When I was young, my older sister wore baggy jeans with multicolored boxer shorts and a tight tank top showing her midriff, in the "street but sweet" style popularized by TLC and Aaliyah. She rocked gel-slicked ponytails with bangs and black lip liner. She recorded rap and R&B songs from the radio with a cassette tape. One of those songs was Aaliyah’s version of the Isley Brothers' “At Your Best (You Are Love).”
Through my sister, I came to know of Aaliyah. I sang along to “4 Page Letter,” reading the lyrics inside the CD cover while thinking of writing my own four-page letter. Later, I moved on to “One In A Million,” attempting to emulate Aaliyah’s soft soprano. When the earlier details of her marriage to R. Kelly hit the news, I was confused but curious, the same way I was confused when girls at my junior high school had much older boyfriends. She seemed like someone I might know, with a relatable image and voice.
The question of whether Aaliyah’s life warrants a major motion picture treatment comparable to the likes of Tina Turner is an interesting one. When considering the impact she had on R&B music and urban culture in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, some would say yes, especially her family who believe the upcoming Lifetime biopic, “Aaliyah: Princess of R&B” is too small to capture the scope of her life and career, and are attempting to block the usage of her music in the film. What is an Aaliyah film without her music?
There’s an interesting debate that happens around issues of musical icons- who are the true artists whose music stands the test of time? Who will be written about and remembered for their artistic contributions? There are some names we hear a lot- Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Aretha Franklin, Elvis, The Rolling Stones, Tupac, and the list could go on. But the debate becomes even more heated when we consider those artists whose music may not reach larger forums of acceptance- those artists with massive followings of black girls who wanted to dance, swing their hips and wear baggy pants, boxers and halter tops. Do these people and their icons matter?
I think they do. I think music is rich with tangible memory and feeling. When we hear certain songs, we locate experiences, images, tastes, and smells. When I hear specific songs by Aaliyah, I locate memories of my girlhood, as do many others. Her music was on during that house party, and we crowded around the television to learn the last choreography number in the “Are You that Somebody?”
The marriage between film and music can be a beautiful one and in the right hands, a film about Aaliyah’s life and music could be memorable. While the details of her private life weren’t as public as other entertainers, her personality revealed a level of depth and mystery that could be unpacked nicely in a film. The chosen medium- TV movie or motion picture- doesn’t matter as much as the script, director, and the actress chosen to bring it to life.
I want to see a film that takes us into a rehearsal and into the formation of her image and artistry that many girls emulated, with particular attention placed on her choreography by Fatima Robinson, which in many ways distinguished her from other performers. While her family’s requests for a big-budget film are valid, the VH1 TV movie "CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story" generated 4.5 million viewers, making it the highest-rated television film premiere of 2013. Almost everyone I knew was watching and singing along to it. African American audiences also make up one of the larger viewing demographics of television programming, which is a plus for any TV film aimed at that audience.
When Aaliyah died, my teenage ex-boyfriend got her face airbrushed on a t-shirt and wore it constantly. Aaliyah’s plane crash was a major pop culture tragedy for my generation, in the way the Ritchie Valens’ plane crash was for baby boomers. He was 17 when he died and Aaliyah was 22. They had so much more music to make. I recall the urban legends that emerged- the theories of her final moments in the crash, how she died, and the constant hypothesizing within my teenage social circles about the course of events that led to her demise. There was a large sense of disbelief as we were just rocking our hips to her new album, watching her MTV Diary series, and exploring the more mature sounds of “Rock The Boat,” when the announcement of her death came on the radio. It was, and still is, unreal.
Her life is definitely deserving of a film, whether independently produced, made by a studio or a television network. It’s about the story that emerges, giving deeper insight into the music and performer who sang the lives of so many brown girls.