This week, Chris Brown became the latest musician to use Aaliyah’s image for own his work. The video for his single “Don’t Think They Know” attempts to act simultaneously as a preachy depiction of LA gang violence and as a tribute to the late singer, who appears in hologram form. The song also samples vocals from a previously unheard Aaliyah track, making this the second time in a year that an artist has gotten his hands on her unreleased songs. Last August, producer Noah “40” Shebib and Drake put out a song she recorded before her death called “Enough Said” as an official release with an added verse by Drake. You wouldn’t think it’d be so easy to get the rights to never-before-heard material from a highly regarded R&B icon. It invites an important question: Who is approving all of this?
Twelve years after her death, Aaliyah’s legacy is so messy that nobody seems to know just who owns it. The past few months have seen at least two lawsuits surrounding her music, one of which involves the songs released under her name on iTunes. Aaliyah’s 2001 self-titled album is listed under independent label Craze Productions, but a company called Reservoir Media Management claims they bought the rights to those songs last year. Craze Productions has had several issues with copyright in the past, so it’s entirely possible that the people profiting off Aaliyah’s music have nothing to do with her. This adds a layer of grime to anything that touts itself as an official Aaliyah release.
Most likely, her image belongs to Blackground Records, the record label of Aaliyah’s uncle and former manager Barry Hankerson. Both he and Aaliyah’s cousin Jomo Hankerson are involved in the posthumous Aaliyah album 40 and Drake hope to release, so you’d think it’d be a pretty widely accepted project. But Aaliyah’s family is torn, too; in an attempt to have the final word in her legacy, Aaliyah’s brother Rashad Haughton tweeted, “There is no official album being released and supported by the Haughton family.” Both Blackground and Drake responded by claiming her family is on board, but the Haughtons haven’t had much of a chance to refute that beyond Twitter. Blackground also said Aaliyah’s top collaborators, Missy Elliott and Timbaland, would be involved in the project, but Elliott’s manager denied that anyone was notified or interested.
Brown’s new video makes the issue even sketchier. The singer has said “Don’t Think They Know” is dedicated to his fans — AKA those not repulsed by his abusive history with one of R&B’s most prominent female voices — and it’s hard to imagine Aaliyah’s family would approve of using her to communicate this kind of gratitude. In the context of his rocky career, the emotional double-whammy of a dead icon and shots of impoverished children sure looks like Brown’s attempt to get the public back on his side. Regardless of whether or not he’s sincere, there’s always something uncomfortable about praising a dead woman when you’ve had so many high-profile problems living ones.
But now that the artist herself isn’t around to comment on what what people do with her work, Brown and Drake have the luxury of knowing that Aaliyah can never formally reject their tributes. They can even pretend she would’ve loved them, and it’s hard to deny a creepy fantasy element to these appropriations of Aaliyah. As Brown sings along with Aaliyah in “Don’t Think They Know,” you get the impression that he believes he’s actually singing with her. This doesn’t even touch upon the imaginary-relationship vibe that Drake projects, and not just in his verse on “Enough Said.” The unabashed fanboy has two tattoos of the singer and wrote her an actual four-page letter. This may help to explain why, in the work of Drake and Brown, Aaliyah more of a muse and a vessel than a person; for all of their endless claims of respect, they’re quicker to use her for their own careers than to think about what she really might have wanted.