It was 2001 and the fixins for true star power lived inside Aaliyah Dana Haughton. After years in the spotlight, the then 22-year-old suddenly blossomed and stepped into her own as a woman. She’d let go of her ever-present dark shades and her trademark baggy jeans in favor of fiery red lipstick and form fitting dresses, evoking a sensuality and mystery that left fans curious as they tried to imitate what oozed from her naturally. Aaliyah had arrived, ready and proud. Instead of using her hair as a mask, she made her bold petition known as she stood statuesquely for the cover of her self-titled third solo album, giving the camera her beautiful face while her jet-black hair cascaded down her thin frame.
This was Aaliyah’s time and she knew it and she owned it. As the Backstreet Boys, N*SYNC and Britney Spears mainstream machine dominated popular radio (and Eminem’s lyrical assault against their music provided relief for those who needed it) Aaliyah’s sound never wavered, and neither did her fans who patiently waited the five years between One In A Million and her last studio album. With super-producer Timbaland behind the boards, the first single “We Need A Resolution” reinvented R&B as it blasted from speakers in April 2001. The opening track, which depicted a relationship’s low point, from her 15-track LP was smooth enough to two-step to and had enough bounce for full out choreography. It was divorced of the traditional sound of the time but reintroduced Baby Girl. And then just like that, she was back like she never left.
There was no TMZ, Bossip or social media 15 years ago. Fans were more appreciative of the art and didn’t feel entitled to the artist or their lifestyle. BET’s 106 & Park and MTV’s Total Request Live reigned supreme and leaving the house in a throwback jersey or Baby Phat bomber jacket was not only considered acceptable attire, but fashion forward in the world of hip-hop. The stakes were high and real estate for the top of the charts meant competing against the very best. Yet when Aaliyah returned to an entirely different musical landscape from the one she initially entered, she didn’t try to keep up with the Jones’; she instead created a new lane that would later be the foundation for other female artists to come.
Former VIBE Editor-In-Chief Emil Wilbekin said it was a no-brainer to put Aaliyah on the cover of the August 2001 issue.
“At that point she had grown so much as an artist. She had been in Romeo Must Die, she had success on the Billboard charts, she was [nominated] for a Grammy for 'Try Again,' she was in the process of filming Queen of the Damned, and she was beautiful and had been rumored to be dating different celebrities, so she was a perfect cover subject, and everyone loved Aaliyah,” Wilbekin recalls.
With a third album landing at number two on the Billboard 200 charts, the task for Wilbekin and the staff wasn’t how to sell the issue, but more so how to place Aaliyah even more ahead of the curve that was already behind her, which is why the publication chose to do its first ever illustration issue.
Tapping Bronx-based visual artist Alvaro, and entrusting then 24-year-old lifestyle/tech editor Hyun Kim to pen the story, Wilbekin had his team in place. To work at VIBE you had to be a music head—even if you weren’t the official music editor—and your pen game had to be better than most, both of which Kim had, but Wilbekin recalls the young scribe possessing something that reminded him of himself.
“I believed that [Kim’s] love and passion for Aaliyah would allow him to write the story and he would have a great perspective on her as a fan, but also as a journalist, too,” Wilbekin said.
I believe that Aaliyah opened the door for Beyonce and Rihanna to be who they are. —Emil Wilbekin
Small minded people will compare Aaliyah to present day entertainers and allege childhood nostalgia bolstered her star power more than the talent she possessed. They’ll associate the softness of her voice to lack of vocal range, and the mystique she owned as something manufactured by the record label, unaware that it’s a lot easier to discredit Aaliyah then it is to miss her. They’ll negate her palpable presence on artists like Sevyn Streeter, Kehlani, Drake and Frank Ocean. They’ll forget that Aaliyah was just 15 when she successfully pulled off her 1994 hit, “At Your Best” and assume the tender love ballad is an original, unbeknownst that the songbird breathed new life into a Isley Brothers' classic. And when “Rock The Boat,” “More Than A Woman,” “Try Again” or any of her music unexpectedly sneaks its way into your playlist, you’ll forget those songs were crafted more than a decade ago because they still feel so present.
Aaliyah is still present. Aaliyah is still now.
It’s been 15 years since she passed—in seven years she’ll be deceased as long as she was alive—and Wilbekin, Kim and Alvaro bittersweetly reminisce on working with baby girl the last time, not knowing it would be the last time.
Illustrating The Cover
VIBE: Why did you take the illustration route as opposed to doing the traditional photoshoot?
Emil Wilbekin: At that time, we were really branding VIBE as the authority of urban music and culture and part of our editorial calendar was that August would be this art issue so that was the first time that we had done an illustration for a cover. The idea was that everything would be illustrated or art influenced. We had this illustrated cover of Aaliyah and it was tricky because obviously she's so beautiful that you would want to photograph her so it was a tricky selling point for Aaliyah and her camp because they wanted her to be photographed. You have to remember this is the time in Aaliyah's life where she really transformed into a woman so she was wearing more sexy revealing clothes and she really just had come into herself as a young woman.
Did you have someone in mind to illustrate the cover?
EW: I was a fan of Alvaro's work, and had loved some of the illustrations from his work. It just seemed kind of perfect because I liked the way he made women look and that was a big thing because it's Aaliyah and I didn't want her to look cartoonish. I wanted her to look beautiful. I also met him at a party and that's how it all came together with him being the person responsible for illustrating the first art illustration cover of VIBE magazine.
Who contacted you about the cover?
Alvaro: Emil Wilbekin reached out to me. I had already known Emil and he was always thinking that we were going to do something one day, so he walks up to me [at a party] and said that he had a project for me and he was going to give me a call on Monday. He said that to me and I got excited because if Emil was telling me this, then there had to be something special. So, Emil called me that week and said, "We would like you to do a drawing of Aaliyah." I fell to the floor because Aaliyah was so angelic and beautiful. I went to the office and there were portfolios on the table and the artistic director, Florian Bachleda, asked to see my book. I figured maybe they were looking for the right person for the job and in my head I'm saying that I hope [my portfolio] is great. I didn't even know it was the cover yet! So as Florian was going through my book and flipping through the pages, he said that I had gotten the job. He pulled out a photo of Aaliyah and said that we need this by tomorrow. Mind you, this was a Friday. He actually said, "We need this cover by tomorrow, because you got the cover." You know how you want to scream, but you have to be composed even though your heart is going through the wall? One of your biggest dreams is coming true and you have less than 24 hours to make that happen or else! [laughs]
How long did it take you to complete the cover?
Alvaro: The cover took me less than two hours because I draw very fast, but I was nervous. I was doing rough drafts over and over because I was following an exact silhouette of what was needed. It wasn't something that was free and I can just do. I had to follow so I kept looking back at her videos and then I got caught up in Aaliyah’s music and put everything down and started dancing. But then an hour later I would be all sweaty and from there I had to get back to work. The next day comes and I rush to the office and they were there and they were very happy with it. Emil called me later on to say that it was great, they were happy.
Where do you stand on the Aaliyah spectrum? Are you a huge fan? Or were you a huge fan at the time?
Hyun Kim: At the time? Yeah. I think that at the time when I did the story, there was no artist like her. Then I think that right as she passed away, and people say this a lot, but she was right on the brink to really become…I don’t know, who’s to say if she would have been as big as Beyonce is now, but she was that artist who had her own lane. She wasn’t trying to copy anyone else. She had this dark side, which is kind of cool now with younger black girls, but at that time it wasn’t. The snakes, the eye patches, the kind of dark clothes, no one else was really doing that.
Picking the [tribute] cover was interesting because that shoot ... she looked so angelic and it just was kind of like, that’s it ... We pulled it together not knowing that this was also a test run to prepare us for 9/11. —Emil Wilbekin
Was it difficult getting to Aaliyah’s people to conduct the interview?
HK: Emil Wilbekin, the editor-in-chief at the time, set it up and it wasn’t a problem. But there was definitely, like we were not allowed to talk about [her marriage to R.Kelly], that was very clear. But the whole thing with Aaliyah was, I originally flew to Australia to interview her while she was filming, I think the Matrix or Queen of The Damned and there was complete miscommunication with her people. And so I just ended up spending four days in Melbourne by myself. But this is pre-cellphones and all that kind of stuff, so I had to be in a hotel just waiting to get a call. I didn’t really get to [see Australia] and after a while I was like, alright I’m going outside.
This was your first cover, right?
HK: She was my first cover story, so I was super excited. I wasn’t crazy about the cover.
..should’ve been an actual picture?
HK: Right! You know, but that’s what VIBE was doing at the time. I didn’t think [the interview] was going to happen at all. It was like, I just flew to Australia, spent four days, nothing happened. Then, you know how these things are, publicists come up with a concept, and [the publicist said], ‘Let’s go bowling.’ So we went bowling at Chelsea Piers [in Manhattan]. There were a few people who were on that flight who came bowling with us at Chelsea Piers. So I met a couple of people who were on that flight that crashed. But you know some of the stuff that people complain about [in regards] to Beyonce being very guarded….
...your story reveals that.
HK: I think it was kind of forced interactions. It was weird because she’s with her friends and they wanted to have a good time, but they know that I’m there. Some artists kind of completely put down their guard, but I think because of what she had been through with the whole R. Kelly situation, and because she’d been doing this since she was 12 or 11 years-old, she knew what she could and couldn't do. Even some of the questions, the way she was deflecting questions and her wearing the Roc-A-Fella chain and not addressing that.
What was she like?
HK: She was not mean. She wasn’t cold. She was just guarded. I think that’s the best term.
Were you surprised when you found out Aaliyah was super-private when it came to her life during her interview with Hyun?
EW: We knew she was going to be very private because that's how Aaliyah was. She was very private and she didn't talk a lot about her personal life, controversy, or anything. But if you go back and read VIBE cover stories, there's always more than two secondary sources because that was part of the DNA of a VIBE cover story. We didn't really rely on the artist just talking and telling their own story. We based our work on traditional journalism that we loved from The New York Times, Vanity Fair, and The New Yorker, etc., and did it that way. So it wasn't like Kim came back saying that he didn't get any good information. In fact, I believe he interviewed all of the secondaries before he even did the interview with Aaliyah. He was very organized and he went the extra mile in terms of research, interviews, etc. He gathered so many secondary sources to the point where we didn't even use some of them.
VIBE Hits Newsstands July 2001
So the story comes out, how did she like the story and the illustration? Did you see her in person?
EW: She was good with the story, but I don't believe she loved the illustration and that was the only thing because she wanted to be photographed more than anything. It was like, she was happy with the story and the cover but it would have been amazing if it was a photograph, in she and her camp's mind at the time. I believe I presented it to her at my office. Her, her mom and her publicist were in the office.
August 25, 2001
How did you hear about Aaliyah’s plane crashing?
Alvaro: I was home watching a Betty Davis film and [a friend] said, ‘Alvaro, please put on CNN’, and I didn't know why, and then when I did there it was. Aaliyah's plane had went down.
Did you ever get a chance to meet Aaliyah?
Alvaro: Yes. I met her socially, but it's something that I still don't let go of because I also know that this was her last cover alive, and she was such an angel. You still don’t let go of it when you see her and then you realize how sweet and angelic she was. To this day I still have my magazines, but I try not to look at them. I've had people find me on social media and write and say ‘Please, could I mail you my magazine so that you could sign it?’ And I'm always like, ‘Of course.’ I say ‘sure,’ but I always cry when I do because it's very heartbreaking and bittersweet. It's a beautiful moment to have something happen for you like that and then it's such a tragic thing with what happened to her and the people that were with her because people forget that there were others on the plane.
When you first found out about the plane crash, did you believe it?
EW: I had been at the beach all day, and then I was heading to a party in Harlem that night when my boyfriend at the time called me and said, "Aaliyah died." And I was like, ‘Really?’ and it was weird because this was pre-smartphones, right? So I didn't really believe it. Then, I go to the house party and there were people from the music and fashion industry there and people started talking about it and we kind of confirmed it because her hair stylist was a friend of mine and he was on the flight, so it's personal at that point because I knew people on the flight and I knew Aaliyah. I was devastated at the time, but I couldn't mourn because I had to go into E-I-C mode of VIBE, and I'm going to have to do press for the next week and figure out how we're going to tackle this.
HK: I was at a party and I was in a basement. I had a cellphone, no text messages or anything like that. I had just came out of the party, and I had no cell service in the basement and there was all these messages because people had seen it on CNN. They were like, ‘Did you see? Did you see? And I’m like ‘See what?’ It’s two in the morning or whatever and then I remember talking to the editors and Emil about it.
She had this dark side, which is kind of cool now with younger black girls, but at that time it wasn’t. —Hyun Kim
How did you feel?
HK: It was eerie. I just knew I was going to be connected to her because of that piece. I think that Monday or Tuesday, the VIBE PR team set up these radio interviews with me and it was all day. It was from 10 a.m. ‘til whenever, 5 or 6 p.m., just sitting in a studio and them being like, ‘Alright, now we have. Pittsburgh’s whatever here, and St. Petersburg this.’ I felt bad because they wanted to hear really good stories of my time with her…
But you didn’t have much to offer.
HK: Right. I was just like, you know, she was having a good time and she was bowling. She was sweet. But I didn’t have much. And it’s not like one of those stories where you spend days with a person.
The staff at the time had to throw the tribute cover together pretty quickly.
HK: Yeah. So I remember people doing interviews and then crying afterwards because they got off the phone with Missy, and you know, Missy started breaking down. But they didn’t cry; they kept going on. And then the editors would cry because it was heartbreaking to listen to these people. I remember [one editor] was like, ‘I could barely make out what Timbaland was saying,’ because he was inconsolable.
It's the Monday after the news has been confirmed that Aaliyah passed away. How did you guys scramble to get the story together?
EW: There was nothing to really get together. I was doing news starting on Sunday night at CNN. Everybody was calling because she had just been on the cover of the magazine so I was everywhere. I never really got to mourn because I had to just go in and talk about her career, talk about her history and talk about where she was at that time, and what was about to happen and talk for the audience. I had to also talk about how we were all mourning, how this album was great and the first couple of videos were amazing, but then it's like eerie [for her] to be shooting this video ["Rock The Boat"] and how's she underwater and it was such an epic moment. We just pushed through, and that's what you do in life. I didn't mourn at all, and I was doing television [segments] and I remember thinking to myself, ‘Well, you’re going to get your photo cover...’, because we have to do a tribute cover obviously, and the out-pouring community from her fans and the music industry was so strong so it was without a doubt. Picking the cover was interesting because that shoot, which we didn't shoot, she looked so angelic and it just was kind of like, that's it. Her name, and the date. We pulled it together not knowing that this was also a test run to prepare us for 9/11.
If Aaliyah were still here today, what do you think that she would be doing?
EW: She would be one of our biggest superstars. I believe she would have done more movies and she would have made a lot more ground-breaking and innovative music. She was a real singer with real R&B roots, but also knew how to be innovative and push things forward. She was an amazing performer and she loved being an entertainer. She loved singing and dancing and acting. She would be up there obviously with Beyonce and Rihanna in terms of her celebrity and ranking.
How do you think R&B has changed or suffered because of her absence?
EW: I think we lost an artist with great promise and great talent so you can't really measure the loss because it's a loss. But what we did receive from her is incredible, memorable music that still stands up today. I believe that Aaliyah opened the door for Beyonce and Rihanna to be who they are. If you think about it, from the vein of a Janet Jackson who can sing, act and dance, Aaliyah opened up that door for a lot of younger artists and inspired a lot of younger women to be strong, sexy and respected.