The sudden death of 22-year-old singer and actress Aaliyah Houghton on August 25, 2001 brought many memories of the tragic loss of one of the most promising stars in the entertainment industry. Fans gathered for a candlelit vigil, created makeshift memorials and left flowers on their graves. Posthumous music videos for “More Than a Woman”, “Rock the Boat” and “I Care 4 U” left touching memories of their family and friends, TV specials honoring their lives and a compilation album with old and unreleased tracks that were im December 2002.
But as the time since her death filled the room, another trend began to emerge.
Although Aaliyah’s official website was used to share old home videos, rare children’s photos, audio snippets, and merch after her death, updates dated back after the mid-2000s. It then became primarily a hub for one-off updates from their estate, with years of rest until a major renovation in 2017. And various business problems and lawsuits surrounding their recording house, Blackground Records, which was run by her uncle Barry Hankerson, led to losing the distribution contract – making it difficult for fans to acquire physical copies of their music.
As information dwindled from the singer’s official channels, a dense network of Aaliyah fan sites was created to fill the information gap and provide a community for those who are still fascinated by her powerful legacy.
Fan sites became a growing part of the artist fan base in the mid-90s and dot-com era, initially appearing as rudimentary websites, online forums and message boards. But by the mid-2000s, social media had created a new space for music communities to network around the world. Aaliyah’s devoted fan group launched websites, Facebook groups, social media accounts on Instagram, Tumblr and Pinterest to share photos, old press clippings, updates on the status of their music catalog and questions about rumors and confirmed collaborations with their estate.
Accounts such as Aaliyah Archives, Memory of Aaliyah, Aaliyah always and Aaliyah Legion have become a staple when it comes to uncovering, documenting and archiving information about Aaliyah’s life and art.
Sandy, the founder of Aaliyah Archives – who only bears her first name for privacy reasons – first started her website as a personal blog in 2013 and decided to expand it when she realized the breadth of photos and other content she had amassed. The Aaliyah Archives Twitter page, Instagram page and website have since become the go-to places for the Aaliyah fan base.
“At first I only did it as a sideline, just out of love and for baby girl. I really didn’t think it would work out. It’s just something that grew organically, ”Sandy told Mic, adding that she doesn’t sell ads. “… There was something to it [Aaliyah] what was unique and different. She just had it. As fans, we have to show that to remind people [of her full impact]. It’s about sharing this love and joy from the same artist with whom we have this connection. “
Sharing photos, videos, and other exclusive or rarely seen visual content is an integral part of the daily work of these websites. But over the past decade they have also focused heavily on organizing the struggle to get Aaliyah’s music out in streaming outlets. This included starting a social media campaign with the hashtag #FreeAaliyahMusic in early 2020 to publish their songs on streaming services.
In August 2021, the elusive Hankerson unveiled a major update: he relaunched his label as Blackground 2.0 and partnered with the music company EMPIRE, which meant Aaliyah’s albums and 17 other Blackground albums were finally arriving in streaming outlets on a schedule staggered release dates would arrive. First up: Aaliyah’s second album One in a million on August 20th. Her self-titled third LP will be released on September 10th by services.
For Sandy, the announcement was a welcome addition to one of the most frustrating chapters in the quest to keep Aaliyah’s memory alive. The presence of their last two albums on streaming services gives new listeners access to their music and the community of Aaliyah fans another resource to share their story.
“It’s just shameful that their music hasn’t been out there for so long,” Sandy said. “… Younger generations live in a time when everything is online, everything is streamed. That’s all they know It’s unbelievable that their music is finally out there. “
As someone who grew up when CDs and tapes were still the major music formats, Sandy still has access to her physical copies of Aaliyah’s albums and easily understands how to listen to them. But when Gen Z joined the ranks of Aaliyah fans, Sandy said she took responsibility for talking to those younger fans about their options for obtaining physical copies of Aaliyah’s music and digitizing them for their personal use.
“I had fans who said to me, ‘How do I get this? Where do you get this CD from? How do I export the music to my iTunes? ‘ A lot of the younger fans didn’t know how to do it, ”said Sandy.
Since the announcement, she said she has received fewer of those requests – which gives her more time to focus more on the day-to-day running of her website and “archive bits here and there.”
Producer and songwriter Craig King who has produced several tracks on One in a millionHe credits fan sites for continuing to give the music a voice – even when it wasn’t easily accessible to them.
“It’s hard to know [what role fan sites played in the streaming release] because I’m not inside the label or management team but if I can guess they must have played a big part, ”said King. “… Honestly, they were the only lifeline I’ve seen that has protected, defended, and uplifted them for the past two decades.”
Aside from their focus on her music, the websites also describe the full extent of Aaliyah’s gifts and effects as an entertainer. Each location has its own focus and its own point of view, so that the network offers a well-rounded insight into the public personality of the singer, his career successes and his fascinating aura, which even decades later still influences pop culture.
Aaliyah always curates a mix of fan art, Aaliyah photos, and old press clips on the Tumblr blog weekly, along with a calendar of upcoming Aaliyah-related events. Twitter page Aaliyah charts mainly focuses on sharing stats and facts about Aaliyahs and updates on recent chart performance of their work.
Aaliyah Archives has a detailed timeline on their website that shows the full scope of her work as a singer, actress and creative. These life and career details can regularly be overlooked in conversations about Aaliyah’s influence – with her influence on the industry being regularly diminished to mainly focus on her influence on fashion, style and beauty trends.
The site’s creators spend hours piling up new images for posting, researching clues sent to them by members of the fan community on issues related to Aaliyah and her estate, and creating short video montages of Aaliyah clips and images together. Sandy says maintaining a fansite is harder than many think.
“There is a great responsibility on my shoulders. I’ve held out for so long. That was over eight years ago, ”says Sandy. “A lot of fans say, ‘Never get off this side. We need this.’ It can be difficult because I get a lot of this backlash, the hatred and the trolls. But I think I’m pretty strong enough to handle it. I just catch a block and keep it moving. “
They’ve also played a role in supporting, sourcing, and working with the creative contributors on Aaliyah’s career projects – including the multiple producers and writers of her albums, her stylist Derek Lee, and her late makeup artist Eric Ferrell, who died in late 2020. The journalist and writer Kathy Iandoli also credits Sandy for helping her find a source for her new Aaliyah biography Baby Girl: Better known as Aaliyah.
“I think we cried on each other’s shoulders collectively. I feel their energy, honesty and curiosity. At that point, they honestly feel like family to me, ”King said. “They tag me on their posts, text me inboxes quite often, they ask me all kinds of questions about Aaliyah and her family. In fact, it was they who told me that I had a record in Japan that I didn’t even know about. To be honest, they are just great. “
For all of their interconnectedness, Aaliyah’s fan sites have also been the cause of some disagreement – mainly due to the generation gap that has arisen between Aaliyah fans who studied their art while they were alive and those who joined the fan base after they died. Things get even more complicated when it comes to talks about the tension between her estate and Blackground Records; the former released a opinion not until the beginning of August, which alludes to a lack of transparency surrounding the streaming deal.
“As a fan, it’s a bit contradictory. You want to support the family and everything, but at the same time the music is there, ”Sandy said. “… As unfortunate as it is, I just hope that both the family and Barry Hankerson can come to a solution where they can team up for Baby Girl – because that’s what it’s really about.”
Until then, however, Sandy said the fan sites will continue their work to represent Aaliyah and make space to commemorate the pioneering talent lost two decades ago.
“I feel like the fans as a whole, from the OGs, the older generation of my day to some of the younger fans in their mid-20s and even younger fans in their early 20s and teenagers, were the ones who kind of laid the foundation [of honoring Aaliyah’s memory online]”Said Sandi. “As an older fan you want that. They want this legacy to be passed on to younger generations.”