I Want Babygirl Back: Thembisa Mshaka on What Aaliyah's Future Career Could've Been
Aaliyah Dana Haughton. Babygirl. Nice. Naughty. She was that somebody.
Her allure was magnetic; her talent was undeniable. And while her life ended tragically in a plane crash on August 25, 2001, her catalog of albums and films immortalized the stunning young star. Music heads distinctly recall life before and after the unthinkable news of Aaliyah’s passing. It represented the loss of someone whose sweetness and sensuality would not be seen again. And in a sense, the R&B world took a dark turn soon after. Mystery was usurped by overkill. Sex overshadowed courtship, and vulgarity asserted itself recklessly, sending poetic lyricism packing.
Popular R&B is pretty much still crudely sex-obsessed, with a few exceptions. We know that her stardom opened the door for Sevyn Streeter, Jhene Aiko and Teyana Taylor, among others. So, on the occasion of what will be Babygirl’s 38th birthday, I got to thinking: had she lived, where would Aaliyah be today?
She would certainly be breaking the rules musically, as she did with R. Kelly and Timbaland. She’d be making the kind of bass heavy, memorable R&B that you ride to, make love to, celebrate life to and sing loudly in the shower. Emotive, melodic, sultry and playful. That was Aaliyah. I do believe that she’d be turning in more performances of pop songs and torch songs, a glimpse of which we were given by her unexpected, powerful vocal on “Journey To The Past” for the Anastasia soundtrack. I could see her going from electronic soul to calypso, from jazz standards to classic rock covers as she expanded her discography creatively. She would have taken the surprise visual album format and ran straight to the top of the charts with it. She was a true innovator in the music video realm, and would have relished the opportunity to cut a clip for each song and tell a story an album long. As a matter of course, Aaliyah would definitely still be riding with her squad: recording with Missy [Elliott], dancing with Ginuwine and collaborating with Timbaland, both as a solo artist and with One Republic, Keri Hilson, Justin Timberlake and Nelly Furtado. She’d sing the theme song to the Olympic Games. Be performing at halftime for the Super Bowl. Aaliyah’s crossover would be mean. She could cross over and cross right back with ease.
And because she was a star who was developed and not manufactured, she’d be coyly enigmatic, but outrageously fun on social media, just as she was in real life. She would post infrequently, but with jaw-dropping and routinely viral effect. She’d be side-eyeing reality TV unless it had to do with making music, self-improvement, giving back or a dance competition, where she’d be judging hard—but with love. She would have guest appeared on Dancing With The Stars, because she’d still be too busy (read: too relevant) to be half of a competing duo.
As for her film work, Aaliyah would have made a quantum leap between the two films in which she starred in: going from streetwise Trish O’Day in Romeo Must Die to desirable vampire queen Akasha in Queen of the Damned, a role that belied her youth—and yet, that she inhabited with great conviction. So where to from there?
It’s hard to believe, but she would have turned 38 today (Jan. 16)—and still looked a just a hare over half her real age on screen. Aaliyah certainly would have been right at home in the ensemble comic book blockbusters that have become Hollywood’s bread and butter. She could have easily played Storm in any X-Men film. She would be a perfect Mary Jane to a new Spider-Man, or the funny, but unfadeable action shero co-star to everyone from Jamie Foxx to Ben Stiller. Aaliyah would be right at home as the voice-spoken and sung of today’s animated films where fierce, but vulnerable woman characters rule—from Mulan, to Zootopia to Moana—these stories are totally in her wheelhouse of portraying beguiling, brave, adventurous and authentic characters.
And as far as endorsements and brand collaborations… Aaliyah simply would have dominated in this space: beauty, fragrance, automotive, hair care, skin care couture design. We all missed out on seeing her stunt at the Met Ball, or present at award shows in Gaultier, Tracy Reese or Tom Ford. Or melt the screen in a commercial for, well, anything. All that luxuriant hair cascading out of a racing helmet, with her in a driving jumpsuit? Listen. If she had endorsed NASCAR, the urban consumer would be packing those races out, and we’d certainly have more women and men of color race car drivers. She was in influencer whose power had simply not been given time to be fully experienced.
I was fortunate to chill with Aaliyah in a shared limo ride during The 1995 Gavin Seminar in Atlanta, riding with her parents, Lil Kim and Timbaland, on our way to their hotel for an exclusive interview I had planned with the then-emerging producer for an upcoming issue. The conversation was easy, human and about everything except the industry. Her smile was much more at home in private, and it stretched wide, letting infectious laughter take flight. She was just so sweet; instantly loveable. Her star was rising, and I just knew I’d see her again and be able to congratulate her on all her success. That rendezvous never happened. Unfortunately, we can’t have Aaliyah Dana Haughton back. But in that short time, she blessed us with beautiful, timeless music, a dizzying array of arresting images and two films that showcased her potential for A-list megastardom. My wish for all who knew and loved her is that her special day is made less painful by her legacy. Cheers to an incomparable star, whose light will never fade.
Thembisa S. Mshaka is the author of Put Your Dreams First: Handle Your [entertainment] Business. A 25-year veteran of the music and creative industries, she started her career as Rap Editor of industry trade GAVIN, the magazine that brought she and Aaliyah together.