Aaliyah, the singer, died tonight. My daughter, Afiya, and I were driving home from a concert when we heard the news. In a strained voice, a radio announcer said, “Our prayers go out to Aaliyah and her family.” He dropped a cut on the air by the lauded R&B;, borderline hip-hop artist. Aaliyah’s “Are You That Somebody?” suffused the car.
“Huh? Wait ....” I cut into my daughter’s sentence. “Something happened in Aaliyah’s family.” My daughter quickly flipped to another hip-hop station. We both adored Aaliyah and wanted to empathize with her like good fans--as much as we are able to share with celebrities and their grief. We turned into the last stretch of our drive home. What could have happened to Aaliyah? I thought maybe it was a joke, but that was quickly refuted when I heard a KKBT DJ announce the tragedy:
“At 22 years old, the singer Aaliyah and several others have died in a plane crash in the Bahamas.... She’d just finished shooting a video.”
The silence in our car stuck in our throats. “That’s sad,” I said, stunned. A small hole opened in the joy of our evening. Our high from the concert evaporated. Her poor family.
“Yeah. I have to call Shannon,” Afiya said quietly, referring to her cousin in San Bernardino. They loved Aaliyah and made up dance steps to her songs over the years. Their admiration deepened when they witnessed her acting debut in “Romeo Must Die.”
Aaliyah was more than one of my daughter’s heroines. She was an idol. In fact, my daughter used to tell people she met that her name was Aaliyah. I encouraged the props she gave the young singer because Aaliyah was one of the good ones. Sexy but not sleazy. Succulent midriff, trademark lock of hair over one eye, a kind slip of cleavage once in a blue moon, but nothing tacky or striptease material. She vanquished the negative hip-hop artist image that is flaunted in the news. It’s no wonder that Hollywood had latched onto her too.
A hint of innocence always lingered in her music as she wove her knowledge of love, attraction and responsibility in each cut. The image Aaliyah portrayed was somewhat of a cliche--a sweet ray of light in the dark of the murky music industry. A sliver of hope in the hip-hop generation for parents, especially for us single mothers with young black girls who yearned to sing and dance for their keep. We pray our daughters will sidestep the brusque Lil’ Kims and emulate the Aaliyahs. She was as much our enlightenment as theirs.
Besides, my daughter and I shared in our adoration of Aaliyah. All parents have that one celebrity we love as much as our children. We enjoy razzing our kids about their heroes’ funky clothes or latest bizarre song. But for me, it’s as much a chance to connect as it is to share the rapture of the talent. We are already losing so much of our children to this world in moments when we aren’t looking--when we can’t protect them from images that will shape them, even when we’re on guard. However, hopefully along the way, in sharing an artist or a hobby we can try to squeeze in everything we want to teach them about life, whether in a song, a painting or by pointing out an artist’s self-respect and diligence--like Aaliyah’s. She helped us maintain a link to our children, offered us the tools to teach them what it means to be an adult, while gently redirecting them back to their own innocence. Aaliyah gave us that chance with every song, every video.
In 1994, at 17, Aaliyah released her first album, “Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number.” Her new, self-titled album hit stores in July. She was the best example of what it meant to be young, gifted and black. It was hard to believe she was dead--her talent, dreams and aspirations gone.
When we got home it was midnight. I told Afiya to turn on the radio so we could hear more of what had happened. It was more of the same piecemeal information between Aaliyah’s songs.
I still hadn’t thought of anything heartening to say to Afiya. I could feel her watching me as I washed my face. I felt as if she was waiting for me to do something that would allow her to mourn better. Like most children her age, she has experienced death of relatives, but never the death of someone she strove to be. That was the second small madness she was grappling with. I could feel it behind her eyes.
I felt the void as well as she did and respected her need to reassess who she would be now. Still, I wanted to cry. I just didn’t want to in front of my daughter. I didn’t want her to cry, but I knew she wanted to. She was being brave for me. I watched her lying next to her boombox, dropping the beads of a broken necklace into her trash can.
“Brush your teeth, sweetie,” I garbled through a mouthful of toothpaste. She understood me perfectly the way that family does. She brushed her teeth as I roamed the hallway between our bedrooms. We listened to the radio in companionable silence as people called in, some choked up, trying to make sure the news was real. Others to give their condolences to the family.
“This is going out to Aaliyah’s family, R. Kelly and the Timbaland camp, which Aaliyah was with,” the DJ said. “As a matter of fact, we have Timbaland in studio. So man, what do you have to say?”
There was an awkward pause.
“You--you can’t say anything, really,” the producer haltingly pushed out.
Realizing his blunder, the DJ quickly went on to something else.
He was a young DJ, not a preacher. He really didn’t know how to articulate his loss, or the loss of the thousands tuned in. All he could do was play Aaliyah’s music and let those who loved her say it to deal with their sense of utter absence. Our subdued grief.
I sat on the edge of Afiya’s bed to write these words, wanting to remember Aaliyah, the singer and budding actress. I didn’t know her private life, but her image, her essence, warmed me. My daughter knew it. That was good enough. But so did millions of young girls and their mothers. That was even better. Her gift to our children, her self-esteem and confidence, lives on. That’s what I will tell my daughter when I am ready.
When Afiya climbed into bed, the radio still on, I climbed in beside her. She didn’t ask why I wanted to sleep with her--again, understanding as only family does. I wanted to be close to her.
“Can you turn that down, sweetie?” I asked. The volume lowered. I lay in bed with my daughter, hip to hip, cheeks on opposite pillows. Almost 1 in the morning, we both drifted off in minutes with the croon of Aaliyah’s songs in our ears. Later, I woke to the sound of a low, throbbing hip-hop beat. Too much bass for my dreams. My sadness hung in the air. I flicked off the station and lay back down, this time on my side of the bed. I could hear my daughter’s heavy breathing. My heart constricted with each inhale.
Afiya is 11--an aspiring singer, model and dancer (with a “fall-back plan” to be a graphic artist). My daughter could be Aaliyah in a few years, emerging into a young talent to be reckoned with. I resisted throwing my arms around her, cradling her like a baby--the baby she still is to me. Instead, I kissed her cornrowed head, letting her have her space. Her youth. Her peace. Her dreams of Aaliyah. The world, a marble spinning in her sleep.
A Sundance writing fellow, Shonda Buchanan is a fiction writer, poet and essayist and is working on a memoir. She is also the associate editor for Turning Point Magazine.