Every time I hear Aaliyah’s 2001 hit, “Rock The Boat,” a sly smile creeps upon my face. Most often, I slip away to a dance floor, or, if there isn’t one close by, I begin to sway my hips–back, back, forth & forth–I imagine I’m her, I feel sexy and in control, I feel happy.
The imagery from Aaliyah’s last, and fatal video shoot, is something that is imprinted in many of our minds. There she stands in a perfectly blue sea of water, dressed in white, atop of a boat, dancing with the controlled seduction that had become her signature style–Aaliyah was like a butterfly just beginning to take flight–and then, on her way back to us, her plane crashed, and she was gone.
Today marks the 11th anniversary of Aaliyah’s death. We can only speculate what the talented, beautiful singer who stole our hearts would have accomplished in her career by now, so I try not to do so. Instead, I remember Aaliyah by reflecting on where I was when she died, and the woman I’ve become since.
It’s quite easy for me to remember the girl I was on August 25, 2001–I was just beginning my freshman year at Spelman. I was 17 years old–young for a freshman, scared, excited and anxious for the new life I was beginning. Like Lauryn Hill, Aaliyah had always been a source of inspiration for me. As I struggled through high school to find my place, her cool demeanor, baggy jeans and bare midriff tops modeled a type of daring I wished I possessed. In my mind, she was the girl that the girls admired, and the boys wanted to be around. I had already spent countless hours in front of the television screen attempting to learn the choreography to her videos, I had purchased the overalls (wearing them, of course, with one strap down), and I had my hair parted to the side with a long bang. I was an Aaliyah type of girl–cool, unafraid, daring, understated, sexy—well, at least that was the type of girl I was in my 17 year-old mind.
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Word of Aaliyah’s tragic death rocked the halls of the Howard-Harreld dormitory. Our entire freshman class—just one week in to our new collegiate lives, was stunned. (Only two weeks later on September 11th, two would planes crash in to the World Trade Center furthering our unease with life away from home.) We blasted her final studio album, Aaliyah, from every dorm room window. (I don’t know if that album would have been a classic before her death, but it became legend around Spelman after.) We missed her, we sang her–when the video for “Rock The Boat” came out, we danced her.
But most importantly we channeled her, or, at least, I did. Here I was, a young Black girl from the South Side of Chicago dropped in to a school of over 2000. Everywhere I looked, someone was smarter than me, prettier than me, cooler than me–so who was I? Oh, that’s right–I was an Aaliyah type of girl.
I floated through my freshman year of college mostly under the radar. I made friends, (many of whom are still my friends today), and I had fun, but when the boorishness of the ATL sound became too much, and the silliness of fighting for the attention of the Morehouse boys too intimidating, I tried to just play it cool. I thought, that’s what Aaliyah would do after all–hang back, chill out, don’t sweat it.
Over time, I learned how to ‘rock the boat’ in my own way. I became the editor of the Spelman newspaper as a sophomore (age ain’t nothing but a number), I joined our dance company, was fortunate enough to be able to join a sorority and blessed enough to make some incredible friends. There were lots of mistakes along the way, some regrets, and possibly, even some things I’d like to do over, but through all of it, Aaliyah was there encouraging me to ‘try again’ and again, and again.
Aaliyah, the album is so much of the soundtrack to my college years. “I Care 4 U,” “It’s Whatever,” “We Need A Resolution” and “I Refuse” narrated far too many overly-dramatic scenes in the Atlanta University Center. But ultimately, every time I see that red compact disk with the ‘A’ on it, I will always, first, play song number three. Sure, I know the lyrics are about sex, but there’s just something about that song that speaks to me. Perhaps it’s the sweet soothing quality of her voice, the control and seduction between the verses and the chorus, or maybe it’s just that super mellow smooth beat. Whatever it is, it radiates cool–a sort of fearlessness, a take charge attitude that’s unafraid to demand its wants and needs–a control that knows when, and if, to ‘rock the boat.’ That’s who Aaliyah was to me…and I’m still trying to be like her.
WATCH “Rock The Boat” Below:
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