How The Music Industry Failed Aaliyah

With her enigmatic beauty, effortless tomboy style, and honey-like voice draped across hip-hop beats, Aaliyah captured the hearts of young Black girls in the ’90s and early ’00s. Her songs helped redefine genres like contemporary R&B, pop, and hip-hop, and she even earned herself the nickname “Princess of R&B.”

You can see her influence on other artists today, like Ciara, Normani, Kehlani, and more.

At ten years old, she first captured America’s hearts with her performance on Star Search. Her momentum only grew when she dropped her debut album a few years later, Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number. Her music offered a slinky, edgy alternative to the teen pop stars of her generation — your Britneys or Christinas — with less theatrical vocals than the balladeers of the time, like Whitney Houston or Mariah Carey.

It was sleek. It was sexy. It was cool. And so was she. Her baggy clothes and sunglasses created an air of mystery around her, especially with her now iconic hairstyle, where the singer covered her left eye, almost reminiscent of the late actress Veronica Lake.

Her fame continued to swell as she dropped more projects like her second album, One In A Million, in which she worked with the now famous (but not at the time) Virgian-bred producers Missy Elliot and Timberland. Songs like “If Your Girl Only Knew,” “Hot Like Fire,” or “4 Page Letter” showcased her angelic-like vocals, pairing well with the grittiness of hip-hop.

As her albums progressed, so did her sound. Her third and final album, Aaliyah, proved that the singer had evolved from the pop-influenced hip-hop and R&B melodies in her previous work to a more mature, introspective sound. Unfortunately, that would be her last project due to her untimely death in 2001, at 22, after suffering from significant injuries during a plane crash in the Bahamas.

Whether you were listening to her chart-topping hits or watching her on the big screen in films like Romeo Must Die, it’s evident the “More Than A Woman” singer had become an inescapable force in entertainment before her death. What’s also evident is that the very thing that made her special — her sleek, “mature” nature — is the same thing that put her in harm’s way. Since she debuted under R. Kelly, Aaliyah got introduced to the world as if she was a grown woman when she was not.

Her debut album, Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number, which Kelly primarily produced, featured a track on the project of the same name that centered on a young Aaliyah trying to serenade her older lover to “go all the way” with her. With the album’s release, rumors swirled that the pair were in a relationship. At the time, Kelly was in his late 20s, whereas she would’ve been in her early teens, but when asked about her age, she would often play coy.

The rumors were confirmed after a marriage certificate between the singers surfaced in the late 1990s. According to reports, Aaliyah, who was 15 then, was listed as 18 on the certificate, while R. Kelly was 27. Her parents annulled the marriage a short time later, and Aaliyah would eventually cut off all professional and personal ties with Kelly and cease contact with him.

Kelly, the self-proclaimed “Pied Piper of R&B,” would eventually face judgment for his crimes — first in 2008, although he was ultimately acquitted on a child pornography charge, and again in 2022, where he was convicted on three counts of producing child pornography and three counts of enticing a minor to engage in sexual activity. But, it still feels like Aaliyah never got the justice she deserved.

Throughout the Surviving R Kelly series, which first premiered in 2019, it became apparent how easily disposable Black girls, particularly Aaliyah, were to men like Kelly. The lack of intervention from the adults in her own family, including her uncle and manager Barry Hankerson, and the lack of societal outrage further compounded her situation.

But times have changed, at least for some. In the wake of #Metoo, many women, particularly white women, have been able to rewrite their stories and offer different retrospectives of their experiences. People have been reconsidering the treatment of stars like Britney Spears — and now even Jessica Simpson — who received apologies and reassessed their legacies in public.

However, Black women get continually left out of the conversation, according to the feminist writer and author of Ride or Die: A Feminist Manifesto for the Well-Being of Black Women, Shanita Hubbard. Since the culture has had time to reflect, it’s time to address the flaws and problems within our community honestly, she says. While it’s crucial to center Aaliyah, Hubbard believes we can extrapolate this for other Black girls because, like the young singer, Black girls are often not protected.

“This isn’t even just our opinions. The data supports that even in our schools, Black girls are suspended at disproportionate rates,” she says. “We understand from a cultural perspective that it took understanding that this is really indicative of America itself.”

But in the broader context, particularly when it comes to hip hop, Hubbard noted that the industry Aaliyah failed in so many ways. She says that because Aaliyah was marketed as a fully adult woman, she became viewed as needing less protection.

“It starts with the adultification of Black girls in society,” Hubbard says. “In society, Black women are seen as so ‘strong.’ We are the mules of the world, right? So who shows up for those of us who are the strongest?”

Hubbard continues, “We looked at Aaliyah, and although she was a young girl at the time, people collectively still didn’t see her as a young girl. They saw her as a woman.”

For many folks, men like R. Kelly aren’t just entertainers. They represent a “rags to riches” story that people who grew up in impoverished, urban areas can identify with.

“For a lot of people, that’s worthy of protection,” Hubbard says. “That’s a reflection of what could happen, right? It’s a reflection of possibilities.”

Due to the history of Black men being falsely accused of rape, there is often an instinctual need to protect Black men even at the cost of the harm they’re possibly committing, which usually comes at the expense of the victims’ silence.

“If you grew up hearing that Black men are ‘endangered’ and worthy of protection, who do you think the community is going to show up to protect those who are already viewed and seen as strong or those in need of protection?” she says.

Hubbard believes that while the culture has started to shift somewhat, she said it would take more than a few documentaries and op-eds.

“It’s gonna take for us to keep having these difficult conversations,” she says.

Aaliyah’s story is one of many pitfalls, but in the end, the legacy she left behind will never be forgotten. In the last years of her life, the singer’s body of work was indicative of her growing up, finally earning the “mature” label imposed upon her as a child, and becoming confident not only as an artist but also in herself.

Unfortunately, due to her untimely death at 22, many “what ifs” will remain unanswered about where her career could have gone. But one thing remains clear, Aaliyah was indeed “One In A Milion,” and there will never be another like her.