 2001. (Jim Cooper/AP)
R&B singer and actress Aaliyah poses for a photo in New York on May 9, 2001. (Jim Cooper/AP)

Aaliyah is back on the charts again.

“One in a Million” debuted at number 10 on the Billboard 200 after the late singer and actress’ second album became available for streaming following two decades in limbo. The rest of her catalog is expected to be released by the end of the year.

Many fans believed Aaliyah was on the cusp of stardom before she died in a plane crash 20 years ago at the age of 22.

Writer Imani Mixon has been reflecting on the life and legacy of Aaliyah with a piece in the Detroit Metro Times called “Remembering and Releasing Aaliyah, 20 Years Later.”

Aaliyah grew up in Detroit, but Mixon writes that she’s not really connected to the city in the larger public consciousness. For Detroiters like Mixon, Aaliyah signifies possibility.

“She is the coolest girl everywhere, the prettiest girl everywhere — so cool and so pretty and so talented that nobody even cares where she’s from,” Mixon says. “Being everybody’s everything, I think, is kind of what she was while she was here on Earth. And then she continues to be that now.”

Hip-hop and R&B artists still namedrop Aaliyah as an inspiration and sample her voice and lyrics. She’s inspired so many artists while remaining unknown to many people — something that’s painful for fans.

Fans hold on to a “holy memory” of Aaliyah because the talented singer died so young and didn’t get a chance to continue making a mark on music, Mixon says.

Aaliyah’s legacy has also become synonymous with singer R. Kelly. He produced her first album, “Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number,” and the two were briefly married when she was 15. The marriage resulted in a major tabloid scandal that Aaliyah — a child at the time — largely took the blame for.

Mixon doesn’t mention R. Kelly’s name in her article. When she pitched the story a year ago, she says she knew she wanted to write it from “a place of reverence and care” rather than namedropping an ex who traumatized the singer.

“But I am also just tired of Black women’s stories being overshadowed by the men in their life,” Mixon says. “There’s a way that [Aaliyah] is frozen as the quintessential R&B girlfriend for a lot of people.”

Male rappers have done nonconsensual features with Aaliyah and dropped her name under the assumption that they would be together if she was still alive — a conundrum created by tying an artist so closely to a romantic relationship. Mixon says.

Aaliyah belongs to a lineage of women who make music “for the girls” including Megan Thee Stallion, Cardi B, Normani and Beyonce, Mixon says.

“I think that is a much more inviting place to enter Aaliyah’s catalog than just thinking of her as an appendage to a powerful man,” Mixon says.

Music fans tend to thirst for behind-the-scenes stories — but the reality is painful for most young Black women in the entertainment industry, Mixon says.

“Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number” was an important work for Aaliyah, but Mixon chose to focus on the singer’s third and final album, “Aaliyah,” because the culture writer felt qualified to talk about it.

“I think [‘Aaliyah’] is a beautiful piece of art that she left us with,” Mixon says. “I think she grew leaps and bounds from ‘One In A Million’ in so many ways that we’ll never know, but also in the music.”

Singers in Detroit and students in the halls of Detroit School of Arts often drop Aaliyah’s name, Mixon says, because the singer serves as a “model for success” to aspiring musicians.

For Mixon, Aaliyah’s legacy lies in the idea that a person can come from a place like Detroit and succeed anywhere.

“But in general, she was just so easy to like and love,” Mixon says. “And I think that is what I enjoy most about being an Aaliyah fan: It’s really easy to listen to her and look at her and enjoy that moment.”

Samantha Raphelson produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd MundtAllison Hagan adapted it for the web. 

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.