Former misfit on brink of fame

The 19-year-old singer Khalid is up for awards such as Best New Artist and Best R&B Song for Location.
The 19-year-old singer Khalid is up for awards such as Best New Artist and Best R&B Song for Location.PHOTO: REUTERS

Teenager Khalid has five nominations at next year's Grammy Awards and his songs have reached platinum status

NEW YORK • Khalid, the breakout pop-soul and R&B singer, was not yet 16 when he tweeted a stray thought: "I want to go to the Grammys one day."

It was early 2014 and he did not even mean as an artist, let alone one who was nominated.

"Just to watch, just to see," he recalled of his mindset then.

Now 19, he will make his first trip to the ceremony - in New York on Jan 28 - as a five-time nominee, up for awards including Best New Artist, Best R&B Song (Location) and Song of the Year (for his guest feature on Logic's suicide prevention song, 1-800-273-8255).

The recognition caps a year in which Khalid Robinson went from an everyday teenage misfit to an internationally known one, carrying the relatable-outcast torch alongside artists such as Lorde, Alessia Cara, Lil Uzi Vert and Julia Michaels (all of whom are also up for Grammys).

Jon Caramanica, writing in The New York Times, said Khalid's debut album American Teen "most vividly recalls the promise embedded in the soundtracks of John Hughes films - that an outsider's story might in fact be the thing that can unify and move millions".

That was certainly the case for Location, the three-time platinum single that peaked at No. 16 on the Billboard Hot 100, and its follow-up Young Dumb & Broke, which also reached platinum status and has been streamed more than 290 million times on Spotify.

Khalid has been a near-constant presence on the award show circuit, including the MTV Video Music Awards, and has proved himself a cross-genre chameleon with appearances not only on 1-800-273-8255, but also Alina Baraz's Electric, Calvin Harris' Rollin and Marshmello's Silence.

Over the telephone on his way to the airport not long after the Grammy announcement, Khalid was ebullient and bursting with praise for his fellow nominees as he discussed the diverse crop and looked back on his dreamer days.

How did it feel? Where were you?

I woke up at, like, 5.30 in the morning in LA. It was one of those anxious moments, like Christmas, where you wait to go see what's under the tree. I was very excited, but it doesn't feel all too real right now.

Not long after seeing the nominations, I got a phone call from my mum congratulating me - that was very special.

She was screaming on the phone, telling me how proud of me she was and how all my work paid off. And (saying) that she has to go find a dress for the award show.

So she's your date then?


Take me back to January 2014, when you wrote a tweet about wanting to go to the Grammys. What was your life like then?

I was in high school in New York. I was very confused with where my life was heading, but I knew that whatever I did, music was going to be involved. I didn't know if I'd be singing my own songs or writing for others. I was super into Broadway.

I don't even remember tweeting it. I put that out in the world and it came true.

In 2015, that's when I started writing music. I didn't remember the tweet until this year. I couldn't have prepared myself for the roller coaster that I just rode this whole year.

How many times do you think you've performed Location this year? Are you sick of it yet?

I wouldn't say I'm sick of it - it changed my life forever. But I've performed it a lot.

Every time, I feel a special energy to see everybody in the audience sing every single word super loud. It's almost like that song is competing with Young Dumb & Broke at the shows - some days, Location will be louder; some days, Young Dumb & Broke will be louder.

They love Silence, with Marshmello too.

When you look at the slate of Best New Artist nominees - none of whom is a white man - what does that tell you about where music is right now?

I feel like music is in a place where - I mean, it's crazy that I'm nominated. I'm not the most attractive, I'm very young - I'm only 19 and I am an African-American artist.

The categories are just filled by so many versatile artists - minorities - who accept their own individuality. Uzi is insanely good and super creative. I'm so glad he's nominated because it's a win for hip-hop music. SZA is a win for R&B and hip-hop.

Julia Michaels, so amazing - a win for pop music. Alessia Cara - a win for soul and pop.

And what about where the Grammys stand in general? They're always fighting the criticism that they're out of touch.

They definitely got it right. They got it right this year. All the way down from rock to hip-hop to R&B to pop, they got it right.

How are you going to celebrate tonight?

I'm heading to Chicago. I'm probably just going to chill with my best friend. I don't want to psych myself out and I don't want to step away from normality. I'm not really the type to - I'm only 19 so I can't pop bottles at the club.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 04, 2017, with the headline 'Former misfit on brink of fame'. Print Edition | Subscribe