Almost two decades ago, a bright star was lost. To this day, the world is still mourning that woman — and what she represented.

August 25 marks the 18th anniversary of the very sad and untimely death of Aaliyah, when she was just 22 years old.

But is the tragedy of Aaliyah’s death overshadowing the memory her amazing talent?

Many people know the story of her sudden and shocking death: a plane crash that also took the life of everyone on board — Aaliyah along with 8 others. In fact, for a lot of people, her tragic fate seems to have eclipsed any memory of her impressive and important life.

Aaliyah Dana Haughton was born in Brooklyn and began sharing her artistry at the tender age of 10. At that age, while living in Detroit, she appeared on the talent show Star Search, and soon after started to work on her first album, Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number, which she released in 1994 — when she was only 15. It went platinum and the whole world was introduced to a rising star.

The Princess of R&B becomes the Queen of Urban Pop

Aaliyah had nowhere to go but up

The newly-crowned “Princess of R&B” helped to bring the genre front and center in the mainstream, and brought a whole new sound “urban pop” sound with her. Her smooth vocals, tight dance moves, and powerful charisma earned her the admiration of her peers and heroes, as well as five Grammy nominations.

Music had been briefly put aside after her second album, One in a Million, while she started to grow her brand by expanding into film, like Romeo Must Die along action icon Jet Lee and Queen of the Damned, in which she played the titular queen.

When the plane crash that took Aaliyah’s life occurred, she was en route back from the Bahamas, where she had filmed a music video for “Rock the Boat”, the newest single of her third and self-titled album. Aaliyah the album was a statement of artistic and personal maturity for the young singer — it finally hit number one on the charts shortly after her death.

Age ain’t nothing but a number?

While Aaliyah is often held up as the personification of a candle blown out too soon, more recently, her relationship with the infamous R. Kelly has been the subject of much focus. 

Aaliyah first met R. Kelly when she was only 12 years old, and it was reported they were illegally married in 1994, when she was only 15. This naturally would have meant she was beneath the age of consent and it was reportedly later annulled, though neither Kelly nor Aaliyah ever actually openly admitted they had been married in the first place. Still, in 1997, Aaliyah reportedly sued to have any marriage records officially expunged and refused to discuss Kelly in public or private.

Starting in 2000, a continual series of accusations would be made against Kelly over the years by various young women and girls. It all seems to have finally come to a head this year, with the airing of Lifetime’s docuseries Surviving R. Kelly and Kelly’s dramatic and aggressive interview with Gayle King.

Speculation about Aaliyah’s relationship to and possible victimization by Kelly have been weighed in widely and broadly. With the anniversary of her death upon us, this all seems to coalesce into a miasma of tragedy that overshadows the true effect Aaliyah had on others: she was — and continues to be — a bringer of light.

One in a million

Missy Elliott wearing a jacket picturing Aaliyah (Photo by James Devaney/WireImage)

On her second album One in a Million, Aaliyah sang about how she  “came to spread my love to my fans across the world. Reach out to you, touch the hearts of boys and girls.” As an artist, that’s exactly what she did.

Always conscious of her impact on her fans, Aaliyah touched a lot of people, both creatively and emotionally. That influence is still seen today, not only through the artists who still sing her praises, but also through all fans she inspired and spoke to through her songs.

“I loved the way you carried yourself, the way you dressed, the confidence with which you addressed passion and relationships in your music. I said to myself that even if we never met, I wanted a woman in my life just like you,” Drake wrote in a letter on the anniversary of her death in 2010. The rapper has a tattoo of Aaliyah’s face on his back, so her influence is something he literally carries with him daily.

“I loved the way you carried yourself, the way you dressed, the confidence with which you addressed passion and relationships in your music. I said to myself that even if we never met, I wanted a woman in my life just like you,” Drake wrote in a letter on the anniversary of her death in 2010. The rapper has a tattoo of Aaliyah’s face on his back, so her influence is something he literally carries with him daily.

What we can learn from Aaliyah’s life

Artists admire her, as fans do, for many reasons, but at the forefront of those memories was that there was an authenticity to her music, and a realness to her words, that many have tried to replicate since her time, and few have come even close.

Aaliyah wasn’t a performer trying to replicate what someone else was doing, she was simply herself. Always.

When the artists we grow up with are lost before their time, the blow has a particular pain to it. The lost potential compounds the life lost. Aaliyah was very much still on her way up, and had so much more music and inspiration left inside her to share.

We are still mourning the loss of Aaliyah, decades after her death, but it’s also important to celebrate her life and talent. Aaliyah deserves to be remembered — not for the men she was involved with, or the way that she died, but for the amazing life she lived while she was here.

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