The story of Aaliyah’s “Rock the Boat” music video
On August 21, 2001, stylist Derek Lee was locked in a Miami hotel room, brushing and splashing streaks of bleach on 15 pairs of jeans. At the time, Lee, who worked with Celine Dion, Pharrell Williams, and Samuel L. Jackson, was Aaliyah’s senior stylist, having worked on the looks of almost every music video she’d made until then. -the. , from “More than a woman” to “Are you that someone?” ”
That night in Florida, he was a few hours away from filming the opening scenes for Aaliyah’s “Rock the Boat” video. The shoot will go down in history as the singer’s last; she and eight others died in a plane crash while returning to the United States from production in the Bahamas. Her tragic and untimely passing – Aaliyah was only 22 and her team members, including her makeup artist Christopher Maldonado and hairstylist Eric Foreman, were also in their 20s – became the reason to remember “Rock the Boat”.
When the video was released posthumously, it, as you might expect, generated tons of buzz. It was the last work she would create, and the heartbreaking proof that she was truly gone. But for me, the symbolism behind “Rock the Boat” isn’t what makes it special. Of course, the emotional attachment is there. But “Rock the Boat” is a perfect video, as the song’s easy-going, laid-back vibe is visually captured in a wonderful way. It transports you to another place, puts you right on an island with white sandy beaches, sunlight splashing over the crests of the waves – and it carries the nostalgic features of music videos from the late ’90s and early’ 90s. 90s: rescue dancers, matching outfits, close-ups of Aaliyah’s face framed by huge hoops that practically rest on her shoulders. Aside from all the importance attached to video, it is just great. To commemorate the 20th anniversary of the clip’s release, I spoke with Lee, choreographer Fatima Robinson and actress Nadine Ellis, who was one of the dancers from “Rock the Boat”, who shared their memories of the production of this iconic video. .
Although Lee put the finishing touches on his costumes at the 11th hour, preparation for the shooting of “Rock the Boat” had started weeks before. Director Hype Williams reached out to Lee and Robinson separately to discuss his vision for the video. “The whole concept was Hype’s,” Robinson, who choreographed for Sia, Mary J. Blige and Save the last dance, he told me on the phone from Los Angeles. “The song has such a wonderful, sultry and sexual vibe, and we wanted to play with that. The beautiful beach, the idea of dancing on the yacht, was all Hype’s idea. We just wanted to have this really beautiful, classy and stylish video.
“He said, we shoot here, here and here, and that’s it,” adds Lee. “Back then, when we worked with an artist all the time, the directors didn’t say too much. They were just like, do what you do. Make sure it works in the frame.
Three days before production began, Robinson and Ellis, who danced with Beyoncé’s crew and moved to the theater, with roles in Shameless and Joan 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,” says Robinson. “Corn [Aaliyah] was an amazing dancer, and understood very quickly. Sometimes she felt like she couldn’t get it, but I pushed her a little harder, [and say,] ‘You have this.’ “
“Aaliyah was there for all the rehearsals,” says Ellis. “She came in and learned with us, spent time with us and was very, very cool. It is the memory of her that marked me. There have been artists who, when they don’t need to be around the dancers, walk into another room or arrive there with just time to learn the choreography and get on with their day. But she really wanted to be there. It just reminded me of how much of a girl she still was.
On day one, Aaliyah and the crew shot the green screen and underwater video scenes in Miami before flying to the Bahamas. Ellis had been chosen as Aaliyah’s “mirror” for the green screen part – a dance partner who mirrored Aaliyah’s “hip pivots,” Ellis recalls. The idea of the mirror dance moves stems from Robinson’s natural meshing with Aaliyah when they danced together, which she compared to a “synchronized swimming”.
“She could move just like me, which made her really fun to dance,” says Robinson. “The first thing I did with her was ‘One in a Million’, and when I took that first meeting at the dance studio, she and I just danced. From that point on, we we are both regarded as “the soul mate!”
The looks from the green screen part might be the most memorable part of the video, as faded jeans, tight and tiny white tops, chain belts, and Air Force Ones have become fashion staples for teenage girls to look out for. that time. Lee remembered cutting the t-shirts and splashing bleach on the jeans to create a DIY feel, which spoke of Jamaican and dancehall visual themes. “Aaliyah being Jamaican and I being a Dancehall fan from a young age, it made sense to personalize the clothes. That’s how they ride, ”he told me over the phone. “So I was like, I’m just gonna go to old school Dancehall: cut shit, dye shit.”
After wrapping up the green screen portion, the crew took off for a hotel pool, where Aaliyah was filmed underwater wearing a Norma Kamali gown that Lee had chosen for its dramatic and flowing fabric. “The 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 mom has had a relationship with Norma since I was a kid, and I knew Norma Kamali was famous for making swimwear that had a mermaid or vintage feel, with that extra fabric that could ripple in the water. (Williams would have wanted great drama for the underwater scene, asking for bold makeup. Since Maldonado couldn’t put long fake lashes on Aaliyah while she was swimming in a chlorinated pool, he stuck red rhinestones on her instead. on the eyes.)
Two days later, the crew arrived at Treasure Cay, a peninsula off the island of Great Abaco, and started filming early on. Lee had found it at Patricia Field’s store for the video’s opening scene, but that and the Norma Kamali dress were the only designer pieces featured. “You didn’t need to have it on Gucci or Dior,” says Lee. “Of course it helped, and it was nice, but it wasn’t a necessity. Creativity was more important then.
“‘Rock the Boat’ was not a fashion video per se,” he adds. “It was more to show a softer side of her. Yes, Aaliyah had to be the superstar, but she also had to be relatable. Nothing could look stylish – it had to be achievable and doable by young girls. This showed up in ‘Rock the Boat’ because anyone could craft anything with a pair of scissors. To create what he calls the ‘red Kangol look’ on the beach, the stylist cut out a pair of fishnet tights that he made into a top, as well as a can of Coca-Cola. a part between the brim and the puffy part of his Kangol, “he says. “You can barely see it, but I wanted it to look like an island.”
On the last day of filming, another memorable visual reference was packed: the yacht part. The dancers boarded the catamaran in the morning, then donned their all-white costumes to film a choreography that, as Ellis remembers, was different from the look and feel of green screen dance moves. “Miami was really technical, because you had to stick to certain parameters, make sure you were in your seat and all the spacing was correct,” she says. “But when we got to the Bahamas it was definitely more of an open space. We just have to sink.
“When you take something out of a dance studio and translate it into a set, it always has to alternate and change,” Robinson adds. “When we got to the boat there were some movements that didn’t work as well, so we had to adapt them.”
Thinking back to the scenes from “Rock the Boat”, it seems to everyone to be a pretty straightforward music video: for five minutes and 25 seconds, Aaliyah is seen on the beach, on a yacht with her dancers in the background. , in front of a green screen with the image of a wave superimposed on it, and swimming in the ocean wearing a dress, 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 simple. Aaliyah, in what seems like a candid moment, laughs widely, looking to her left, as if someone off camera has just done something charming and hilarious. In my eyes, this is the perfect way to cap off her final creation. It’s a reminder that even though Aaliyah isn’t here today, her legacy remains.