Her voice was angelic beyond belief. Her music was experimental and raw. Her style was unabashedly defiant.
Aaliyah was more than just another teen singer from the 1990s Hip Hop Soul Era—she was the trendsetter who changed the look of R&B.
After the resurgence of Contemporary R&B in the 1980s by female singers Whitney Houston, Janet Jackson and Anita Baker, Black female singers were molded into safe costumes beaded with glittery ornaments. It was rare to see a female pop star wear jeans on stage. The uniform of long flowing ball gowns and dress suits carried itself through the 90s with En Vogue, Paula Abdul and Mariah Carey adopting the typical image of and R&B starlet.
When Aaliyah’s first music video, Back & Forth, debuted in March of 1994 on BET, she changed the image of R&B. Aaliyah’s rebellious style was one of the 1990s strongest protests against a well-developed ‘classy’ female songstress image.
While Aaliyah’s debut came on the heels of Hip Hop Soul pioneers Mary J. Blige, TLC, and SWV, her style was completely signature. That first video saw Aaliyah emerge in a school gym with large baggy blue jeans with her belt unbuckled, a big black vest over a bulky collared shirt, dark black sunglasses, a bandana to top off her look. She also decided to sag her pant, exposing the mens boxers underneath her defiantly exposed midriff. She looked like a boy—more specifically, a tough thug.
Young urban girls around the nation praised Aaliyah for representing their Timberland-wearing tomboy style. The rest of the world looked on in shock as the 14-year-old, light-skinned girl with pressed hair donned an image which aligned her with gangsta rappers from California. It was more confusing when her voice emerged on the track. It was sweet as candy, and soft enough to sing you to sleep. The conflicting image only added a depth to her character which pushed her gender-bending politics beyond expectations.
Aaliyah allowed her style to infiltrate a genre which prided itself on manufacturing class. From the earliest days of the Supremes at Motown to Clive Davis’ poised Arista balladeers, R&B was meant to fit into a style box. Aaliyah’s proclamation that she would step outside the box opened the door for other Black female artists to adorn themselves in styles straight from the street. Singers like Ciara and Amanda Perez have adopted a similar thuggish image for their releases.
The young starlet went on to redefine the confines of femininity, singing about sensual subject and being recognized as an undeniably beautiful songstress. She continued to display her signature image throughout the rest of the 1990s with video releases including “If Your Girl Only Knew”, “Up Jumps Da Boogie”, “Hot Like Fire”, “Are You That Somebody” and her successful street anthem with rap maverick DMX, “Back In One Piece”.
10 years after her death, we still celebrate the best of her life. Aaliyah’s career was a constant string of hit songs, awards, film roles and wild performances. Her legacy must include an appreciation for her unshakeable stylistic defiance, which transformed R&B and gave young Black girls an artist that represented their identity.