January 16th, 2019 would have been Aaliyah’s 40th birthday. In honor of Aaliyah, an HG contributor remembers the late R&B icon’s individuality, authenticity, and impact.
For me, everything great about Aaliyah starts with her hair: the flat wrap and the swoop. It was clean. Her style was clear, uncomplicated.
Growing up, I never wanted to fuss with my hair. I wanted to keep my hairstyle simple, easy. But even as a 7-year-old, the women I saw in magazines convinced me that I needed to do something more, until I would no longer look like myself. And it wasn’t just my hair and the women in magazines—I was a quiet child who felt pressured to be louder. How else could I get noticed at school? I knew I was smart, but I thought my shyness equated to not having a voice and never being heard. I wished I could learn how to be comfortable being myself.
And then came Aaliyah.
I was 9 years old when I first met her. She was singing about commitment and chemistry over a futuristic, complex groove. I heard something that I couldn’t explain at the time—her vocals were silky smooth, her delivery seemed calculated, and her vibe was original. I had never heard anything like her. I had never seen anything like her, either. Yet, somehow, Aaliyah also felt familiar and warm—like an older cousin I looked up to.
Aaliyah was as accessible as she was exclusive—private but publicly passionate. I had become familiar with her when she was in her early teenage years, hiding behind sunglasses and baggy clothes, but her sophomore album, One In A Million, became my formal introduction to her. In the music video for her single of the same name, I felt like I saw who Aaliyah really was beyond the iconic wardrobe. She glided over Timbaland’s production in a way that proved she owned the captivating beat. It was an enchanting, fuller, more up-close and personal look at Aaliyah, the woman.
My confidence grew from watching her grow into her womanhood. Aaliyah professed her love, staked her claim, and stood firm in her flyness.
She no longer hid but shone on her own terms. And for me, that’s where her magic begins—with her warm, inspiring combination of smoothness and authenticity. I understood it came effortlessly from within her, and it inspired me to find my own rhythm and follow suit. I wouldn’t settle for duplicating her style—Aaliyah made me want to create my own. The princess of R&B was the poster child for staying true to yourself by simply staying true to herself, in her music and in her appearance.
With her hit on the Doctor Dolittle soundtrack, she asked the important questions: Are you responsible? Are you that somebody? Up until that point, it had never occurred to me that you didn’t have to simply fall in love. Women can actually qualify our interests while protecting our hearts.
By the time her third and final album, Aaliyah, was released, I had been convinced that her essence was untouchable. With her super team of producers and writers—Timbaland, Missy Elliot, and Static Major—at the helm, she perfected her sound.
Throughout the album, she declares her commitment to herself.
To this day, we can’t talk about R&B music in the late nineties and the early ’00s without discussing the impact of Aaliyah Dana Houghton.
She didn’t just look cool, she was the definition of it. Aaliyah was the artistic embodiment of taking your time, setting your own pace, and making your own rules.
Whether she was carefully selecting movie roles or deciding which brands to collab with, Aaliyah brought her uniqueness to every opportunity she touched. In an industry that rewards sameness, Aaliyah broke patterns and stood on the foundation of her individuality. Almost 18 years after her passing, she still reminds me that I am one in a million, no matter the industry I work in or the struggle I’m overcoming.