Just two weeks before her untimely death, Aaliyah was hanging out with her boyfriend, Roc-A-Fella Records mogul Damon Dash, in the East Hampton, Long Island home he shared with Jay-Z, dancing to Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall album. She was carefree, happy and in love.
A few days later on August 22, 2001, the R&B singer was in Miami to shoot underwater scenes for the music video for her next single, “Rock the Boat.” Aaliyah and crew then flew to the Abaco Islands in the Bahamas to continue the shoot. Dash would later reveal in a 2016 interview on The Real that he had advised the singer not to travel to the island and that she had expressed apprehension about the safety of the plane.
On August 24, the singer rose well before dawn to be part of the island sunrise for the video. The following day, she and her dancers would board a boat to perform a routine on-deck. “Those four days were very beautiful for everyone. We all worked together as a family,” video director Hype Williams said. “The last day, Saturday, was one of the best I’ve had in this business. Everyone felt part of something special, part of her song.”
Aaliyah had finished shooting her part of the video a day earlier than expected and on the evening of August 25, she boarded a twin-engine Cessna 402-B along with several other colleagues. Almost immediately upon take-off from Marsh Harbor, the plane crashed near the runway and a fire erupted. Aaliyah, then 22, along with eight others, perished. In 2003, a pathologist testified at a Nassau coroner’s inquest that she was killed from severe burns and head trauma, with the singer going into such a state of shock that recovery would have been ultimately unthinkable.
The plane was believed to be significantly overloaded, and the pilot, Luis Morales, had received probation for crack cocaine possession less than two weeks before the flight. Traces of cocaine and alcohol were found within his system upon completion of an autopsy, and he wasn’t certified to fly the craft which crashed.
Amidst an outpouring of grief, a procession for the singer made its way through the streets of Manhattan on August 31, 2001, ending at St. Ignatius Loyola Roman Catholic Church. A private service was held and 22 birds were released post-ceremony to mark the singer’s years of life.
‘Rock the Boat’ was released posthumously and nominated for a Grammy.
The video for “Rock the Boat” made its world premiere on October 9, 2001, and included a half-hour making of the video special. “It’s a very special project. Everyone put their heart and soul into the work, as we always do, with the intent that the world would enjoy it,” Williams said. “I know there’s a lot of pain involved, but that’s all the more reason people would appreciate what we’ve done as a group.”
The album Aaliyah, which was released in July 2001, instantly rose to No. 1 upon her passing, with “Rock the Boat” released as a single posthumously. The song was also nominated for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance at the 44th Grammys.
In May 2002, Aaliyah’s parents filed a lawsuit against several companies, including Virgin Records and Blackhawk International Airways Corp., for culpability in the crash, settling for an undisclosed sum the following year.
“She was a very happy person. She had nothing but love to give to others and she selflessly shared much of who she was,” Williams said. “I don’t know if anyone really understands that about her. She had these incredible, graceful qualities as a person. I don’t know if her fans know that about her.”