After Aaliyah

Fifteen years after her untimely death the Detroit star still matters, but her legacy is in question

On Aug. 25, 2001, things were looking up for Aaliyah Haughton.

The Detroit High School for the Fine and Performing Arts alum was only 22, but her pop star status was certain. After a four-year break from music, she was back with a self-titled album, released the month before. It was already certified gold, joining her previous hits with 1994’s Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number and 1996’s One in a Million. Her acting career was taking off: She finished filming her role as the vampire Akasha in the adaptation of Anne Rice’s The Queen of the Damned, and had begun shooting a role in the sequel to the sci-fi blockbuster The Matrix. Finally, it seemed like the scandal of her illegal underage marriage to former producer R. Kelly might be a thing of the past.

But on that August day, it all came to a tragic end. After wrapping up filming a music video for her breezy “Rock the Boat,” Aaliyah and eight others boarded a twin-engine Cessna 402B bound for Florida. As the plane lifted off from Marsh Harbour International Airport, it rose 40 feet and then nose-dived into a marsh, bursting into flames. There were no survivors. Investigations later revealed the plane was 700 pounds overloaded, and the pilot was not authorized by the Federal Aviation Administration.

In the pop music climate of the early 2000s, Aaliyah was refreshingly different, providing an alternative to the squeaky-clean manufactured pop acts like Britney Spears and Nsync that dominated the charts. Like those artists, her videos were heavy on dance choreography, but featuring avant garde production from beatmakers Timbaland and Missy Elliott. She had enough star power to crossover appeal to the mainstream, yet was edgy enough for someone like Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor to consider collaboration — which sadly, never happened. (Though when I was in high school, I remember seeing a goth kid listening to the Aaliyah CD on his Walkman shortly after her death, the volume cranked up to 10.)

A decade-plus later, interest in Aaliyah is still strong — though legal battles over rights to her music have put the singer’s artistic legacy in jeopardy.

In 2012, the popular Canadian rapper Drake was reportedly working on a posthumous Aaliyah album made from a trove of unreleased recordings. Aaliyah’s family fought the release, and the project was scrapped. Aaliyah appeared again in pop culture in 2013, when rapper Chris Brown released a track called “Don’t Think They Know” using previously recorded Aaliyah vocals, and even featured her apparition in hologram form in the track’s music video.

Meanwhile, in 2014 the Lifetime Channel released a biopic called Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B starring Alexandra Shipp. The film was a disaster, made without the blessing of the Aaliyah estate, which once again barred the use of her music for the project. Though the film was universally panned, it still drew 3.2 million viewers, making it 2014’s second-watched made-for-TV movie.

Worst of all, confusion over who owns the rights to Aaliyah’s music has caused her records to be pulled from digital music stores and streaming services in recent years. Originally, Aaliyah was signed to Blackground Records, a label run by her uncle Barry Hankerson, an entertainment lawyer who was once married to Gladys Knight. (One of Aaliyah’s early breaks was opening for Knight on a five-night stint in Las Vegas when she was just 11.) Blackground went under in 2012, but not before selling Aaliyah’s music to a publishing company called Reservoir Media. Today, the rights to her music are in dispute, caught in a tug of war between Reservoir and a company called Craze Productions, which had been distributing her music online.

Most recently, the subject of Aaliyah was the elephant in the room in a lengthy profile on R. Kelly published earlier this year in GQ magazine. Interviewer Chris Heath pressed Kelly with pointed questions about multiple alleged offenses against underage women, including a secret marriage to Aaliyah after he produced her Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number (she was 14, he was 27).

The profile presented the likeliest sequence of events: according to one of Kelly’s previous employees, Aaliyah ran away from home, fearing she was pregnant, and Kelly believed he could protect himself from the legal ramifications of statutory rape by marrying her, which he did with the help of an illegal ID that falsified her age. (The marriage was quickly annulled, and the two never worked together again.) In the profile, Kelly dodged the questions, but his silence on the matter speaks volumes. Perhaps the most damning revelation from the interview was Kelly’s confession to being abused as child, and his belief that abuse is a cycle, with each victim becoming the next abuser.

Neither Hankerson nor Aaliyah’s immediate family could be reached for comment. Reservoir Media did not return phone calls by press time. But despite the legal mess, Aaliyah survives in other ways.

Many critics have described Aaliyah as ahead of her time — in 2001 The New York Times called her “pop’s most futuristic star.” The singer has been cited as an influence by many, from Beyoncé to popular indie rock act the xx. (In fact, Beyoncé has said Aaliyah was the first famous person she ever met, and even interviewed Aaliyah, “one of the hottest female artists,” at the 2000 MTV Movie Awards.)

Perhaps pop culture is finally catching up.