Remembering Aaliyah, My Mentor Through Life
For the last 15 years, I’ve mourned the artist who helped me navigate friendship, gender, and queerness—three of the most important parts of my life today.
All artwork by Michelle LeFade
Around this time every year, I stumble across a recorded version of B.E.T’s Access Granted. The episode I recorded featured the woman known to the world as Aaliyah Dana Haughton—aka “baby-girl”—the angelic R&B singer from Detroit, Michigan. Aaliyah took B.E.T through the creation of her 2001 video for the smash single “Rock the Boat”, a song off her Aaliyah album written by the late Stephen “Static Major” Garrett, that pushed sexual boundaries of her impeccable songwriting to beautiful new heights. The subdued island grooves, matched with lush synthesizers, was one of many futuristic preludes Aaliyah left behind to inform soul singers who’d later utilize similar electronic sounds in the early 2000s to create more lucid, upbeat jams. B.E.T documented her final video, shot on August 25th, 2001, capturing candid moments with the jovial songstress and her glam squad, the anxiety surrounding her underwater scene, and all the killer dance moves choreographed by the legendary Fatima Robinson. As we all know, these gorgeous visuals were the last thing Aaliyah would give to the world, after the tragic death of her and 9 others in a plane crash. At 14 years old, the pain was unbearable, and to this day it’s a tough pill to swallow. At the time of her passing, I was a closeted teenager constantly cornered by masculine ideals of my peers, lacking the confidence needed to be my true self. For the last 15 years, I’ve mourned the loss of my mentor and my muse who helped me navigate friendship, gender, and queerness—three of the most important parts of my life today. Through the years that followed her passing, Aaliyah’s legacy played a very important role in the the person I’ve become.
Aaliyah also knew a lot of great women, most of whom I admire till this day. Women like Lil' Kim—a rapper whose hyper-sexualized swag turned the "queen bee" persona into anchor point for the girls of the future—was one of the singers closest friends. Even friendships like the ones she formed Missy Elliott, a multi-faceted MC who, with the help of Timbaland, gave "baby-girl" some unforgettable hits on her second album One in a Million, thus forming the R&B trinity that made tracks so ahead of the time that they shook the foundation of pop culture for the greater part of the 90’s. I always felt like the bond between Missy, Kim, and Aaliyah was a true testament to healthy black love, a love that allowed three queens to reign during the 90s on their respective thrones, not worried about beefing with each other. They were a good reference point for the way I treated the women in my life and formed friendships during my late teens. Their fearlessness, innovation, and creativity resonated with me in my senior year of high school, a time where I questioned my gender expression and just wanted to rock Tommy Hilfiger crop-tops. However, those feelings just lead to fist fights with guys who knew more about my queerness than I did. I mean, at least it felt like they did. Maybe they discovered it in careers class when I did a presentation on wanting to be a hip-hop stylist. I gushed about every iconic look from Lil Kim’s “Crush On You” video, including Aaliyah’s blue jumpsuit moment. I got a great mark on the presentation, but I never got the respect from the dudes in my class. They all thought of me as that weird kid who was overly obsessed with a dead R&B singer.
But I did have one friend who loved Aaliyah just as much as I did, which is how we bonded over the years. We had a little friend fight and didn’t talk for three weeks, which felt like forever for us. On my way to school one day, I was revisiting “At Your Best (You Are Love)”, from her debut album Age Ain't Nothing But a Number. The R. Kelly rework of the original had her sultry voice cruising on a highway of new-jack swing, the era of greats like New Edition, Teddy Riley, Johnny Gill and other groups I’d dance and sing to back when I was a kid. When I got to school, I was told my friend died from health complications. Losing him so soon after Aaliyah felt strange because of how much her spirit wandered through our deepest conversations. I moved into my early adulthood in perpetual mourning, losing another friend when I was 20 years old, another Aaliyah fanatic like me.
With every loss, I grew closer to the sounds she left behind. It was cool watching R&B evolve with women whose storytelling felt so close to hers. I remember when Ashanti came out in 2003 and I was bumping her self-titled album with the song “Foolish” on repeat. Girls like her and Alicia Keys wrote from a crossroads of love that felt similar to classics like “Four Page Letter,” “I Don’t Wanna,” or one of her last songs “We Need a Resolution”. I could relate in that a lot in my early 20’s were about me juggling my identity, all while being mistreated by men just as confused as I was. I used Aaliyah’s music and the current R&B crafted in her vision to work through the demons that forced me to live a lie. When I came out, I could breathe. The final scene in the “Rock the Boat” video, where Aaliyah ascends into another world, is exactly how it felt to be free. In finding myself, I spent the later years of my twenties finding others just like me.
Queer people of colour especially are drawn to Aaliyah’s carefree charisma, that mesmerizing aura she’d exude that grabbed the eyes of the entire world. We look to go against the grain like she did through years of timeless, non-binary aesthetics; foster community through collaboration, as she did with Timb and Missy and later forming lasting bonds with many notable songwriters and musicians alike. In my early beginnings as a DJ, attending events thrown by Yes, Yes, Y’all, a queer hip-hop DJ collective in Toronto, inspired me to create spaces where black music tied spirits and bodies together. I loved watching the remarkable DJ chemistry of crew members Nino Brown, Ila Byela, and Sammy Royale, three friends with a rich selection of tunes that kept people glowing in sweat as they were grinding to old school 90’s jams and dancehall riddims all night long. Everything about their approach to curating space had an energy so similar to the creative flows of Timb, Missy, and Aaliyah. It always felt seamless, like the perfect synergy between three people with one singular vision.
New York, a city where Aaliyah spent her formative years, became a second home for me later in life. Even there, her pressure is felt through art and expression by queers who continue to be innovative and push boundaries. I’ve always admired collectives like House of Ladosha, Brooklyn rappers like Jay Boogie and Quay Dash, all of whom take subtle cues from Aaliyah and use those references to shift the paradigm of queerness through their music, art and events. In different ways, some more nuanced than others, I've met people through various social circles who've consulted Aaliyah throughout time. Her guidance has given us space to consistently evolve in ways that make our contributions vital to the future of kids who’ll need us to be for them what she’s been for us.
It may be hard for some people to understand how someone who lived for an incredibly short amount of time could have been so impactful to the world. Aaliyah meant an immeasurable amount to me because everything she talked about and struggled with resonated with me and what I have gone through. Society and pop culture have been known to question the validity of a legacy, especially ones with people of colour. Selena had a short career, but her influence in the Latino communities has been felt for decades. The rawness of the Notorious B.I.G and Tupac gave rap the juice needed to transform the pathos of racial communities into evocative storytelling. Through these visceral tales of sex, money, violence and power, these two rappers weren’t similar, but both shared a complexed relationship to the darkness of the streets, which what left them with careers that lasted under a decade.
Like most things in life, people come and go, but they don’t often leave a lasting impression on the world; very few do. In death, pioneers like Whitney Houston and Prince could not lay to rest without rumours, tabloid fodder and sins of the past haunting their impressive careers. Aaliyah is one of those unique moments in history where a black legacy has been immortalized the right way. Even when these milestones reopen closed wounds, it's thrilling to see artists who follow the "baby-girl" blueprint keep her beautiful ghost close to us till this day. Rihanna is never shy to mention the influence of "baby-girl" throughout the career. Newcomers like Zendaya and Keke Palmer are leading a girl movement all their own, much like the times when young ladies looked to Aaliyah to guide them through the naiveté of unrequited love and perpetual heartbreak that proceeds it. Her love was one in a million because a light this precious can never really die. Now that I know my mentor lives on through the work of those around me, I can finally learn to welcome August 25th with open arms and a heart filled with nostalgia.
Max Mohenu is a writer living in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter.