One night in August 2001, my mom and I were watching the news when a reporter announced the unimaginable: Aaliyah and eight others had died in a plane crash shortly after takeoff in the Bahamas. Although only 22 years old at her death, Aaliyah had already built a prolific body of work that included three charted studio albums and top billing in the early 2000s feature films Romeo Must Die and Queen of the Damned. My 10-year-old self couldn’t fathom a young and talented soul, the indisputable princess of R&B and burgeoning movie star, being snuffed out so quickly. And I wasn’t alone. The whole world seemed to be mourning her.
As time passed, music consumption habits evolved from CDs to iPods to smartphones, positioning most music at our fingertips. Aaliyah’s music was an exception. For two decades, her digital discography was largely unavailable and incomplete. Her uncle Barry Hankerson, who was also Aaliyah’s former manager and head of her label Blackground Records, owned the singer’s masters and refused to release her music in digital music stores or streaming services. Like most fans, I had my CDs, but those were quickly becoming outdated and, before cell phones became smartphones, watching and listening to music on YouTube required a computer and internet access. As I went from walking around with my bulky CD player tucked into my jean pocket to a smaller, more convenient iPod, my Aaliyah CDs gathered dust, her music fading to the background of my childhood.
Finally in August 2021, news broke that Blackground Records planned to release Aaliyah’s final two albums One in a Million and Aaliyah on streaming services before the end of the year. My celebration was cut short when Aaliyah’s estate, which is operated by her mother, Diane, and her brother Rashad Haughton, revealed that it hadn’t been included and did not consent to this release. The estate has consistently opposed Hankerson’s handling of Aaliyah’s music, including a posthumous album Hankerson planned to release in collaboration with Drake and Noah “40” Shebib in 2012. (The three family members have not communicated regularly since Aaliyah’s death and seem to have a contentious relationship, corresponding only through representatives.)
Then earlier this month, Hankerson announced that Unstoppable, a brand-new Aaliyah album of unreleased music, was on the way. However, none of her former collaborators were mentioned, only a confusing lineup of male artists Aaliyah had never worked with or even knew of, like Chris Brown and Future. Given that Aaliyah was a survivor of abuse, having been groomed into marrying her producer R. Kelly at 15 years old, I wondered what in the world could have possessed Hankerson to involve Brown, an artist who’s repeatedly been accused of violence toward women, and Future, whose misogyny is now a wildly popular meme. “Imagine making a whole album with Aaliyah and filling it with abusive, predatory men,” wrote one Twitter user. “Babygirl’s legacy is forever plagued by problematic, toxic men.” As an Aaliyah fan, I’m always here for new Aaliyah music, but not at the cost of her humanity.
Hankerson has billed this project as a way to introduce Aaliyah to a new generation. He also claimed that Aaliyah had once told him before her passing that she ultimately wanted all of her songs to be made available. But if Aaliyah’s art and vision are distorted, taken out of context, and reproduced without the input of her family and close collaborators, the music isn’t really hers. She may have recorded the songs, but the control lies largely in the hands of Hankerson. Aaliyah has become an avatar, a vocal marionette jerked about by the greedy hands of Blackground Records.
In many ways, the ongoing mistreatment of Aaliyah’s legacy parallels society’s treatment of Black women. After the release of Aaliyah’s debut album, Age Ain’t Nothin’ but a Number, magazines and platforms often made inappropriate comments about Aaliyah’s age, referring to the teen as a siren and a Lolita. Her marriage to R. Kelly was sensationalized as a scandal and not reported for what it really was—predatory grooming and abuse. Our Western culture has historically fetishized, objectified, and exploited Black women, cementing negative stereotypes through sparse, inaccurate representations in the media and popular culture. And true to the title of Aaliyah’s album, Black girls also experience unique forms of gendered racial bias in the form of adultification and much higher, more disproportionate rates of sexual abuse than their peers.
This mistreatment doesn’t end with death. In a 2018 essay for the now-shuttered digital magazine Wear Your Voice, writer Jude Casimir referred to Breonna Taylor and a “zombification of Blackness,” the all too common, opportunistic resurrection of dead Black artists, activists, and victims turned martyrs for glib commodification. After a white police officer fatally shot Taylor in her sleep, her name, face, and legacy were quickly co-opted for virtue signaling and clout chasing amid a highly publicized reckoning for Black lives. Even Black activists got in on the action. Founder of Until Freedom Tamika Mallory faced backlash in August 2020 for helping to organize BreonnaCon, a four-day event promising a day of action, a pray-in, financial seminars, and a “Bre-BQ,” all centered on “Beauty, Money & Justice.” This ridiculousness exemplified the wider, inhumane memeification of Taylor’s life by social media influencers, celebrities, and corporations alike.
“We need to understand that when anti-Black corporations use the work of dead Black artists or the achievements and traumas of dead Black activists to make their own money, they have no interest in our well-being and freedom; rather, they understand that these voices and images are a calculated and profitable road leading to the ultimate bottom line,” wrote Casimir. “With this in mind, there comes something else to consider: the feeling that our ancestors and recent dead alike are begging, pleading to find a peace beyond the perpetual trauma and struggle that colored their time on earth—that they might be hoping to find rest apart from whatever performativity has now infected and defined their legacies.”
If we want to honor Black women and their legacy, then we need to acknowledge that there is a thin line between desire and objectification. As an Aaliyah fan, I want to honor what Aaliyah would have wanted, but we really don’t know what that is because she’s gone. She already blessed us with three iconic albums, endless inspiration, and timeless impact, and in a world that seeks to wring nonstop labor and infectious joy out of Black girls and women everywhere, that’s more than enough.
It’s time to let Aaliyah rest, once and for all.