The Story Behind Aaliyah’s Final Act

On the “Rock the Boat” video’s 20th anniversary, Aaliyah’s stylist, choreographer, and dancer look back on three days spent shooting what would become the musician’s last performance.

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Aaliyah photographed in the United Kingdom in 2000.
Photo by Sal Idriss/Redferns

On August 21, 2001, the stylist Derek Lee was holed up in a Miami hotel room, brushing and splattering streaks of bleach onto 15 pairs of jeans. At the time, Lee—who has gone on to work with Celine Dion, Pharrell Williams, and Samuel L. Jackson—was the lead stylist for Aaliyah, having worked on the looks for nearly every hit music video she’d made until that point, from “More Than a Woman” to “Are You That Somebody?”

That evening in Florida, he was hours away from filming the first scenes for Aaliyah’s “Rock the Boat” video. The shoot would go down in history as the singer’s final one; she and eight others perished in a plane crash while flying back to the United States following production in the Bahamas. Her tragic and untimely passing—Aaliyah was just 22 years old, and members of her crew, including her makeup artist Christopher Maldonado and hairstylist Eric Foreman, were in their twenties as well—became the reason to remember “Rock the Boat.”

When the video was released posthumously, it predictably generated tons of buzz. This was the last work she would ever create, and heartbreaking proof that she was really gone. But for me, the symbolism behind “Rock the Boat” isn’t what makes it special. Sure, the emotional attachment is there. But “Rock the Boat” is a perfect video, because the song’s easy, laid-back vibe is captured visually in marvelous fashion. It transports you to another place, puts you right onto an island with white sand beaches, sunlight dappling the wave crests—and it bears the nostalgic, defining features of late nineties/early aughts music videos: backup dancers, matching outfits, close-up shots of Aaliyah’s face framed by huge hoop earrings that practically sit on her shoulders. All of the significance attached to the video aside, it is simply terrific. To commemorate the 20th anniversary of the music video’s release, I spoke with Lee, the choreographer Fatima Robinson, and actress Nadine Ellis, who was one of the dancers in “Rock the Boat,” who shared their memories from the making of that iconic video.

Although Lee put finishing touches on costuming at the 11th hour, preparation for shooting “Rock the Boat” began weeks before. Director Hype Williams contacted Lee and Robinson separately to discuss his vision for the video. “The whole concept was Hype’s,” Robinson, who has done choreography for Sia, Mary J. Blige, and Save the Last Dance, tells me over the phone from Los Angeles. “The song has such a wonderful, sensual, sexual vibe to it, and we wanted to play along with that. The beautiful beach, the idea of dancing on the yacht, were all Hype’s idea. We just wanted to have this really beautiful, classy, elegant video.”

“He said, we’re shooting here, here, and here, and that’s all,” Lee adds. “Back then, when you worked with an artist all the time, directors didn’t really say too much. They were just like, do what you do. Make sure it works within the framework.”

Three days before production began, Robinson and Ellis—who has danced with Beyoncé’s crew and moved on to acting, with roles in Shameless and Jane the Virgin—rehearsed with Aaliyah and the other dancers in a Miami studio. “We only did a few days, it wasn’t long at all,” Robinson says. “But [Aaliyah] was an amazing dancer, and caught on really fast. Sometimes, she felt like she couldn’t get it, but I would push her a little harder, [and say,] ‘You got this.’”

“Aaliyah was there for all the rehearsals,” Ellis says. “She came in and learned along with us, hung out with us, and was very, very cool. That’s the memory of her that stands out for me. There have been artists who, when they don’t have to be around the dancers, will step into another room or will get there with just enough time to learn the choreography and move on with their day. But she really wanted to be there. It just reminded me how much of a girl she still was.”

On Day One, Aaliyah and the crew shot the green screen and underwater scenes for the video in Miami before flying to the Bahamas. Ellis had been cast as Aaliyah’s “mirror” for the green screen portion—a dance partner who reflected Aaliyah’s “hip swivels,” Ellis recalls. The idea for the mirror dance moves stemmed from Robinson’s natural meshing with Aaliyah when they danced together, which she likened to “synchronized swimming.”

“She could move exactly like me, which made her really fun to dance with,” Robinson says. “The first thing I did with her was ‘One in a Million,’ and when I took that initial meeting at the dance studio, me and her just danced. From then on, the two of us looked at each other like, ‘soulmate!’”

The looks from the green screen portion might be the most memorable part of the video, because the bleached jeans, tight and teeny white tops, chain belts, and Air Force Ones became fashion staples for teenage girls during that era. Lee remembered cutting up the t-shirts and splattering bleach on the jeans to create a DIY feel, which spoke to the Jamaican and Dancehall visual themes. “Aaliyah being Jamaican and me being a fan of Dancehall from an early age, it made sense to customize the clothes. That’s how they roll,” he tells me over the phone. “So I was like, I’m just going to go straight old school Dancehall: Cut up some shit, dye some shit.”

After wrapping the green screen portion, the crew decamped for a hotel swimming pool, where Aaliyah was filmed underwater wearing a Norma Kamali dress Lee had chosen for its dramatic, flowing fabric. “Hype told me, okay, we’re going to shoot something in the water. I need something with a lot of fabric, so it’s almost like she’s flying. My mother has had a relationship with Norma since I was a kid, and I knew that Norma Kamali was famous for making bathing suits that had a mermaid or a vintage feel, with that extra fabric that could wave in the water.” (Williams reportedly wanted big drama for the underwater scene, requesting a bold makeup look. Since Maldonado couldn’t put long, fanned-out false eyelashes on Aaliyah while she swam in a chlorinated pool, he glued red rhinestones to her eyes instead.)

Two days later, the crew arrived on Treasure Cay, a peninsula off of Great Abaco Island, and began filming very early—Aaliyah was done with hair and makeup and on the beach by 6:30 AM on August 24. She wore a skirt that Lee had found at Patricia Field’s store for the opening scene of the video, but that and the Norma Kamali dress were the only designer pieces featured. “You didn’t have to have on Gucci or Dior,” Lee says. “Sure, it helped, and it was nice, but it wasn’t a necessity. Creativity was more important at that point.”

“‘Rock the Boat’ wasn’t a fashion video per se,” he adds. “It was more to showcase a softer side of her. Yes, Aaliyah had to be the superstar girl, but she also had to be relatable. Nothing could look styled—it had to be achievable and doable by young girls. That showed in ‘Rock the Boat’ because anyone could make any of that stuff with a pair of scissors.” To create what he calls “the red Kangol look" on the beach, the stylist cut up a pair of fishnet tights that he made into a top—along with a Coca-Cola can. “I made earrings out of the can, and inserted part of it between the brim and the puffy part of her Kangol,” he says. “You can barely see it, but I wanted it to look island-made.”

On the final shoot day, another memorable visual reference wrapped: the yacht portion. The dancers loaded onto the catamaran in the morning, then changed into their all-white costumes to film choreography that, as Ellis remembers it, differed from the look and feel of the green screen dance moves. “Miami was really technical, because you had to be within certain parameters, making sure you were on your mark and that all the spacing was right,” she says. “But when we got to The Bahamas, it was definitely more of a free space. We just got to flow.”

“When you take something out of a dance studio and translate it to set, it always has to alternate and change,” Robinson adds. “When we got to the boat, some moves didn’t work as well, so we had to tailor them.”

Looking back at the scenes of “Rock the Boat,” it appears to be, by all accounts, a fairly simple music video: for five minutes and 25 seconds, Aaliyah is seen on the beach, on a yacht with her background dancers, in front of a green screen with the image of a wave superimposed onto it, and swimming in the ocean while wearing a gown, yards of skirt floating behind her in the water. The best part of the “Rock the Boat” music video comes at the very end, and is just as unadorned. Aaliyah, in what appears to be a candid moment, laughs widely as she looks to her left, like someone off-camera just did something charming and hilarious. In my eyes, it is the perfect way to cap off her final creation. It’s a reminder that although Aaliyah isn’t around today, her legacy remains.

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