One night in August 2001, my mother and I were watching the news when a reporter announced the unimaginable: Aaliyah and eight other people had died in a plane crash shortly after takeoff in the Bahamas. Although she was only 22 when she died, Aaliyah had already built up a prolific body of work that included three charted studio albums and top billing in early 2000s feature films. Romeo must die and queen of the damned. My 10-year-old self couldn’t imagine a young, talented soul, the undisputed princess of R&B and rising movie star, snuffed out so quickly. And I was not alone. The whole world seemed to mourn her.
Over time, music consumption habits have evolved from CDs to iPods to smartphones, putting most music at your fingertips. Aaliyah’s music was an exception. For two decades, his 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 to digital music stores or streaming services. Like most fans, I had my CDs, but these were quickly becoming obsolete, and before cellphones 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 in my jeans pocket to a smaller, more convenient iPod, my CDs of Aaliyah gathered dust, her music fading into the depths of my childhood.
Finally, in August 2021, news broke that Blackground Records was planning to release Aaliyah’s final two albums. one in a million and Aliyah on streaming services before the end of the year. My celebration was cut short when Aaliyah’s estate, which is managed by her mother, Diane, and brother Rashad Haughton, revealed she was not included and did not consent to this post. The estate has always 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 n haven’t communicated regularly since Aaliyah’s death and appear to have a contentious relationship, only corresponding through representatives.)
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 list of male artists Aaliyah had never worked with or known about, such as Chris Brown and Future. Given that Aaliyah was an abuse survivor, having been groomed to marry her producer R. Kelly at age 15, I wondered what could have possibly prompted Hankerson to implicate Brown, an artist who has been repeatedly accused of violence against women, and Future, whose misogyny is now a very popular meme. “Imagine doing an entire album with Aaliyah and filling it with abusive, predatory men,” wrote a Twitter user. “Babygirl’s legacy is forever plagued by problematic and toxic men.” As an Aaliyah fan, I’m always here to listen to new Aaliyah music, but not at the expense of her humanity.
Hankerson introduced this project as a way to introduce Aaliyah to a new generation. He also claimed that Aaliyah once told him before she passed away that she eventually wanted all of her songs to be 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 is not truly hers. She may have recorded the songs, but much of the control rests in Hankerson’s hands. Aaliyah has become an avatar, a vocal puppet jerked off by the greedy hands of Blackground Records.
In many ways, the continued mistreatment of Aaliyah’s legacy parallels society’s treatment of black women. After the release of Aaliyah’s debut album, Age is just a number, magazines and platforms often made inappropriate comments about Aaliyah’s age, calling the teenager a mermaid 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 and inaccurate portrayals in media and popular culture. And true to the title of Aaliyah’s album, black girls also experience unique forms of racial gender bias in the form of adulteification and much higher and more disproportionate rates of sexual abuse than their peers.
This abuse does not end with death. In a 2018 essay for the now closed digital magazine wear your voice, writer Jude Casimir referred to Breonna Taylor and a “zombification of blackness,” the all-too-common and opportunistic resurrection of dead black artists, activists, and victims made martyrs for flippant commodification. After a white police officer shot Taylor in his sleep, his name, face and heritage were quickly co-opted to signal virtue and chase influence amid a high-profile reckoning of black lives. Even black activists got into action. Until Freedom founder Tamika Mallory faced backlash in August 2020 for helping organize BreonnaCon, a four-day event promising a day of action, prayer, financial seminars and a “Bre-BQ,” all centered on “Beauty, Money, and Justice.” This ridicule illustrates the broader, inhumane memification of Taylor’s life by social media influencers, celebrities, and corporations.
“We must understand that when anti-black societies use the work of deceased black artists or the achievements and traumas of deceased black activists to make their own money, they have no interest in our well-being and freedom. ; rather, they understand that those voices and images are a calculated, profitable route to the end result,” Casimir wrote. “With that in mind, there is something else to consider: the sense that our ancestors and our recent dead are crying out, crying out to find a peace beyond the perpetual trauma and struggle that has colored their time on earth – that they may hope to find remains aloof from any performativity that has now infected and defined their legacies.
If we are to honor black women and their heritage, we must recognize that there is a fine 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 it is because she’s gone. She’s already blessed us with three iconic albums, endless inspiration and timeless impact, and in a world that seeks to wrest relentless hard work and contagious joy from black girls and women everywhere, that’s more than enough. .
It’s time to let Aaliyah rest, once and for all.
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