“[It’s] as if I'm swimming in the air. Free. Weightless. Nobody can reach me. Nobody can touch me. [It’s] a wonderful feeling.” —Aaliyah, Die Zeit Interview (2001, English Translation)
I. Songs of Innocence (1989—1994)
“The caged bird sings with a fearful trill…”
“Let me know.” Those are the first three words that cut through the silence. Let her know how you feel and she will reciprocate in kind. She sees the best and worst in you and is comfortable with both. With her you can be vulnerable, with her you can be yourself. That is Aaliyah Dana Haughton’s promise to you—a promise she kept till the very end.
Aaliyah’s voice made the old feel new, the grounded feel ethereal, and turned the personal into universal. As a result, her debut album, Age Ain't Nothing but a Number, released on May 24, 1994, functioned as a portal into the fleeting joys of adolescence. However, behind this exuberance and excitement lay darkness that slowly revealed its true nature over time.
II. Songs of Perseverance (1995—1997)
“of things unknown but longed for still...”
After the success of Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number, marking its 25th anniversary today, questions began to arise. What was Aaliyah’s relationship with her "mentor"? Was their marriage certificate a publicity stunt? Where were her parents? Between the tail end of 1994 and the beginning of 1995, it was Aaliyah—not the man who had yet to pay for his alleged crimes—who was tried in the court of public opinion.
In light of the controversy, Aaliyah went underground. She found solace in her friends, fans, and family, and created a new world—a world painted with sonic textures from the future, and the voice of a woman ready to love again.
Once bitten but twice shy, Aaliyah’s second album, One In A Million, found her intimate from a distance. It’s hard to know just how much of this album was shaped by the public perception of her previous work but Aaliyah was set on rising above it. The look she gave us in her “If Your Girl Only Knew” video was the look of a woman prepared for anything that came her way. Her eyes change color, but her gaze never wavers: daring, determined, divine.
From now on, nobody would ever have the power to derail Aaliyah’s career. From now on, only those worthy of her love would receive it. From now on, nothing would stop Aaliyah from achieving her dreams.
III. Songs of Freedom (1998—2001)
“...for the caged bird sings of freedom”
The period between Aaliyah’s second and third albums saw her reach a new level of superstardom: “Journey To The Past” got her invited to the Oscars, “Are You That Somebody?” led to her first GRAMMY nomination, and “Try Again” and her attachment to the 2000 action drama Romeo Must Die turned her into a household name.
With the release of her final self-titled album, Aaliyah soared above expectations and expanded the boundaries of her artistry. She cut across genres and incorporated new sounds into her music. She sang frankly about sex, dabbled in drug metaphors, and lent her voice to the plight of domestic violence; she unveiled the mysterious side of herself in her music videos.
By the end of her life, Aaliyah had evolved into the woman she envisioned becoming—which made the timing of her death even more tragic.
IV. Songs for Aaliyah (2002—Present)
“You can bury the flesh, but you can’t coffin a voice, a sound, or a soul that has left behind an impact. As long as we continue to remember and reflect, [Aaliyah] will be revived.” —Yoh Phillips, "Aaliyah The Immortal, Gone But Never Forgotten"
As New Yorker staff writer Doreen St. Felix eloquently put it, “Aaliyah is the entire tragedy of popular music in one being.”
The tragedy of Aaliyah is that she wasn’t protected when she needed it most. The tragedy of Aaliyah is that her legacy is currently at risk of being distorted and erased; the tragedy of Aaliyah is that she isn’t the first or last person to suffer this fate.
Unlike Dr. Angelou, I don’t know why the caged bird sings. I can only glean from her songs and fill in the gaps. I hope that amidst the tragedy, Aaliyah cherished the joys in her life. I hope her loved ones have found a way to cope with the loss. I hope wherever she is, she knows that she is dearly missed.
This is her story, this is her song, may it be heard as long as the world turns.