Damon Dash Reflects on Aaliyah's Legacy on the Anniversary of Her Death (Exclusive)

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It's been 20 years since the world lost Aaliyah Haughton, but fans of the late entertainer have kept the fires of her legacy burning all this time. And after years without having access to her full music catalog, Aaliyah's fans will get to listen to her music again following a partnership between her uncle and former manager, ​​Barry Hankerson, and the music distribution company Empire. The deal allows the rebooted record label -- now named Blackground Records 2.0 -- to release its catalog of beloved titles, including Aaliyah's music.  

In celebration of Aaliyah's life on the anniversary of her death, ET's Kevin Frazier spoke with Damon Dash, who dated the late singer from late 2000 until she died in 2001. Dash shares that although it's been 20 years since her death, "it still feels like yesterday." 

"I was reflecting [that] there hasn't been one day since she's passed, not one in the 20 years, that I haven't either heard her name, heard her record, or seen a picture of her," he says. "Every single day she's present in my life and I feel lucky for that."

The Roc-A-Fella Records co-founder reminisces of how the two first met in the summer during a basketball game before being introduced by their mutual accountant, Barry Klarberg.

"We met at a basketball game, but that was her as 'Aaliyah.' She had on a basketball jersey, and I just looked at her," he recalls. "I was young, kind of, like an artist, just saw her as one. But then she was in [Klarberg's] office and I was like, 'Who is that?' 'Cause when you would see her, she would look different every time, you know? She had different angles, it was crazy. So from there, we started to kick it."

The two would meet again on a photo shoot, but their connection was really sparked by the book "The Seat of the Soul" by Gary Zukav. Dash explains that the two were introduced to the book by a mutual friend, and when they began reading it together, it forged a "serious connection and a union." 

"From then on, we were sort of inseparable," he says. 

When looking back on Aaliyah's career, Dash says that "the trajectory of the world" would be different if the singer was still alive because she was an "opinion leader." A well-known trendsetter in both the music and fashion world, Aaliyah was primed to storm the film industry at the time of her death. Her film debut in Romeo Must Die and her role as Queen Akasha in Queen of the Damned have become cult classics since their release.

"She was just building herself as a brand, so the trajectory of the world could have been a lot different 'cause she was a very forward thinker," Dash explains. "She was a good person and she was really into being around good people, so, I knew I was cool 'cause she said so. 'Cause she was the coolest, you know what I'm saying?"

Fans of the late singer know what Dash is saying and feel the same way. When Aaliyah's second studio album, One in a Million, became available to stream on Spotify on Aug. 19, it quickly climbed to No. 1 on the US iTunes Albums chart. Despite the long-time battle between the late singer's estate and Hankerson, having Aaliyah's music available to stream has rekindled the passion within her fans -- both famous and not -- and brought a new wave of devoted listeners ready to dive back into her catalog.

Dash admits that when Aaliyah died, it was hard to handle how strong her presence was. He shares that he went out a lot to "escape" and would make it so that clubs knew not to play any of her music when he arrived. But with time came an understanding that allowed him to get to a place where he could embrace hearing her music. 

"They're signs to me, it means she's talking to me," he says. "You know, because sometimes things will come on and people will say her name in other songs when I'm bringing her up, or [say] that she's a living angel -- now she's an angel for real. So, you know, she looks out for the people that she loves, that's how I feel."

And when it comes to her fans, Dash says he hopes they remember the singer as she presented herself to them. "Great music and swag, the coolest, you know? [She was] humble, beautiful," he says. 

Aaliyah at The Forum 1997
Jeffrey Mayer/WireImage

Dash says that one day, he'd like to helm a project focused on Aaliyah. The founder of DD172, a media collective that encompasses a magazine, web design firm, record label division and an art gallery, says that his dream is to make more films "on my own terms," including one on his late love. 

"It would be about our relationship and the love that we had," he says. "It would be about our experience."

He says he's happy and living his dreams thanks to the courage gained from losing someone he loved, losing Aaliyah. Now, with her music officially being released and the 20th anniversary of her death, Dash says he'll "pop bottles" and "just appreciate the fact that I am here and that I had the time with her."

"It's almost amazing to me that I was the guy who was with Aaliyah. Like, I am almost a fan of myself," he jokes. "Who is that guy who could have been that cool to be with Aaliyah? Like, who could have actually have been with Aaliyah? ME. And that is crazy, so I got to appreciate that."

See more on Aaliyah in the video below.

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