Last week I saw the video for Aaliyah’s “I Miss You” for the 100th time, stomach tightened, eyes fixed to the screen as if it were the first. As I watched the celebrity ensemble share a moment of collective grief, somberly mouthing the words in the posthumously released clip, I feel certain that Aaliyah Dana Haughton never intended for her best friends and biggest fans to sing her song as a tribute. Not this way, at least.
The video features a montage of our favorite moments from her short career. From a quick cameo in Notorious B.I.G.’s “One More Chance” to the breathtaking underwater scenes from “Rock the Boat,” the video that would be her last, Aaliyah’s effortless beauty and piercing likability bolted from my screen, making it hard, even still, to accept the abrupt ending of her life.
As we approach the 10th anniversary of her death on August 25, that end is still hard for her fans to digest. I was 11 years old when Aaliyah released her debut single, “Back and Forth,” in 1994. She, only 15 at the time, was a brilliant balancer from the beginning: mature yet appropriate; rugged and sexy; inviting and mysterious. She was the kind of “grown” that my friends and I aspired to be, and we obsessed over her for it, hoping that if we paid enough attention, some of it would rub off on us.
She was also important to a generation of 1990s urban music aficionados who bore witness to the melding of hip-hop and R&B, the signature sound of the first half of the decade. If Mary J. Blige was our queen of hip-hop and R&B, then Aaliyah was our princess.
A Loss That Still Haunts Us
The grief attached to Aaliyah’s death is almost as pronounced as it was right after a plane crash ended her life in 2001 when she was 22 years old. With most celebrity tragedies, shock ensues, wears off, and the reality of the loss sinks in. But Aaliyah’s death continues to haunt our communal psyche.
Consider the loss of those who passed before her. In 1996 Tupac Shakur was gunned down in Las Vegas. Six months later, Notorious B.I.G. was shot and killed in Los Angeles. The sorrow over their deaths was immeasurable, but both artists did a decent job — consciously or unconsciously — of preparing us for their downfall. Biggie named his first album Ready to Die. Pac famously said, “In my death, people will know what I was talking about.”