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  • Writer's pictureAmabel Narvaez

Aaliyah: Etymology, Entertainment, and Epoch

Updated: Jun 14, 2023

Everything Eventually Connects

This piece was an original free-write on 12/12/21, based on 12/7/21 group call with my Creative Nonfiction Mentor and Coach, Author Anne Liu Kellor. Theme: stream of consciousness list of words based on “word.” I am a wordsmith, enthralled by words and language. Etymology is fascinating and key in my layperson anthropological studies.

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Two worlds collide

Robert means “bright fame” in German - taken from the old German name Hrodebert.

Robert “R Kelly” Kelly’s work was introduced to me by my sister when I started high school. Ate Nor insisted we choose “Born Into the 90s” from R. Kelly and Public Announcement among our first compact disc selections at the Bremerton, Washington PX. This is the retail store at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, where we would frequent after Sunday Mass with our parents, and customers were required to present their military-issued ID for our tax-free purchases.

This CD was among the first we’d spin over and over, along with Nirvana’s “Nevermind,” in our new Sony CD/cassette boombox, a gift from our Marine brother, with his Desert Storm booty - the money he earned from the US government as a Reservist.

See also R. Kelly: Born Into the 90's (1993 Documentary)

R. Kelly’s CD was a disc we played ad nauseum.

He went from being a street performer to becoming a superstar.

Touted as the Stevie Wonder of his time, R. Kelly could write, produce, and perform his music, as well as gospel and R&B acts. Little did we know, 30 years later, allegations of his interactions with underage women would make him a pariah. Now he’s behind bars. (April 2023 update via ABC WTVD-TV Raleigh-Durham: In 2021, Kelly was convicted after a six-week trial of racketeering, having sex with underage girls, and sexual exploitation of children leading to the 30-year sentence he's now serving in Butner Federal Prisoner in Granville Co., North Carolina.)

The bright famed one meets the angel

Aaliyah means “heavens, highborn, exalted,” a masculine Arabic name. Aaliyah was two years younger than me. She was only 14 when she met R. Kelly, who produced her early music. Aaliyah was street-smart and feminine. She had a style and sound all her own. She was influential in many ways - from her vocals to her presence, and her many talents, including acting.

At age 15 Aaliyah (born Dana Haughton) and R. Kelly (then 27) secretly wed as a result of a pregnancy scare. The marriage ended within one year.

Word was that she was the first choice of actors to portray Lawrence Fishburne’s love interest in “The Matrix” films, but she had a schedule conflict with her other up-and-coming acting engagements, so Jada Pinkett-Smith stepped in.

Known to many as “Babygirl,” Aaliyah also worked with Missy Elliott and Timbaland after R. Kelly.

She died at age 22 in a plane crash in the Bahamas while filming a video for her song, “Rock the Boat.”

The time in my life

I was living in the Upper East Side when Charlene, my bestie, called with the news. 17 days later, I was in our breakroom in Worldwide Plaza when Erin Danneman, my co-worker at Discovery Channel, announced the "terrorist attack." This epoch was a period of time in my life where I lived through the most notable event to that point: 9/11. I was forming my independence, and recognizing my rebel spirit. I was in a relationship with someone my parents weren't pleased about and spent a lot of time at his apartment in Times Square. Premarital "live-in" situations were highly frowned upon back in the early 2000s. At least for my traditional Filipino parents. Going from a squeaky-clean Phi Theta Kappa Scholar recognized by Governor Gary Locke in 1997 to traveling and living abroad has provided me with a well-rounded worldview. Travel is the best teacher. Learning what it means to be in the right relationship with myself, alongside people from other cultures, and my relationship to the Earth have molded me into the professional and person I am today. It was electrifying to be living in NYC in this golden era. Listening to Grandmaster Flash spin on a Monday night, watching my favorite artists perform during my morning commute to midtown, and dancing salsa at Studio 54. I am blessed with colorful experiences at places that no longer exist. Or have been converted into different spaces. To be among the fortunate souls to grab a coveted J Lo merch item at Lincoln Square, when she made her debut. I sold my red babydoll J Lo log baby tee with gold lettering on eBay for $50. I was planting seeds of entrepreneurship as a businessperson. Now I have the honor of leading girls and women into their own version of success. To dispel the myths of what it means to be femme and female-presenting in a male-dominated world. The matriarchy is on the rise. I get to produce a Rebel Leader Roadmap, ushering the visionaries of tomorrow into the thought leaders for generations to come.

Ama-liyah in Burien, Halloween 2017

I can only imagine what it was like for Aaliyah. She came from a good family, with good intentions, full of talent and ambition. Aaliyah had a prosperous future ahead. And boom. She was gone just as her career was on the verge of another level of stardom.

Ageless, Forever Young, Vibrant, and Suspended in Time

Aaliyah remains an icon and remains the reigning, timeless princess of R&B in my heart. Though some have come close (from Beyonce to Rihanna) since she left the airwaves and current headlines, artists today pay homage to her as a groundbreaking female artist of her time.

These two humans left an indelible impression on the soundscape of my life. I hope they both find peace.

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