Fewer than four days had passed since the twin-engine Cessna ferrying 22-year-old R&B star Aaliyah from the Bahamas to Florida crashed—killing everyone on board—and the memorabilia craze was poised to start.
It’s now ritual that dead young celebrities—Tupac Shakur, Kurt Cobain, Biggie Smalls—come to inhabit a kind of commercial immortality, their images peering out from the posters and T-shirts of street vendors everywhere. At Neil Mays’ stand, along a crowded stretch of 6th Street NW on the Howard University campus, students walked by, glancing over the collection of CDs, posters, and T-shirts on a cloudy Wednesday afternoon. Mays, like several other street vendors across the District queried in an informal survey, said he had no Aaliyah T-shirts—yet.
“They’re probably in New York right now,” Mays said. “New York is the cultural center of vending. They’ll come down to Philly, and then D.C.” Mays, a vendor for more than 20 years, said he had one Aaliyah CD that was snatched up in no time. In addition, promoters gave out free Aaliyah posters on the Howard campus on Aug. 28. Mays nabbed two for his cousin.
T-shirt vendors in the District buy their stock from wholesalers or have their own shirts custom-made. Jo Deng, an assistant manager with Intertrade Corp. in Cheverly, Md., said her company was considering printing Aaliyah T-shirts because several vendors inquired soon after the crash. Officials at two other T-shirt producers said they would consider making Aaliyah shirts, but no one had placed an order by press time.
“That’s a hot item,” responded a vendor selling incense and Bob Marley shirts along Georgia Avenue when asked about Aaliyah shirts. But he, too, hadn’t seen any yet.
“I remember when Tupac died, shirts were out just after the funeral,” Mays says. “All the students liked [Aaliyah]. When [the shirts] hit, they’ll hit big.” —Dave Mann