It had been well over a year since Aaliyah Dana Houghton’s life was tragically cut short when a group of some of entertainment’s biggest stars, including Jamie Foxx, Queen Latifah, Lil Kim, and Missy Elliott, came together to pay their respects to the R&B princess. Across two coasts and two shooting days, the stars gathered in a studio to record their cameos for the tribute music video for the posthumously released Aaliyah track “Miss You.” In the song, Aaliyah sings to a past lover who has since moved on from their relationship, but the song takes on new meaning in the hearts of her mourning friends and family.
The video was shot, edited, and released on MTV within a few weeks. It arrived like a collective moment of healing. The singer’s death shocked the entertainment world and seeing the biggest names in movies, music, and television pay tribute, made space for fans to grieve. “Miss You” would go on to be one of Aaliyah’s best-performing singles. While the video is mostly unavailable online today, thanks in part to ongoing copyright issues, it remains a powerful testament to the power Aaliyah had, at such a young age.
Rolling Stone spoke with some of the people who helped bring the video to life. This is the story of how the entertainment world came together to honor Aaliyah one last time.
Aaliyah, along with Aaliyah’s entourage that included her hairstylists Eric Foreman and Anthony Dodd, security guard Scott Gallin, family friend Keith Wallace, makeup artist Christopher Maldonado, and members of Blackground Records Gina Smith and Douglas Kratz died in a plane crash on August 25, 2001, coming from shooting Aaliyah’s music video for “Rock the Boat” in the Bahamas. The shocking news of her death came to everyone differently:
Ananda Lewis, former host of TRL and Teen Summit: You remember the Skytel two ways? Lance Bass from NSYNC texted me on the Skytel, that was the first person I heard it from and then more people started texting. And then the news started coming in.
Johnta Austin, Producer Songwriter, Singer: I think Bryan [Hankerson] and I were together. I happened to be in Atlanta and we were at a party and we got the news.
Big Tigger, TV and Radio Host: I believe I woke up to the news. I can’t remember if I heard it on the radio first, or if someone from BET called. I think people started texting me. I don’t know where they heard the news. I think people were either asking me if it happened or telling me it happened. There’s always somebody who “died” who didn’t die so you’re in denial at first. I was like ‘Nah this can’t be real,’ I just saw her she was just about to drop this new album. It was really surreal and unrealistic, but I believe it was through text message and then I heard it confirmed over the radio.
Elise Neal, Actress, Dancer: I was really tuned in that day because I knew that my friend Fatima [Robinson] who choreographed the “Rock the Boat” video was also traveling, so I was like what is going on with this day? I believe Fatima maybe called me the next day and let me know that she was okay and that Aaliyah passed away.
JD Williams, Actor: I was at my house in Newark, New Jersey. I had a bunch of people at my house and it was probably like one something in the morning and it was like ten people on my stoop. And I got a call from my first love and she just said “I’m sorry,” and I’m like what’s wrong and she said I just heard Aaliyah passed in a plane crash and I’m like no way. This was back when we used to run to the radio. So I turned the radio on, I’m pretty sure it was Hot 97 at the time and I took my speaker downstairs because I didn’t want to tell all those people on the porch out of my mouth. I put it on the porch and I just turned it up kind of loud and everybody sitting on the porch like stuck.
Sharissa Dawes, Singer, Songwriter: I remember it was the evening time when I got the call about it.
Alexander, Founder of FUBU: On that plane was a lot of our people that we knew as far as artists as far as people. And we found out that Aaliyah was one of the people that died.
Darren Grant, Director: I don’t know if anyone person told me or if it was just, you know, I heard about it. I mean social media wasn’t the go-to form of news back then for information. But I’m not sure exactly who told me. But I remember the day I heard about it, I was either editing or at a recording studio. It was one of the two and I literally had to step out and go into a back alley because I needed a moment.
There are probably about five pinnacle moments in my life where you hear about people dying and that was one of them. Yes we lost Prince and Michael [Jackson] and many others but working with somebody and when you hear about that and they’re so young and it was so careless. It was devastating. I lost other friends that were on that flight. Chris Maldonado was a makeup artist that I worked with many many times. My hair department was also on that flight. It was devastating.
Music video director Darren Grant known for directing the music videos for Destiny Child’s “No No No Part 2,” Brian Mcknight’s “Anytime,” Deborah Cox’s “Nobody’s Supposed to Be Here,” and others were tasked with directing the video for “Miss You” a year after Aaliyah’s death. Aaliyah and Grant had previously met and worked together on her video for 1997’s “The One I Gave My Heart To” after being introduced to one another by Aaliyah’s Uncle/Manager/Blackground Records Founder Barry Hankerson and Barry’s son label co-founder Jomo Hankerson.
Grant: I had a relationship with the guys on the label — Barry and Jomo who were father and son who owned the label — and I think between them and Atlantic [Records] they had asked if I would do the tribute video because I had worked with those guys so much and I had a relationship with them beyond the Aaliyah video.
The song used for the music video was “Miss You” a previously unreleased track of Aaliyah’s, was written in 1999 by writer/producer Johnta Austin and produced by Teddy Bishop with the intent for it to be on an album that R&B singer Ginuwine (who also has a co-writing credit) was working on. It was later passed onto Aaliyah but wasn’t released until after her untimely death.
Austin: About a year — or could’ve been six months — before Aaliyah actually cut it, Ginuwine and I wrote it. We were actually riding around Atlanta and pulled over and wrote it in the parking lot and wrote it in my car. Ginuwine initially recorded the record and he didn’t use it for his album. So we had this new song available and Aaliyah happened to hear it and loved it and wanted to cut it.
Our manager Chris Hicks had begun to develop a relationship and was networking with Barry Hankerson and Jomo Hankerson and they heard [Miss You] which is how we connected with Ginuwine because they managed Ginuwine, Aaliyah, Timbaland, Playa — you know that whole collective. So they had heard the record and played I Miss You for Aaliyah and she wanted to record it.
Aaliyah’s presence in the industry was felt by everyone who had an opportunity to know her personally or anyone who simply witnessed her artistry. For many of the cameo features in the video, they were either friends with the late singer but for some, they didn’t know her personally at all. The tragedy of Aaliyah’s death however led them all to come together to be a part of the tribute.
Grant: I just think everyone wanted to support what we were trying to do, what the label wanted to do, what Aaliyah was about. People really just band together. It took some coordination for sure. But we shot half of it in LA and half of it in New York and we really just tried to make it an event centered around those two dates. I’m sure there are many more people we could’ve gotten or that wanted to do it but I think we only did one day in each city.
Lewis: We were friends. We would hang out when she’d come in town both at work because we did a lot of shows together but then also outside of work too. I read somewhere that someone said that “oh they were best friends” I would say that’s an overreach like we were definitely friends there was a lot of love and a lot of fun shared between us. But I know she had literal best friends and I never want to step on that but we were cool. She was amazing, kind, and smart, beautiful, talented, everything everybody knows but it was all exactly that and up close too.
Tigger: I’m not gonna say we were the best of friends but as she was ascending in her career, I had several opportunities, being a main host on BET to interact with her on camera, behind the scenes, and in conversation. So I’d say we were friendly colleagues.
Austin: The first time I met her Ginuwine introduced me to her in Atlanta. They were here doing a show and then a year later we got a chance to actually work with her in the studio and become friends.
Neal: I personally did not know her well at all. I started as a dancer…a lot of people aren’t aware but that is my background. I’m very close with a lot of dancers. One of my really close friends at the time was Fatima Robinson who is a choreographer and choreographed for Aaliyah was actually someone who traveled that day when Aaliyah tragically passed away. My connection with Aaliyah came from Fatima and we hung out maybe once, maybe twice, or maybe I popped up trying to learn one of her dances in the studio. So I was connected in that way. So when I was asked a little bit later to do the music video I thought absolutely to honor her, to be a part of that, and just show that I was connected in some way even though it was a small way.
Dawes: I worked with Barry Hankerson. I met him when I was with the group Forecast on RCA. Aaliyah I didn’t know personally although I went to her funeral. My makeup artist was on the plane with Aaliyah when she passed, Chris Maldanado. That’s when I heard about her passing. Actually, one of my marketing reps at Motown called me and told me that my makeup artist had passed away in that plane crash with her.
Williams: I had heard through a friend who was a manager at the time that the video was happening. We just showed up actually. It was an all-day event. They were just shooting people as they came in. I didn’t know her family or anybody personally, but by the time I stayed there all day I got to talk to her brother.
Alexander: Back in those days everybody knew FUBU and the FUBU guys. So not that we were super duper close but it was a thing where it was mutual respect.
Rapper DMX and Aaliyah met when the R&B princess along with film producer Joel Silver came to the rapper’s dressing room during one of his concerts to offer him the role in Aaliyah’s debut film Romeo Must Die. DMX and Aaliyah grew incredibly close, even collabing on the song and music video for “Back in One Piece” together. It was evident how much Aaliyah’s passing impacted DMX, as he traded in his roughneck persona that made him famous to perform a poem that he wrote for Aaliyah in the video for “I Miss You”. “My dearest, sweet Aaliyah, I have trouble accepting the fact that you’re gone — so I won’t,” DMX says solemnly as a group comprised of his Ruff Ryders crew stood behind him. “It’ll just be like we went a while without seeing each other. But I understand why God would’ve wanted you close to ‘em, because you truly were an angel on earth, in my own special way. I love you. I miss you.” After DMX’s April 9, 2021 passing, those words have gained a new meaning amongst fans of both Aaliyah and DMX.
Grant: We wanted DMX in it and he was adamant about being in it. And [the opening poem] was his idea. He had a poem and it was actually much longer and I don’t know if you know this part of the story, but that poem was about a minute and [some] change long. The final poem was — I don’t know we’ll have to go back and look — but probably around thirty seconds. And MTV on the premiere date, they did air the full-length version and the thing about that — and you’ll probably never ever see that version again — but I remember when we were shooting it we had two cameras on DMX and he began the poem and he stopped midway because he basically had a mini-breakdown and the words he was saying was so just heavy and emotional — you could’ve heard a pin drop when he was into it. He had fifty, sixty Ruff Ryders behind him and then mid poem as the cameras were rolling and he stopped and his head dropped down. And there are a few moments in my career that I remember — like vividly — and that was one of them because everyone basically had tears rolling down their face because it was so emotionally heavy and you could see that DMX was clearly broken and really just devastated by what happened. So he wrote the poem and midway he just stopped and his head dropped and you could see tears falling and the cameras were rolling and everyone was like “oh shit, now what? What do we do?” I just remember one of his brothas from the Ruff Ryders, after DMX head had been down for about fifteen seconds walked up and just put his hand on DMX’s shoulder and DMX took a beat and looked back up at the camera and he got back into where he left and everybody like “holy shit.”
The video for “Miss You” debuted on MTV not too long after filming on the video wrapped.
Grant: The reception of that video has always been good and I think that’s the only reception that it could be. It wasn’t groundbreaking by any means but it was important and it was poignant and it was moving and it was a tribute and it was really the only way we could give something of ourselves to who this woman was.
Tigger: As soon as it debuted I watched it. Usually, if you make a cameo in a video you’re like “ahh I just wanna see my part, I wanna make sure I made the video,” but from the beginning to end with the prayer from DMX you were immediately engulfed and engaged and you were just watching and feeling more than just “oh am I making it, where is my part.” You were just so wrapped up in the moment and the emotion of the video and the images in the video.
Neal: It was done so beautifully. Seeing DMX in that music video and seeing everyone that was in it from Jamie Foxx to Missy Elliott, and Lil Kim and everyone who was involved. It was just a really great piece on something so tragic.
Twenty years after her passing, Aaliyah’s spirit continues to live on through her ever-growing fan base of young people who are beginning to discover her music. Recently it’s been announced that after a long arduous battle, some of Aaliyah’s music will finally be available on the streaming platform Spotify. While there continues to be controversy around the decision, many people are looking forward to a new life to be given to Aaliyah’s legacy.
Grant: Aaliyah’s legacy is her music and her spirit. She was very transparent on camera and that came across and people felt that and that’s gonna live on. She’s still an icon that was in the middle of blossoming.
Lewis: I think [her legacy] is so much. This powerful young beautiful woman. Really overcoming things in her life and using her talent to touch and inspire other people. Her gift for songwriting and the way that she moved. When you watch her, it’s mesmerizing. Just her own flow and beauty and all of it. I think her legacy is power and beauty and talent all in one package. This amazing trifecta of intense light.
Tigger: Her legacy was first and foremost her music. Her vibe, her energy. She left good music with a variety of topics and a variety of energy. Her legacy is going to be a musical one. It’s going to be one where you listen to her songs, they either make you feel sexy or make you want to party or make you feel sad which means she covered a lot of the human experience in such a short time I think that speaks volumes and that is her legacy.
Austin: Her legacy is her impact on young female artists in R&B and hip hop. I think the moves that she was making and going into acting. I think that she was kind of at the forefront for that for the youth. We had seen Whitney do that with The Bodyguard, but I feel as far as young artists and the youthfulness and being able to cross into movies and she had begun to become glamour stuff. So I think you see her legacy on all of it. So you see young artists who have their beauty products line or you see young artists from music crossing into movies. I feel like that’s all from the blueprint of what Aaliyah had begun to do.
Neal: I look back at that time and she was something different in that time. I think that’s why it’s still so relevant today. She was so soft, her movement was so understated but it made an impact. Her style was so cool and laid back but still sexy.
Dawes: I believe her legacy would be as one of the greatest female entertainers.
Williams: Aaliyah’s legacy is being a visionary, having your own unique sound. I think she leaves those things because I know that anybody that comes after her that tries to reach those heights, they have to incorporate all of those things that she and Timbaland and Missy packaged together so well.
Alexander: Her legacy is gone too soon. And her memory will always last because again she was sweet, she was nice, she was positive, she was beautiful. She was everything that I think any artist should be. She was sexy without being revealing. She was everything. I believe that every woman wanted to be her.
From Rolling Stone US