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(Credit: Mika-photography)

Music

Remembering Aaliyah, 20 years on from her tragic death

@josephtaysom

Aaliyah’s life was tragically cut short on August 25th, 2021. The 22-year-old, whose career was only just getting started, succumbed to what would prove to be a devastating plane crash. Her story is a harrowing one from start to finish, demonstrating the dangerous side of the music industry, one with a track record of manipulating the most vulnerable.

While Aaliyah’s death was, on the surface, a freak accident, it wasn’t wholly one. It was the result of a carefree attitude adopted by her management team in which they assumed immortality. In truth, Aaliyah and the eight other casualties onboard should never have been on the plane in the first place — something that they all knew before stepping onto the flight on that August evening.

After filming the video for ‘Rock The Boat’ in the Abaco Islands, Aaliyah and her team decided to fly back to the States early rather than staying overnight as planned. When they discovered that the aircraft available wasn’t large enough for all nine passengers, they should have taken this as a warning sign, but alas, taking a second to breathe wasn’t in their lexicon.

Such was the hurried way of life that she’d become accustomed to in a bid for superstardom, Aaliyah and her team stopped treating her like a human but instead like champagne-sipping cattle. The plane crashed and caught fire just 200m from the runway, with everybody on the flight losing their life.

Tragically, her death embodies the management of her career, one in which she was constantly void of the necessary care. Sequentially, her life would be the ultimate cost she’d pay for the negligence of others.

Aaliyah’s uncle, Barry Hankerson, worked as an entertainment lawyer and brokered a distribution deal for his niece through Jive Records when she was just 12. Aaliyah then started work with the notorious R. Kelly, who is currently on trial for helming a paedophile ring. He produced her debut album, Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number, when Aaliyah was only 14.

Rumours began circulating that the young Aaliyah and Kelly had started a romantic relationship, despite Aaliyah still being a child, and then it emerged that they secretly married when she was just 15. Although on the certificate, her age was listed as 18, and when her parents discovered this six months later, they annulled the illegal marriage. Her ‘relationship’ with Kelly scarred the budding musician, and Aaliyah was shockingly publicly shamed despite being the victim of child grooming. 

At her death, Aaliyah was engaged to Roc-A-Fella co-founder Damon Dash, who later revealed she couldn’t speak about Kelly even in private. Dash noted how Aaliyah only went as far as calling him a “bad man” and never opened up about their time together. Additionally, Dash also said that he couldn’t watch the Surviving R. Kelly documentary as the other girls’ trauma reminded him of Aaliyah’s pain.

The mental ordeal derived from that torturous period harmed Aaliyah’s relationship with Dash. Even though Kelly was no longer in her life, the wounds he left her with still wreaked havoc in her mind.

Aaliyah threw herself into her work and even began to have a prosperous career in Hollywood. Before her death, she even landed a role in the sequels of The Matrix as Zee, and the future looked unstoppably bright.

There was no off-button, and, in truth, Aaliyah didn’t know how to stop. Her aggressive approach to work was perhaps a coping mechanism and a distraction to keep her mind racing away from thinking about the past.

One thing that remains clear is that nobody around her close team held Aaliyah’s genuine long-term interests at heart. They were worried about money and fame, with everything else deemed a secondary concern. 

Aaliyah’s tale is one that the music industry should have learned from. However, the death of artists like Lil Peep and Juice WRLD show that more care still needs to be on hand for these young stars. If change doesn’t occur, there’ll be plenty more horror stories that don’t need to end that way. 

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