Child actress turned grown-up triple threat Keke Palmer has discussed and displayed her appreciation for Aaliyah on more than one occasion. The video for Palmer’s song “Yellow Lights” was inspired by Aaliyah’s “4 Page Letter,” and her ground-breaking replica of the late-musician’s outfit and choreography from her “Try Again” video for Halloween last year got everyone talking.
“I love Aaliyah,” she explained after her “Yellow Lights” video was released. “To me she was a true artist in every sense of the word and I continue to just be inspired by her and let my heart guide me as always.” Never one to color in the lines, Palmer also credits Aaliyah for showing her and others that it’s okay to be yourself and for inspiring her not only as an artist, but as a person as well. - J'na Jefferson
VIBE: What do you think about Aaliyah in particular that resonates so strongly with R&B fans? Keke Palmer: She was an R&B pop star. Aaliyah defines what an R&B pop star is because I think so often, people feel and love elements of R&B, but they don't always credit what R&B is. For me, Aaliyah, R. Kelly—especially their combination—it set that tone for what R&B is. That sexy, that cool, that relaxed thing. Aaliyah really brought that true representation of R&B to the forefront in a major way that a lot of people weren't able to do. It just wasn't them, and Aaliyah is known for that. She brought that real R&B flavor and she made it something that broke beyond genre.
When do you think you became an official fan? Was there a song or video that did it for you? I think the "One In A Million" video was great. That was the one where she was laying in the dark on that chair? There was the rhinestoned, crystallized eyepatch! That was the one where I became an ultimate, ultimate, ultimate, ultimate fan. Then, when I was around 13, I bought her whole Age Ain't Nothing But A Number album, and I understood more so the depth of her foundation as an artist. It helped me understand her totality.
When you were thinking about dressing up as Aaliyah for Halloween, did you know you wanted to do more with it with the dance video from the get-go, or did someone influence you to take it a step further? I thought about doing the costume, and when I was doing the costume, I was like, why don't I just do a little video to it as well? In my mind, from being in costume, I figured why don't I take it a step further and pay homage in this video in a way? I think it's just the inspiration of Aaliyah off top. When you're doing something with Aaliyah, as a fan of Aaliyah, and thinking about the fact that her life was taken much too soon, anything that touches her name, you want it to have a certain respect to it. But, I have to say, my admiration for Aaliyah is what made me take it to that level. I love her so much that I was like, it's not enough to just do this, I have to do a little video and take it to another level.
How was her choreography different from some of the choreography we see in both your other dance videos and with artists who dance today? Well, I think that Aaliyah definitely has that old-school hip-hop, bounce with it club-type dance. It’s, of course, got a strong influence today, and it's definitely something that's influenced my dance style. But, also, I'd have to say the Usher-era of hip-hop also influenced my dance style, where it's a little more lyrical and I'm telling more of the story of the actual song, but I do still implement those same old-school kinds of hip-hop moves and groove. So, the dance today, I'd say, is an inspiration of both, because we have the ability to see these different eras of dance, specifically hip-hop, so we can take a collection of all and bring it to today's time. I'd say I've taken bits and pieces of all of that. But I think Aaliyah epitomized her era in that way. She was totally giving you that club sh**, that club, cool, groovy sh** [laughs].
Giving a totally different feel than we're used to today, and it set the tone for what we do today with dancing, too. It totally set the tone! It also set the tone for women being able to handle such choreo. It was such a guy thing to do, you know what I mean? That wasn't something that often that you saw. She would bring things to the forefront. She was the voice of her generation in the sense where she epitomized what was happening right then and there, and she did it with such quality. The people of her generation were like, "hell yeah, girl! You did that! That's exactly what it is! That's exactly what it needs to be!" When she did "Age Ain't Nothing But A Number," she wasn't saying, "I'm the only person going through this," she was like, "ladies, I feel you." That was always what she was doing. She was always epitomizing the time that we were in, and she did it so effortlessly.
The fact that she was timely with her work and did her art in a classy way, do you think that made her a role model? I think people get role model confused. I think often we believe role model means being perfect or something like that, but a role model represents somebody that can push on and inspire someone else to do something grand for themselves. To me, there was a lot of levels to her, and I think she was [a role model]. Her sexuality... she was able to be cool and laid back, but at the same time, she could be feminine and sweet. I loved that there were those different sides to her, and it inspired me to have sides to myself. I was always a bit of a tomboy. I couldn't help it that I liked girly stuff, but at the same time, I liked to get dirty and play with the boys, I liked to do that too. So, when I saw Aaliyah, she made that feel like a possibility for me. That's what role models are. These people that we think about. Prince told everyone that, hey, it's okay to be ridiculed. You can still be ridiculed and you can still move on and do your thing.
And also the way she went about carving her place as an entertainer and actress, she inspired women in the industry to do the same thing. I definitely think that Aaliyah always was the type of person who was always the first within her time to do many different things. I definitely think that seeing her go and do television and film and entering into that other side of entertainment, once again, set the tone. You don't have to just be a singer, you don't have to be just this, you don't have to be just that, you can be everything! That's who she was, she was that everyday girl while still being aspirational at the same time. The reason why she was aspirational is because she lived in that truth. She wasn't trying to be nobody but Aaliyah. She never said she was this or that, she said "this is me, this is who I am." She made sh** sound cool. She released it at a time and in a way that it made sense to us.
Do you believe she would have expanded her brand even further, outside of entertainment, or she would have kept building as an actress and singer? I don't think we could have even known what she would have done. Aaliyah had our full attention. From the way she dressed to the way that she hooked up with Timbaland, and they inspired those beats and those tracks. She was always on some other sh**! I remember she was the first to ever say "Aaliyah is in a competition with Aaliyah." It's just like, damn, she was giving it to us and it was real. She was like, "I'm not coming for you, Aaliyah is competing with Aaliyah." That's why I don't know what she could have done next, because only she could have predicted such things.
The world was her oyster. It's sad that we'll never get to see what could have been. It really was! She was really sharing with us. She shared what she learned in her life and what she knew. If you look back at those old MTV clips, she's in all these different places and she's talking about what she's tried. She always was opening up and making herself not so reclusive. Not everyone had a relaxed air about them, but she did. She was so beautiful and so perfect, but she wasn't above us, she was still the girl next door.
Exactly, she was never trying to impress anyone. She was just living life and doing what she wanted to do. Period. It was so inspiring. When you looked at her, you couldn't help but be like, "oh my gosh," because you wanted to be like her.
You're 22 as well right? I'm 22 yeah, I'll be 23 at the end of August [August 26].
So, as a 22-year-old woman yourself, you could probably recognize how life comes at you fast, especially in the industry that you're in. In Aaliyah's short 22 years, how do you think that she lived her life to the fullest? I believe she lived her life to the fullest by never stepping down. I think she always was going for it, I don't think Aaliyah was ever afraid to try anything. I really don't think that she was, and that's why I think she remained such a huge force amongst the people, and definitely the young people. We're trying to find ourselves and I think that Aaliyah represented being able to be a force in the world, being a young woman having an opinion and standing for something, but not being hard. Not being f**ked over by her experiences. I wouldn't say it was a perfect life, she shared her feelings on different things in her songs and stuff, but I feel like that never allowed that to harden her. You knew at the end of the day, she was still gonna be cool. Her confidence was exuded.
Nothing broke her spirit. It seemed like she was really purposeful. Even if something would hurt her, she knew that she had a purpose, and that's what she was mostly worried about not fulfilling. She worried about her dreams, but she made them into a reality and used them as a way to inspire other young people that were just like her.
If she was still alive today, what's the one thing you'd want to tell her? Oh my goodness! "Thank you for being you." Thank you for being you, honestly, that's what I would say! Because without her, I don't know where I would be. You know what I'm saying? Truly. Her influence, I'm not kidding, has changed my life. If there was a world without Aaliyah, I would totally be different. She influenced me, and I appreciate her influence greatly.