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Aaliyah’s legacy 20 years after her death

Ryan Sinclair looks at the arrival of Aaliyah's music onto streaming platforms.

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Image Credit: Mika-photography

It has been 20 years since the tragic death of R&B star Aaliyah. At the age of 22, she was on course for a soaring career not just as a successful recording artist but with ventures into the fashion and film industries. Despite her career being cut short, Aaliyah has gone on to be recognised as a pioneering figure in R&B history and the blueprint for artists to come. Her silky, understated vocals continue to be widely emulated, while fashion designers still look to her effortless blend of streetwear and high fashion as a source of inspiration.

2021 is a particularly important year in Aaliyah’s legacy as, after a long and tumultuous saga, her music catalogue has fully arrived on streaming platforms for the first time. For two decades, Aaliyah’s legacy has been at the centre of a behind-the-scenes battle between two parties. On one side is Blackground Records, the owner of the rights to her music (owned by Aaliyah’s uncle Barry Hankerson), while on the other side is Aaliyah’s estate. Barry Hankerson has long been an elusive figure in the music industry. While the rest of the industry was evolving into the digital age, Blackground had ground to a halt due to the breakdown of distribution deals – the entire Blackground catalogue (including Aaliyah’s recordings, but also those of artists including JoJo, Timbaland and Tank) was stuck in limbo, various attempts to release the catalogue failing to take off. Aaliyah’s estate, concerned with protecting her legacy, has over the years expressed discomfort and reservation towards the release of Aaliyah’s music. While the estate doesn’t own the publishing rights to her music, this cautious approach has made any distribution deal difficult. For example, in 2012 there were plans for a posthumous Aaliyah album executive produced and featuring vocals by Drake, which was shelved after it was publicly criticised by Aaliyah’s mother.

After years of little dialogue between these parties, a statement issued by Aaliyah’s estate in 2020 expressed a desire to make her music available on streaming platforms. Hankerson took this as a green light and negotiated a deal with distributor EMPIRE.  In August, this deal resulted in a roadmap where Aaliyah’s music would gradually be released to streaming services over the following months. When the estate subsequently spoke up and criticised Hankerson’s lack of transparency, it seemed this would be yet another derailed attempt. However, the release schedule was miraculously seen to its end. As of the release of compilations I Care 4 U and Ultimate Aaliyah on 8 October, Aaliyah’s full catalogue is now accessible on streaming platforms.

Aaliyah’s streaming release comes at a time when the landscape of R&B is heavily saturated with her influence. Echoes of Aaliyah’s music can be heard in artists such as Tinashe, Kehlani, Jhene Aiko and Solange. The clearest example of this, however, is Normani’s single 'Wild Side'. Normani has frequently cited Aaliyah as one of her biggest influences and 'Wild Side' is a testament to this influence. The song interpolates Aaliyah’s hit single 'One in a Million', while the choreography of the music video pulls from Aaliyah’s 'Try Again'. Going one step further at the VMAs, Normani continued her tribute by wearing a white outfit reminiscent of the one worn by Aaliyah in the video for 'One in a Million'. These references are not so subtle, and this perhaps reveals a purposeful attempt by Normani to place herself as this generation’s successor to Aaliyah – such an attempt demonstrates the amount of prestige that her musical lineage holds.

The absence of Aaliyah’s music and other Blackground classics was one of the largest remaining holes in digital platforms. In an era so reliant on streaming, the presence of her music on streaming is hugely significant for preserving her legacy going into the future, allowing younger audiences to experience her music for the first time. The excitement generated by these reissues and their recharting so many years after their initial release goes to show just how timeless and beloved her music continues to be.

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