A Requiem for Baby Girl

Assessing Aaliyah’s legacy 15 years after we lost her is necessary, if heart-wrenching. Still, her spirit lives in the next generation of Detroit’s female artists.

The late Aaliyah Haughton was known as a global superstar to music and movie fans, but Detroiters know what’s up: She’s a D girl through and through.

She moved to the city with her family at age 5. According to a 2001 cover story in Vibe, she was singing at weddings in the area as early as age 8, and she appeared on Star Search at 11 (she sang “My Funny Valentine” and lost). Her uncle Barry Hankerson, who was married to Gladys Knight, brought Aaliyah – still 11 – to perform with Knight for five dates in Las Vegas, and he later introduced her to R. Kelly, who he was managing. She was officially introduced to the industry at 15 years old with Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number, her stellar (and, in recent contexts, disturbing, considering her illegal marriage to producer and now-accused pedophile R. Kelly) 1994 debut album. She was a student at Detroit School of Arts (back then called Detroit High School of the Fine and Performing Arts) all the while, having a bodyguard accompany her to class.

Detroit singer/songwriter Re’chell “Chell” Crowell still remembers Aaliyah’s signature style back then: baggy jackets, sunglasses and bandanas. The same type of look she associates with her city.

“I guess you can say she embodied New York, but she embodied Detroit. She was never super flashy. It wasn’t about a whole lot of diamonds and makeup,” says Crowell, 25. “I wouldn’t say she was conservative, but she was herself and she was cool with that. She dressed how she wanted to dress. It wasn’t really about a sex appeal; she was just super comfortable in who she was.

“You could look at her on TV, then you could go outside and see somebody who looks like that. A girl on the block,” Crowell said. “Super chill, somebody you can hang out with.”

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Detroit singer/songwriter Ashley Rose feels the same way. Rose, 27, is enjoying her own promising career: she has writing credits on Tamar Braxton’s Grammy-nominated Love and War album and co-wrote Sevyn Streeter and Chris Brown’s “Don’t Kill the Fun,” and Kat DeLuna’s “Stars,” along with a few songs on her own. She said Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number was one of the first albums that her mother liked and allowed her to purchase as a child, and her 2001 song “Try Again” inspired her to begin writing. Rose also used to wear her hair like Aaliyah’s: straight, with a side bang covering one of her eyes. And in a talent show while she was in high school at Southfield-Lathrup, she performed Aaliyah’s songs.

“She taught us what it was to be attractive, but to maintain an air and presence about yourself that was extremely ladylike,” she remembers. “(In the talent show), my entire performance was a tribute to her, because she passed away right after my birthday. My birthday is the 23rd, so I think about her every year.”

That’s another element of Aaliyah’s career that feels like a product of her Detroit upbringing. Even as she grew out of baggy clothes and youthful music into the form-fitting decor and mature outfits of her adulthood, her approachability never waned. She had star power that magnified on the big screen, but still seemed like a person you knew personally. Over the years, I – and many friends and family – always saw Aaliyah as a sister, cousin or friend instead of an unattainable object of attraction or perfection.

Aaliyah’s image and dance moves were iconic, but her music had those same qualities. Rose and Crowell both praise her songs for their brilliant simplicity – not only in catchiness, but with their ease to comprehend and apply to their own lives.

“I think it was the relatability, the simplicity, lyrics that anyone could understand. Lyrics that related to the older person in a relationship, or a younger person thinking they were in a relationship,” Rose says. “Even with (songs) like ‘Try Again,’ it was a concept that everyone could relate to.”

“You have your Brandys, Monicas and Beyoncés, but a lot of the time, people could have overlooked the simplicity of Aaliyah,” Crowell adds. “Sometimes less is more, and I always took that from her.”

Her relatability was ultimately what made her death so tragic. Sure, there was the huge upwards-direction her career was heading. After starring in the film Romeo Must Die with DMX and Jet Li, she stretched her acting chops in Queen of the Damned as an ancient vampire named Queen Akasha, and she was scheduled to appear in the sequels of The Matrix as well. Her 2001 self-titled album had shown the radiance and polish of an artist who was reaching adulthood, ready to officially make her mark alongside other legendary R&B stars.

But after a plane crash that killed her and eight others aboard on Aug. 25, 2001, as cliché as it may sound, it felt to many – especially in Detroit and around Michigan – that one of their relatives or close friends died.

“To see a girl from the D on such a big stage, and to see her in these movies with such big people, and so many people talking about her,” Crowell says. “When somebody that big is from your city, it’s like, ‘Maybe I can do it too.’”

Others echo that strong connection.

“Aaliyah’s passion and emotion she put into her music is relatable to me, as well as her versatility and the inspiration she gave young girls to follow their dreams and dress stylish,” says Detroit-area rapper Neisha Neshae. “I look up to her, her style, her attitude, the way she worked and her grind. No one could replace her.”

The music industry seems notably devoid of many young female stars who can simultaneously dance and sing these days, but Detroit has several who are bubbling around the city. And whether they’re similar to Aaliyah or completely different, her spirit seems to live through them all somehow.

“The one thing that was always said about Aaliyah was that she had a really kind spirit no matter what. She remained extremely humble,” Rose says. “That’s something I keep in mind with my own career. I want people to have those types of things to say about me.”

William E. Ketchum III is a New York City-based writer whose work has been featured on HipHopDX, Guardian, MTV and more. He is also the former managing editor of MichiganHipHop.

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