meta-script8 Ways Aaliyah Empowered A Generation Of Female R&B Stars | GRAMMY.com
Aaliyah in 2001
Aaliyah in 2001.

Photo: Sal Idriss/Redferns

list

8 Ways Aaliyah Empowered A Generation Of Female R&B Stars

More than 20 years after her untimely death and 30 since her debut album, 'Age Ain't Nothing But a Number,' Aaliyah's legacy lives on through female R&B artists of generations new and old. Dig into her impact, from her fearlessness to her fashion sense.

GRAMMYs/May 24, 2024 - 02:39 pm

With worldwide sales of 32 million, five GRAMMY nominations, and more than a dozen Hot 100 hits to her name, Aaliyah achieved more in her tragically cut-short 22 years than most would several lifetimes over. And more than two decades after her untimely death, the female R&B scene is still very much indebted to her pioneering talents.

In the last few years alone, she's been namechecked by Beyoncé, sampled by SZA and Normani, and covered by Mariah the Scientist and Sinead Harnett. And that's only on a sonic level. Ella Mai and Mahalia also recreated her signature tomboyish look in their video for "What You Did," as did Jhené Aiko on " P*$$Y Fairy (OTW)." Justine Skye and Sevyn Streeter are just a few of the names who paid their respects in 2023 ABC tribute Superstar. And going further back, Aaliyah has also been cited as a major source of inspiration by Ciara, Tinashe, Nelly Furtado, and Rihanna, while Katy B and Jessie Ware even named their "Jolene"-esque duet after their musical icon.

And thanks to Aaliyah's innovative second and third studio efforts, 1996's One In A Million and 2001's Aaliyah, finally escaping from licensing limbo in 2021, those growing up in the streaming age are now discovering her supremely sultry voice, masterly interpretative skills, and array of forward-thinking hits, too. In the last three years, the likes of "Try Again" and "Are You That Somebody" have racked up more than 140 ad 170 million streams, respectively, on Spotify alone.

But why exactly does the singer nicknamed Baby Girl still have such a hold on contemporary artists, several of whom were barely out of diapers when she was busy tearing up the R&B rulebook? To coincide with the 30th anniversary of Aaliyah's debut album, Age Ain't Nothing But A Number, here's a look at how the "street but sweet" star built up such an inspirational legacy.

She Knew How To Use Her Voice 

Aaliyah arrived at a time when powerhouses Mariah Carey, Celine Dion and Whitney Houston were the dominant female singers. But the New Yorker quickly proved that lung-busting multiple octaves isn't the only way to vocally impress.

Aaliyah was still capable of such acrobatics. According to producer Daryl Simmons, she would often rely on opera runs before recording to warm up her voice; Diane Warren, who worked with the star on ballad "The One I Gave My Heart To," has spoken of how she was taken aback by her versatility. But Aaliyah's signature delivery was very much "less is more." You can hear her sensual, featherlight tones in the likes of Kelela, Rochelle Jordan, and The Internet's Syd, the latter of whom has specifically hailed Aaliyah as a formative influence on her own cooler-than-cool style.

She Retained An Air Of Mystery 

Aaliyah's less-is-more approach also applied to her public profile. Perhaps due to the controversy surrounding her relationship with debut album producer R. Kelly, the singer largely preferred to let her music do the talking.

Even when she did speak to the press, she kept her cards close to her chest. And she avoided giving the more salacious outlets any further ammunition by growing up away from the spotlight. If they were looking for celebrity beefs, love triangles or stumbling out of nightclubs, they had to look elsewhere.

In the social media era where oversharing is the norm, Aaliyah's desire to keep her private life entirely private now seems both admirable and practically impossible. But there are still several artists who've recognized there's a power in retaining a sense of mystery. Just look at Sault, the enigmatic collective said to be fronted by the Aaliyah-esque Cleo Sol, who've released 11 albums and evenperformed live without officially revealing their true identities.

She Was A Triple Threat 

Triple threats are par for the course these days. From Beyoncé and Rihanna to Brandy and Nicki Minaj, almost every female R&B star now seems determined to show they can pull off singing, dancing and acting — and, in the case of Jennifer Lopez's recent passion project, all at the same time. But Aaliyah was one of the first to showcase such impressive versatility.

In 2000 thriller Romeo Must Die, she stole the show from Jet Li as the daughter of a crime lord who refuses to get drawn into his dangerous underworld. And thanks to an inventive blend of wirework and futuristic choreography, she was equally spellbinding in the video for tie-in single "Try Again." 

Meanwhile, her slithery performance as the titular bloodsucker was by far the standout in 2001 horror Queen of the Damned. Having landed key roles in The Matrix Reloaded and Sparkle shortly before her untimely death, Aaliyah's movie career would undoubtedly have ascended to the same lofty heights as her musical.

She Wasn't Afraid To Take Control 

Don't be fooled by Aaliyah's softly spoken vocals and coy demeanor. The star was never afraid to tell it like it is. Just ask A&R executive Jeff Sledge, who guided her early days with Jive Records. "She was shy but when she would speak, you could tell she was a real artist," he told The Guardian in 2021. "She had her ideas of what she wanted to do and say — she wasn't a puppet."

Although her talents lay as a performer/interpreter rather than a songwriter/producer, Aaliyah continued to exert creative control throughout her discography. While promoting sophomore One In A Million, she told MTV, "I was very confident in my convictions and what I wanted this time around." 

It's a mindset reflected across her lyrical themes, too. On "If Your Girl Only Knew," she hits back at a player whose attention she's unwillingly caught, while on "Are You That Somebody," she insists on keeping her new beau a secret until he proves his worth.

She Helped Launch Missy Elliott's Career 

Although Missy Elliott had started to make waves in the music industry — firstly in short-lived girlband Sista, and then as writer/producer for Jodeci and Aaron Hall — it was her partnership with Timbaland and Aaliyah on 1996's One In A Million where she truly established herself as an R&B game-changer. Elliott co-penned nine tracks, including the singles "Hot Like Fire," "4 Page Letter" and "If Your Girl Only Knew," her sensual melodic hooks the perfect foil for Timbaland's innovative beats.

By the time their crowning glory, "Are You That Somebody," dropped in 1998, Elliott had become a star in her own right: maintaining the synergy, her debut album, 1997's Supa Dupa Fly, also boasted a guest appearance from Aaliyah. But as Elliott told Entertainment Weekly in a tribute to Aaliyah after her passing, their connection went far beyond the studio: "It was more of a family vibe than just work. We could tell each other anything." Over the next few years, both established (Whitney, Mariah) and emerging (702, Tweet) female talent would follow Aaliyah's lead by utilizing Elliott's production skills.

She Gave The Youth A Voice 

From SWV and En Vogue to Brownstone and Jade, the mid-'90s R&B scene was dominated by ladies well into adulthood. Aaliyah, however, was just 15 when debut Age Ain't Nothing But A Number hit the shelves. Subsequently, a generation of young girls immediately latched on to who they saw as a kindred spirit.

Although Aaliyah always sounded more mature than her years, her debut often reads like a schoolgirl's diary entry. (She even opens the title track by noting one: "May 5, 1993/ Aaliyah's diary/ Got it," goes the often-omitted intro.) Songs about crushes, hanging out with her friends, and partying on the weekend certainly reflected the teenage experience with authenticity (Aaliyah was still attending Detroit High School for the Fine and Performing Arts).

What's more, "Young Nation" essentially finds her spearheading a new youth movement, "keeping it smooth with a jazz attitude.""There were so many messages in her songs that guided me and became the soundtrack to my childhood," British singer Kara Marni told The Guardian, proving that Aaliyah's generational influence extended far beyond her homeland.

She Had A Timeless Sense Of Style 

"There doesn't seem to be a current streetwear trend that Aaliyah didn't sport first," Vogue's fashion editor Janelle Okwodu recently claimed, no doubt referring to everything from bandanas and baggy jeans to sports jerseys and ski hats. From the moment she first graced MTV in overalls, a tracksuit and the chunkiest of leather vests in "Back & Forth," the New Yorker made it crystal clear she wasn't interested in appealing solely to the male gaze.

Aaliyah could dress up for the occasion; see the Roberto Cavalli ballgown she wore to the 2000 VMAs. But her sense of style always leaned more toward the casual and tomboyish end of the spectrum, empowering the next generation of R&B performers to wear exactly what they wanted. British singer Nao was one such follower of her fashion: "There was a part of Aaliyah that made me feel comfortable in rolling out in my denim trousers or in an oversized jumper and knowing that my music can be enough."

She Proved Female R&B Could Think Outside The Box 

TLC's "No Scrubs," Missy Elliott's "Get Ur Freak On," Amerie's "1 Thing." Think of the most innovative R&B singles of the pre-streaming era and it's likely a female act is responsible. And thanks to a sonic palette that still sounds like it's been sent from the future, Aaliyah undeniably paved the way.

Age Ain't Nothing But A Number first established her innovative ways, her mellifluous vocals gliding across Timbaland's progressive beats and bank of avant-garde sound effects. But it was 2001's eponymous LP that truly pushed the genre into various weird and wonderful directions, from the snake-charming classical sample on "We Need A Resolution," to the warped Nine Inch Nails-esque guitars on "What If," to the squelchy sci-fi funk of "Try Again." 

Even when she went classic, as on gorgeous slow jam, "I Care 4 U," she practically invented alternative R&B. Musical boundaries might now be a thing of the past, but in the early '00s, Aaliyah was one of the few breaking them down.

​​10 Ways TLC Shaped The Future Of R&B

Sade in 1985
Sade Adu poses in Chicago in 1985.

Photo: Paul Natkin/Getty Images

list

8 Ways Sade's 'Diamond Life' Album Redefined '80s Music & Influenced Culture

As Sade's masterpiece 'Diamond Life' turns 40, see how the group's debut pushed R&B forward and introduced them as beloved elusive stars.

GRAMMYs/Jul 16, 2024 - 04:34 pm

"I only make records when I feel I have something to say," Sade Adu asserted in 2010 upon the highly anticipated release of Sade's GRAMMY-winning Soldier of Love album, which arrived after a 10-year hiatus. "I'm not interested in releasing music just for the sake of selling something. Sade is not a brand."

This lifetime of dedication toward achieving musical excellence helped Sade — vocalist Adu, bassist Paul S. Denman, keyboardist Andrew Hale, and guitarist/saxophonist Stuart Matthewman — gain prominence in the mid-80s, also garnering enormous respect from fans, critics, and peers alike. Formed in 1982, the English band is one of the few acts that can still be met with a hungry audience after disappearing from the spotlight for multiple years.

In an industry where churning out a new body of work is expected every couple of years, the four meticulous members of Sade move on their own time, putting out a mere six studio albums since 1984. Every project becomes more exquisite than the last, but it all began 40 years ago with Sade's illustrious debut album, Diamond Life. Ubiquitous hits like "Smooth Operator" and "Your Love Is King" appealed to listeners young and old — offering a unique blend of R&B, jazz, soul, funk, and pop that birthed a new sound and forced the industry to take notes from the jump.

As Sade's Diamond Life celebrates a milestone anniversary, here's a look at how the album helped push R&B forward, and why it's just as relevant today.

It Helped Set Off The "Quiet Storm" Craze

By mid-1984, Michael Jackson, was riding high off of winning the most GRAMMYs in a single night (including Album Of The Year) for his blockbuster album Thriller, Madonna celebrated her first top 10 hit with "Borderline," and Prince's Purple Rain was just days away from its theatrical release. Duran Duran, Culture Club, Billy Idol, and the Police were mainstays, while "blue-eyed soul" in particular had also hit an all-time high thanks to Hall and Oates, Wham, Simply Red, and others. What's more, many Black artists like Lionel Richie and Whitney Houston opted for more of a pop sound to appeal to broader audiences during MTV's golden era. 

Diamond Life was refreshing at the time, as it fully embraced soul and R&B. The album offered a chic sophistication amid the synth-heavy pop and rock music that ruled the charts.

Singles like "Your Love Is King" and "Smooth Operator" introduced jazz elements into mainstream radio. In turn, Sade helped usher in the "quiet storm" genre — R&B music at its core, with strong undertones of jazz for an ultra-smooth sound. Sade and Diamond Life also laid some of the groundwork for neo-soul, which saw a surge in the '90s à la Lauryn Hill, Maxwell, and Erykah Badu.

It Made GRAMMY History

In the 65-year history of the GRAMMYs, a small number of Nigerian artists, including Burna Boy and Tems, have won a golden gramophone. In 1986, a then 27-year-old Sade Adu made history as the first-ever Nigerian-born artist to win a GRAMMY when she and her band was crowned Best New Artist at the 29th GRAMMYs. Still, Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg had to accept the award on Sade's behalf — signaling Adu's elusive nature as she rarely attends industry events or grants interviews.

Since then, Sade has gone on to earn three more GRAMMYs, including Best Pop Vocal Album in 2001 for their fifth studio album, Lovers Rock. The win signified their staying power in the new millennium.

It Birthed The Band's Signature Song…

While Diamond Life spawned timeless hits like "Your Love Is King" and "Hang On to Your Love," "Smooth Operator" became the album's highest-charting single — and remains the most iconic song in their catalog. The seductive track about a cunning two-timer propelled the band into international stardom: "Smooth Operator" skyrocketed to No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 and hit No. 1 on the Adult Contemporary chart.

Even non-Sade fans can identify "Smooth Operator" in an instant, from Adu's unmistakable vocals to that now-iconic instrumental saxophone solo. As of press time, it boasts over 400 million Spotify streams alone, and has remained a set list staple across every one of Sade's tours.

…And It Houses Underrated Gems

"Smooth Operator" may be Sade's commercial classic, but deep cuts like "Frankie's First Affair," "Cherry Pie," and "I Will Be Your Friend" are fan favorites that embody the band's heart and soul.

"Frankie's First Affair" offers a surprisingly enchanting take on infidelity: "Frankie, didn't I tell you, you've got the world in the palm of your hand/ Frankie, didn't I tell you they're running at your command." And, it's impossible to resist the funky groove that carries standout track "Cherry Pie," which served as a catalyst for some of Sade's later, more dance-oriented hits, including "Never As Good As the First Time" and "Paradise." Some of Sade's most poignant statements about lost love, including "Somebody Already Broke My Heart" from 2000's Lovers Rock, can be traced back to "Cherry Pie."

Diamond Life's penultimate song, "I Will Be Your Friend," offers both solace and companionship — another recurring theme throughout Sade's music, from 1988's "Keep Looking" to 2010's "In Another Time."

It Was The Best-Selling Debut Album By A British Female Singer For More Than Two Decades

Sade has sold tens of millions of albums worldwide, but Diamond Life remains the band's most commercially successful LP with over 7 million copies sold. Most of Sade's other platinum-selling LPs, including Diamond Life's follow-up, 1985's Promise, boast sales between four and six million copies.

The 7 million feat helped Sade set the record for best-selling debut album by a British female singer. She held the title for nearly 25 years until Leona Lewis' 2008 album Spirit, which has sold over 8 million copies globally.

It Introduced Sade Adu As A Style Icon

When we first met Adu, her signature aesthetic consisted of a long, slicked-back ponytail, red lip, and gold hoops. Sade's impeccable style is front and center in early videos like "When Am I Going to Make a Living," in which she sports an all-white ensemble paired with a pale gray, ankle-length trench coat and loafers.

Adu rocked the model off-duty style long before it became a trend. Her oversized blazers, classic trousers, and head-to-toe denim looks were as effortless as they were chic and runway-ready — proving that less was more amid the decade of excess.

"It's now so acceptable to be wacky and have hair that goes in 101 directions and has several colours, and trendy, wacky clothes have become so acceptable that they're… conventional," Adu, who briefly worked as a fashion designer and model before pursuing music, told Rolling Stone in 1985. "I don't like looking outrageous. I don't want to look like everybody else."

It Shined A Light On Larger Societal Issues

While most of Diamond Life leans into love's ebbs and flows, a handful of tunes deal with financial strife coupled with a dose of optimism, as evidenced by "When Am I Going to Make a Living" and "Sally." The latter song characterizes the Salvation Army as a young charitable woman: "So put your hands together for Sally/ She's the one who cared for him/ Put your hands together for Sally/ She was there when his luck was running thin."

Meanwhile, Adu, a then-starving artist, scribbled down portions of "When Am I Going to Make a Living" on the back of her cleaning ticket. The soul-stirring "We are hungry, but we won't give in" refrain emerges as a powerful mantra in the face of adversity and still holds relevance in 2024. Similar themes appear throughout Sade's later work, including unemployment ("Feel No Pain"), unwanted pregnancy ("Tar Baby"), survival ("Jezebel"), prejudice ("Immigrant"), and injustice ("Slave Song").

Diamond Life closer "Why Can't We Live Together" is a well-done cover of Timmy Thomas' 1972 hit about the staggering Vietnam War deaths. The band wisely doesn't veer too far from the original recording, but Adu's distinctive contralto voice brings a haunting quality that's reminiscent of Billie Holiday.

It Ignited The Public's Ongoing Fascination With Sade Adu

Since 1984, Sade has only released six studio albums, and a remarkable 14 years have passed since the group's last offering, 2010's Soldier of Love. Ironically, that scarcity — both in terms of music and access to the artist — has actually added to Adu's appeal. Case in point: Sade's sold-out Soldier of Love Tour grossed over $50 million in 2011, and the band still brings in close to 14 million monthly listeners on Spotify.

Adu's striking beauty, mysterious persona, and knack for letting her music do all the talking has earned the admiration of her peers across genres and generations. Everyone from Beyoncé to Kanye West to Snoop Dogg have sung her praises. Drake even has two portrait-style tattoos of the singer on his torso. Prince reportedly described 1988's "Love Is Stronger Than Pride" as "one of the most beautiful songs ever." Metalheads Chino Moreno of the Deftones and Greg Puciato of the Dillinger Escape Plan have also cited Adu as inspiration — showing that her influence runs far and wide.

In 2022, reports circulated that Sade was recording new music at Miraval Studios in France. But upon Diamond Life's 40th anniversary, "Flower of the Universe" and "The Big Unknown" from the respective soundtracks to 2018 films A Wrinkle in Time and Widows stand as Sade's latest releases.

Whether fans get new music anytime soon remains to be seen, but the impressive repertoire of Adu, Denman, Hale, and Matthewman is one that aims to be truth-seeking and inspiring while exploring life's peaks and valleys. Diamond Life in particular holds up as one of the purest representations of the group's creative legacy, both commercially and musically. 

From quadruple platinum status to resonating with several generations, Diamond Life will forever stand as a remarkable debut — one that continues to influence music in a multitude of ways.

Latest News & Exclusive Videos

Four members of Destiny's Child in 2000
Destiny's Child

Photo: Michael Crabtree - PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images

list

5 Reasons Why 'The Writing's On The Wall' Is Destiny's Child's Defining Album

From its embrace of experimental R&B production and memorable music videos, to its GRAMMY-winning empowering songs, 'The Writing’s On the Wall' remains a touchstone for fans of Destiny's Child.

GRAMMYs/Jul 12, 2024 - 02:07 pm

In 1997, all-female R&B groups were thriving: TLC already had seven Top 10 hits on the Billboard Hot 100, En Vogue had numerous platinum singles, and Xscape reached No. 1 more than once. Soon, a quartet of teenagers would burst upon the scene and leave an indelible impact.

While Destiny’s Child are now canonical in the world of '90s and early aughts R&B, the group initially experienced spotty success. Their 1997 debut single, "No, No, No (Part 2)" peaked at No. 3 on Billboard’s Hot 100 and was certified platinum. Yet their eponymous album, released in February 1998, only hit No. 67. Their follow up single, "With Me," also failed to set the charts ablaze. 

Destiny’s Child's underwhelming chart performances could’ve easily derailed the budding group. Fortunately, the four ambitious girls from Texas had other plans. 

Beyoncé Knowles, Kelly Rowland, LaTavia Roberson, and Le Toya Luckett were determined not to become one hit wonders, and quickly went back into the studio to record their sophomore album. Released on July 14, 1999, The Writing’s On the Wall became Destiny’s Child’s highest selling album and spawned some of their most iconic songs — one of which led to the group's first GRAMMY win. Not only did the album establish Destiny's Child as a household name, but it fine tuned the R&B girl group concept to perfection.

"We had no idea that The Writing's on the Wall would be as big a record as it was. Especially worldwide," Beyoncé said in a 2006 Guardian interview.

In celebration of the iconic album's 25th anniversary, read on for five reasons why The Writing’s On the Wall is the defining album of Destiny’s Child’s career.

Its Members Took Creative Control

On their debut album, Destiny’s Child tapped into the neo soul trend popularized by the likes of D’Angelo, Erykah Badu, and Maxwell — artists in their early-to-mid twenties with a maturity the teen quartet didn’t yet have. The references and creative direction clashed with the reality of the group members being so young.

"It was a neo-soul record and we were 15 years old. It was way too mature for us," Beyoncé tol the Guardian.

Heading back into the studio, the girls made sure to eradicate any misalignments and put more of themselves into their sophomore album. In an interview with MTV, the members said The Writing’s On the Wall had a fresher, more youthful vibe because "it comes from us." The quartet's fingerprints are all over the 16 track album: Each member co-wrote at least 50 percent of the album. 

"Even at the time, Beyoncé would produce a lot of their background vocals, and she was a leader even at a young age," Xscape's Kandi Burruss said in a Vice interview, reflecting on her work as a songwriter and producer on The Writing's On the Wall. This heightened presence enabled the group to develop lyrics that boldly reflected their opinions and youthful energy. In turn, The Writing's On the Wall netted a run of iconic hit singles.

Read more: Destiny's Child's Debut Album At 25: How A Neo-Soul Album From Teens Spawned R&B Legends

It Pushed R&B Forward 

Like its predecessor, The Writing’s On the Wall is very much an R&B album. However, Beyoncé's father Mathew Knowles — who still managed the group at the time — brought in producers who weren’t afraid to experiment. The result was a more commercial album that fused classic R&B with pop influences, creating a sound that was simultaneously contemporary and timeless.

Kevin "She'kspere" Briggs and Burrus (who would go on to co-write and produce TLC’s "No Scrubs") contributed to five of the album's tracks, shaping its overall sound and differentiating it from Destiny’s Child. The duo kept a few elements from the group’s debut effort, including the sing-rapping heard on "Bug A Boo" and "Hey Ladies." With syncopated beats, thumping basslines, and their knack for writing catchy hooks, Briggs and Burrus created R&B records with the perfect blend of chart-friendly accessibility.

On the Missy Elliott produced "Confessions," synthesizers, drum machines, and electronic garbling were layered to create a lush, futuristic backdrop. Further subverting the classic R&B ballad, Elliott paired what sounds like a cabasa to match Beyonce’s cadence throughout the verses which gives her laidback vocals an almost robotic feel. In addition to producing, Elliott’s velvety vocals also appear quite prominently on the chorus, adding to the track’s sonic tapestry.

GRAMMY-winner Rodney Jerkins was tapped to produce "Say My Name." The original beat Jerkins used was two-step garage, a subgenre of UK garage. No one else liked the sound, so he completely revamped the track into the GRAMMY-winning anthem we know today. Jerkins melded funk-inspired guitar and a call and response approach, then modernized them with a shimmery, polished production. This helped "Say My Name" become the group’s most listened to song on Spotify with over 840 million streams. Jerkins has even gone on record to say this is his favorite song he’s produced to date.

Read more: "Say My Name" 20 Years Later: Why The Destiny's Child Staple Is Still On Everyone's Lips

Its Music Videos Praised Black Culture

"For me, it is about amplifying the beauty in all of us," Beyoncé said in a 2019 interview with Elle when asked about the importance of representation. Even before her solo work, the importance of spotlighting Black culture was evident in Destiny's Child's music videos.

In "Bills, Bills, Bills," we see the group play the role of hair stylists in a salon which is an obvious nod to Beyoncé's mother’s longstanding relationship with all things hair. Near the end of "Bug a Boo," the members change into their version of majorette costumes and dance in front of a marching band. Majorettes and marching bands have a vibrant legacy within HBCUs; almost 20 years after this video premiered, Beyoncé revisited this very concept for her 2018 Coachella performance. 

It Delivered Mainstream Success 

The Writing’s On the Wall was a hit across the charts. The group earned their first No. 1 singles on Billboard’s Hot 100 with "Bills, Bills, Bills" and "Say My Name." Promotions for the latter also reinvigorated album sales and helped shift another 157,000 copies (an impressive 15 percent increase from their first-week sales). The fourth and final single, "Jumpin’, Jumpin’" was released during the summer of 2000 and became one of the most played songs on the radio that year.

Songs from the album were nominated at both the 42nd and 43rd GRAMMY Awards. Destiny’s Child took home their first golden gramophone at the 2001 GRAMMYs, winning Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals for "Say My Name." The single also won Best R&B Song and  was nominated for Record Of The Year. 

With 14 nominations, Destiny’s Child remain the most nominated girl group in GRAMMY history. With worldwide sales of 13 million, The Writing’s On the Wall is also the fourth best-selling girl group album of all time.

It Expanded The Concept Of "Girl Power"

The Writing’s On the Wall was much more than catchy, radio-friendly tunes. Lyrically and in production, the album reintroduced Destiny’s Child as the architects for their own lives. The tongue-in-cheek Godfather-inspired intro tees up each song with a commandment for their partners and, at times, for themselves.

Often misconstrued as a gold digger anthem,"Bills, Bills, Bills" empowers a woman to confront a lover who's financially taking advantage of her. This is a far cry from the theme of a young woman focused on finding love — a common theme on Destiny's Child —  and puts their confidence on full display. "So Good" is a sassy, uplifting anthem which explicitly addresses haters with pointed lyrics like "For all the people ‘round us that have been negative/Look at us now/See how we live." Destiny's Child was sending a clear message: they’re going to be fine regardless of what others say. 

And when the group became tabloid fodder due to unexpected lineup changes, "So Good" took on a new meaning for persevering through hard times. While there are some songs with morally questionable lyrics — we’re looking at you ‘"Confessions" — the consistent message of embracing one’s self-worth and independence is clear. 

More Girl Group Sounds & History

Janet Jackson performs at the 2022 Essence Festival of Culture.
Janet Jackson performs at the 2022 Essence Festival of Culture

Photo Credit: Bennett Raglin/Getty Images for Essence 

interview

Celebrating 30 Years Of Essence Fest: How New Orleans & Multi-Generational, Diasporic Talent Create The "Super Bowl Of Culture"

Ahead of the 30th Essence Festival Of Culture, held July 4-7 in New Orleans, GRAMMY.com spoke with executives and curators of the legendary celebration of Black excellence.

GRAMMYs/Jul 2, 2024 - 03:02 pm

Every July, millions of Black people, specifically Black women, descend upon New Orleans for the Essence Festival of Culture (EFOC). Known for many years as the Essence Festival, the festival is a celebration of Black culture, community, and heritage. Since its inception in 1995 as a one-off event to commemorate the publication’s 25th anniversary, the festival has evolved into a diasporic jubilee, drawing in people of African descent from across the diaspora. 

In addition to its global presence, the festival pours millions of dollars into the local New Orleans community, which has served as the festival's home for 30 years (with the exception of 2006, when the festival was held in Houston, because of Hurricane Katrina). In 2020, the festival was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite this, the annual festival continues to be one of the most sought-after and attended festivals in the United States. 

This year’s Essence Festival of Culture will be held at the Superdome from July 4-7, replete with legendary and fast-rising talents. On July 5, Birdman & Friends will celebrate the 30th anniversary of Cash Money Records. The following day will feature a special performance by Charlie Wilson, while Usher will commemorate the 20th anniversary of Confessions.

Janet Jackson and Victoria Monét will headline the festival's final night, while Frankie Beverly and Maze close out the festival with the return of All-White Night. Other performers include The Roots featuring Mickey Guyton, Ari Lennox and T-Pain, Busta Rhymes, Raphael Saadiq, D-Nice featuring Shelia E, Big Boi, and many more.  

Read more: Music Festivals 2024 Guide: Lineups & Dates For Lollapalooza, Coachella, Bonnaroo & Much More 

EFOC has been compared to SXSW, Coachella, Austin City Limits, and other notable festivals, yet it stands out for its empowerment-centered approach. It is not simply a festival, it is a family reunion. The one festival in the United States that does not pander to or take advantage of Black audiences, but truly celebrates them and their achievements. Although music has always been an integral part of the festival’s ethos — Aretha Franklin and B.B. King performed at the first iteration — the festival excels in its multi-generational and interdisciplinary programming. On any given day, attendees can attend sessions on Black entrepreneurship, politics, mental health, and literature, as well as seminars focused on issues impacting the Black community.  

There’s a reason why the festival is referred to as the party with a purpose. For decades, it has operated as a celebratory convening place for Black people, Black families, and Black communities. Now, more than ever, spaces like EFOC are needed, as the Black community experiences an onslaught of changes — from Historically Black Colleges and Universities in North Carolina and Tennessee being subject to intense government oversight, to Black women-owned venture capital firms being targeted by conservatives, and Black voting rights becoming at risk during an election year. 

Ahead of the festival’s 30th celebration, Michael Barclay, Executive Vice President of Experiential for ESSENCE Ventures and Barkue Tubman Zawolo, Chief of Staff, Talent and Diasporic Engagement for Essence Ventures, spoke to the Recording Academy about the history, legacy, and future of the Essence Festival of Culture.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Are you part of the generation that grew up with the Essence Festival of Culture? If so, how does it feel to be a part of it?

Barkue Tubman Zawolo: I'm originally from Liberia. And even being in Liberia, prior to my family moving to the U.S. in 1980, Essence was always a thing for my mom and my aunts. When we came here, fast forward to me, as an adult, [after] graduating college, I got into the music industry. I've managed artists that have gone through the Essence stages and pages in different ways.

Essence Fest has always been something that we were familiar with. I have to say, I had not really experienced Essence Fest until 2019 when Essence was actually a client. One of the things that I was doing [at that point] was integrating the Diaspora and African creatives within the festival in fashion and music.

To be in the role that I'm in right now and to be on a team with people who have been a part of Essence for a long time…. Essence seems to be ingrained in all of our fabric. [What] started as a music festival now is the Super Bowl of Culture that is the Essence Festival of Culture. To be on the team that helps bring this to life for our community is a daunting but rewarding task all in the same. 

Essence is something that I don't think anybody in our community takes lightly. Even our partners understand the value of it. We certainly understand that we serve the Essence-inverse and, and we are in service to this community. It is a huge honor to be able to be a part of the team that brings this to life and, and, and constantly hear what it means to the community globally too. 

One thing that I admired, especially about last year's festival, was GU Kickback — a music event hosted by Girls United, the publication’s Gen Z vertical. I saw a number of local artists from New Orleans, such as 504ICYGRL. ESSENCE just released a series of cover stories celebrating the 30 year relationship between the publication and New Orleans; how do you highlight the city and their history?

Michael Barclay: As somebody who's worked in experiential, creating gatherings and experiences for almost 25 years now, the venue is always important when you're trying to set the box where you are creating for your community, for your audience. New Orleans has been that backdrop for us for almost 30 years now. 

New Orleans is the convergence of our mission, our brand, in a city that is perfectly matched for that energy. New Orleans is as much a part of Essence Festival of Culture as Essence Magazine is to Essence Festival. 

It is very much a partnership that has created this cultural movement. To be more inclusive, and highlight more of those local relationships and talent is very intentional. It has been something that we have put a lot of energy and effort into over the last couple of years. 

This will be my third festival this year. I think Barkue, you started maybe a year or two before me. We're a fairly new crew that is working to help grow and reshape and solidify those relationships. Even with how we handle the management of the festival. 

Our VP of Essence Festival, Hakeem Holmes is a hometown boy from New Orleans. He's the pride and joy. They love to see him coming. He's always enlightening us on the things that we need to be focused on for the city and how we make the best partnership and make the best impact on the area.

It was intentional what you saw last year. It's intentional this year. We dedicated our entire festival edition of the magazine as a love letter to New Orleans. It's a symbiotic relationship that is one of the key reasons why this festival is the Super Bowl of Culture.  

I would love to hear about the talent aspect of the festival. Last year, Megan Thee Stallion headlined. In previous years, Beyoncé and Prince have served as headliners. What is the formula between balancing local talent, national talent and diasporic talent at the festival?

Zawolo: As we grow the festival, the intentionality becomes even more and more important. And, what we do in understanding where we are as a brand. 

We're 30 years into the festival, the brand is 55 years. What's traditionally known as the Essence Woman is now bringing her daughter. It's multi-generational. We also know that the world is as big as your cell phone, so people are now exposed to different types of content and music. 

We see the influence of Afrobeats and Caribbean music. We are intentional about making sure that every night really speaks to multiple generations, but it's anchored in a generation. It's like, who's bringing, who to the concert on Friday? Is it the daughter bringing her mama? 

It's anchored in  that younger demo, but we're going to make sure that they're going to have a collective good time there. Saturday is usually our heaviest night. We have our living legends that show up there; that really cuts across generations. This is anybody can bring anybody, but let me tell you, you're going to be able to teach each other, connect with each other with the different groupings of talent that we have.

We try to make sure that there is something that speaks to us, but that that connects with the diaspora on as many nights as possible. Sometimes it's not because they're from a different country, but because we know the music also resonates.

If you think of Janet Jackson, you can go anywhere in the world. She can check off that box, although she's not from there. You can create those ties, but we also are intentional about having Ayra Starr and Machel Montano. Last year we had Tems and Wizkid. The goal is to continue to grow what that looks like, because we are a global brand and that is our diasporic and global intent in connecting the global Black community is really important.  

We are intentionally multi-generational. We intentionally lead into where a multitude of generational communities can come together and have fun together. There is something for everybody. We have a unique opportunity with Essence as the brand grows to be able to not only speak to what they want to call the aunties, I call the punties. I also think that this is where we get to educate the next generation on where we're coming from. We also get to learn from them on where they are and where they want to go. 

What a beautiful way to kind of tie all of these connections. Last year, the festival celebrated 50 years of hip-hop; this year you're celebrating the 30th anniversary of the festival. What is the intention behind this year’s music programming?

Zawolo: Paying homage to people who had done some historical things on our stages. We have Janet [Jackson] back. People are like, “Oh, we saw Janet two years ago,” but Janet is also one of the highest sellers in the festival's history. 

If we're going to celebrate, let's celebrate, because we know Janet never disappoints. We also want to lean into some of the [older] talent, like Charlie Wilson, Uncle Charlie. He's graced that stage so many times, but yet it's still very relevant. Using this moment to reignite things that we've done in the past and bring them back to life that we know the audience missed.

Frankie Beverly, who is going to come, this is probably going to really be his last performance. The passing of the torch. This year was about having to be intentional about what other milestones are happening that are important to this culture. Cash Money is also celebrating 30 years. Who better, right?  

Essence has been in New Orleans for 30 years. Cash Money and crew are from New Orleans. Juvenile just got the key to the city from the mayor. We want to honor and celebrate him, but we also want to recognize the influence that this group of very creative, entrepreneurial, rappers and artists have had on culture, because there was a time where we all were backing that ass up. 

Making sure we highlighted milestones, connecting with people who have historically been a part of making history with us, introducing some new ones — that's what we have to do. We have to set up now for the next 30 years. We want to go to the soul of what appeals to our audience, and we're really all about good music.  

I think the 30th year just continues to do what we do. As we look to grow and connect demos, Megan Thee Stallion is a very viable option because again, the daughter now is going to bring the mama. Intergenerational diasporic and connecting demos, I think that only happens at the Superdome. That's also happening in the convention center, which I believe is honestly the soul of the festival. 

What are your hopes and aspirations for the next 30 years of the Essence Festival of Culture? Will Essence Fest always be in New Orleans? Are we going to have an Essence Fest in Lagos, Nigeria?

Barclay: Being on this side of [EFOC], seeing the true impact of the festival and how it impacts the communities, how it impacts the folks that come to New Orleans, and now, because we've expanded to our virtual audience, the 1.7 million that are viewing around the world, my hope for the festival is that we continue to show up where our community needs us.

We're going to be in New Orleans. We're going to be in our official world as we call it. If you can't make it to New Orleans, you can tune into Essence.com and you can see what's going on there. We are creating virtual experiences, AR experiences, VR experiences, all those things, so really keeping up with the way that people continue to connect with each other, whether they're physically in the same place or halfway across the world.

I think that type of innovation is what I want to continue to see us do and allow us to create that joy that we generate in New Orleans and wherever it's needed for our community.

PRIDE & Black Music Month: Celebrating LGBTQIA+ & Black Voices

Omar Apollo Embraces Heartbreak On 'God Said No'
Omar Apollo

Photo: Aitor Laspiur

interview

Omar Apollo Embraces Heartbreak And Enters His "Zaddy" Era On 'God Said No'

Alongside producer Teo Halm, Omar Apollo discusses creating 'God Said No' in London, the role of poetry in the writing process, and eventually finding comfort in the record's "proof of pain."

GRAMMYs/Jun 27, 2024 - 01:21 pm

"Honestly, I feel like a zaddy," Omar Apollo says with a roguish grin, "because I'm 6'5" so, like, you can run up in my arms and stay there, you know what I mean?"

As a bonafide R&B sensation and one of the internet’s favorite boyfriends, Apollo is likely used to the labels, attention and online swooning that come with modern fame. But in this instance, there’s a valid reason for asking about his particular brand of "zaddyhood": he’s been turned into a Bratz doll.

In the middle of June, the popular toy company blasted  a video to its nearly 5 million social media followers showing off the singer as a real-life Bratz Boy — the plastic version draped in a long fur coat (shirtless, naturally), with a blinged-out cross necklace and matching silver earrings as he belts out his 2023 single "3 Boys" from a smoke-covered stage.

The video, which was captioned "Zaddy coded," promptly went viral, helped along by an amused Apollo reposting the clip to his own Instagram Story. "It was so funny," he adds. "And it's so accurate; that's literally how my shows go. It made me look so glamorous, I loved it."

The unexpected viral moment came with rather auspicious timing, considering Apollo is prepping for the release of his hotly anticipated sophomore album. God Said No arrives June 28 via Warner Records.

In fact, the star is so busy with the roll-out that, on the afternoon of our interview, he’s FaceTiming from the back of a car. The day prior, he’d filmed the music video for "Done With You," the album’s next single. Now he’s headed to the airport to jet off to Paris, where he’ll be photographed front row at the LOEWE SS25 men’s runway show in between Sabrina Carpenter and Mustafa — the latter of whom is one of the few collaborators featured on God Said No

Apollo’s trusted co-writer and producer, Teo Halm, is also joining the conversation from his home studio in L.A. In between amassing credits for Beyoncé (The Lion King: The Gift), Rosalía and J Balvin (the Latin GRAMMY-winning "Con Altura"), SZA ("Notice Me" and "Open Arms" featuring Travis Scott) and others, the 25-year-old virtuoso behind the boards had teamed up with Apollo on multiple occasions. Notably, the two collabed on "Evergreen (You Didn’t Deserve Me At All)," which helped Apollo score his nomination for Best New Artist at the 2023 GRAMMYs

In the wake of that triumph, Apollo doubled down on their creative chemistry by asking Halm to executive produce God Said No. (The producer is also quick to second his pal’s magnetic mystique: "Don't get it twisted, he's zaddy, for sure.") 

Apollo bares his soul like never before across the album’s 14 tracks,  as he processes the bitter end of a two-year relationship with an unnamed paramour. The resulting portrait of heartbreak is a new level of emotional exposure for a singer already known for his unguarded vulnerability and naked candor. (He commissioned artist Doron Langberg to paint a revealing portrait of him for the cover of his 2023 EP Live For Me, and unapologetically included a painting of his erect penis as the back cover of the vinyl release.) 

On lead single "Spite," he’s pulled between longing and resentment in the wake of the break-up over a bouncing guitar riff. Second single "Dispose of Me" finds Apollo heartsick and feeling abandoned as he laments, "It don’t matter if it’s 25 years, 25 months/ It don’t matter if it’s 25 days, it was real love/ We got too much history/ So don’t just dispose of me." 

Elsewhere, the singer offers the stunning admission that "I would’ve married you" on album cut "Life’s Unfair." Then, on the very next song — the bumping, braggadocious "Against Me" — Apollo grapples with the reality that he’s been permanently altered by the love affair while on the prowl for a rebound. "I cannot act like I’m average/ You know that I am the baddest bitch," he proclaims on the opening verse, only to later admit, "I’ve changed so much, but have you heard?/ I can’t move how I used to."

More Omar Apollo News & Videos

Given the personal subject matter filling God Said No — not to mention the amount of acclaim he earned with Ivory — it would be understandable if Apollo felt a degree of pressure or anxiety when it came to crafting his sophomore studio set. But according to the singer, that was entirely not the case.

"I feel like I wouldn’t be able to make art if I felt pressure," he says. "Why would I be nervous about going back and making more music? If anything, I'm more excited and my mind is opened up in a whole other way and I've learned so much."

In order to throw his entire focus into the album’s creation, Apollo invited Halm to join him in London. The duo set up shop in the famous Abbey Road Studios, where the singer often spent 12- to 13-hour days attempting to exorcize his heartbreak fueled by a steady stream of Aperol spritzes and cigarettes.

The change of scenery infused the music with new sonic possibilities, like the kinetic synths and pulsating bass line that set flight to "Less of You." Apollo and Halm agree that the single was directly inspired by London’s unique energy.

"It's so funny because we were out there in London, but we weren't poppin' out at all," the Halm says. "Our London scene was really just, like, studio, food. Omar was a frickin' beast. He was hitting the gym every day…. But it was more like feeding off the culture on a day-to-day basis. Like, literally just on the walk to the studio or something as simple as getting a little coffee. I don't think that song would've happened in L.A."

Poetry played a surprisingly vital role in the album’s creation as well, with Apollo littering the studio with collections by "all of the greats," including the likes of Ocean Vuong, Victoria Chang, Philip Larkin, Alan Ginsberg, Mary Oliver and more.

"Could you imagine making films, but never watching a film?" the singer posits, turning his appreciation for the written art form into a metaphor about cinema. "Imagine if I never saw [films by] the greats, the beauty of words and language, and how it's manipulated and how it flows. So I was so inspired." 

Perhaps a natural result of consuming so much poetic prose, Apollo was also led to experiment with his own writing style. While on a day trip with his parents to the Palace of Versailles, he wrote a poem that ultimately became the soaring album highlight "Plane Trees," which sends the singer’s voice to new, shiver-inducing heights. 

"I'd been telling Teo that I wanted to challenge myself vocally and do a power ballad," he says. "But it wasn't coming and we had attempted those songs before. And I was exhausted with writing about love; I was so sick of it. I was like, Argh, I don't want to write anymore songs with this person in my mind." 

Instead, the GRAMMY nominee sat on the palace grounds with his parents, listening to his mom tell stories about her childhood spent in Mexico. He challenged himself to write about the majestic plane tree they were sitting under in order to capture the special moment. 

Back at the studio, Apollo’s dad asked Halm to simply "make a beat" and, soon enough, the singer was setting his poem to music. (Later, Mustafa’s hushed coda perfected the song’s denouement as the final piece of the puzzle.) And if Apollo’s dad is at least partially responsible for how "Plane Trees" turned out, his mom can take some credit for a different song on the album — that’s her voice, recorded beneath the same plane tree, on the outro of delicate closer "Glow." 

Both the artist and the producer ward off any lingering expectations that a happy ending will arrive by the time "Glow" fades to black, however. "The music that we make walks a tightrope of balancing beauty and tragedy," Halm says. "It's always got this optimism in it, but it's never just, like, one-stop shop happy. It's always got this inevitable pain that just life has. 

"You know, even if maybe there wasn't peace in the end for Omar, or if that wasn't his full journey with getting through that pain, I think a lot of people are dealing with broken hearts who it really is going to help," the producer continues. "I can only just hope that the music imparts leaving people with hope."

 Apollo agrees that God Said No contains a "hopeful thread," even if his perspective on the project remains achingly visceral. Did making the album help heal his broken heart? "No," he says with a sad smile on his face. "But it is proof of pain. And it’s a beautiful thing that is immortalized now, forever. 

"One day, I can look back at it and be like, Wow, what a beautiful thing I experienced. But yeah, no, it didn't help me," he says with a laugh. 

Latest News & Exclusive Videos