Last October, Khalid got a text that hit him hard. At the time he was a few months shy of 20, still a teenager, and his life had long revolved around his phone. It had been an instrument of hookups and breakups, and also the way he and his friends shared the music that helped define their experience. “Throughout high school we would always pass someone the aux,” he says. “You know, ‘Play a song! Play a song!'”
Only now he was making those songs, having started just before his senior year of high school in El Paso, Texas, channeling the loneliness he felt into melodies on his iPhone, and turning those melodies first into tracks like “Location” (where he begged for a pin-drop to so he could make a digital connection real) and then his debut album, American Teen, a startlingly fresh combination of r&b romance and pop exaltation, which climbed to Number Four on the Billboard album charts. So this text last October found him in Norway, while opening for Lorde. And it was from Kendrick Lamar.
“It was crazy,” says Khalid – and this is a word he uses often when describing the last 12 months, which has seen him go from playing clubs for 500 people to packing Radio City Music Hall (two nights for a combined audience of “12,000-and-change”); be showered with praise and support from artists he’d grown up listening to, like Alicia Keys (“she said that she loved my mind”); add his bristly baritone, which catches the sweet spot between warm and weary, to songs by Logic, Calvin Harris, Marshmello and Fifth Harmony’s Normani; and adopt a puppy, Roxy, the namesake of his current headlining tour. “These are moments I’ve dreamt since I was a kid,” he says. “I’m living them out, step by step, and it’s going at such a rate that I can barely keep up with it.”
But back to that text from Kendrick Lamar. “He hit me as I was leaving Norway, asking if I wanted to be part of a project,” Khalid says. “I didn’t know what the project was till I met up with him.” It was, of course, the Black Panther soundtrack. “I was like, ‘Oh, shit, now I have to sing a song in front of Kendrick Lamar.'” The song he, Lamar and Rae Sremmurd’s Swae Lee came up with was “The Ways,” an ode the strong women who hold it down in the Black Panther universe. “Power Girl, I really want to know your ways,” he sings. “Carryin’ a brother is not easy on your back.”
“For me, this song is this song is an acknowledgment and appreciation of how many strong women across the board – women of color, especially – are the backbone of everything,” he says. “The women in the film are the ones with the power. They’re strong willed, and they’re fearless, and they’re caring. I’m so blessed to have my own personal superhero mom who inspired me and taught me everything that brought me to where I am right now.”
His mom, Linda Wolfe, recently retired as a sergeant first class in the U.S. Army who sang with a U.S. Army band and chorus. “My mom could have gotten deployed, but music pretty much saved her life, and mine,” he says. Khalid grew up moving wherever his mom was stationed: Kentucky, Germany, upstate New York, El Paso. “She had a dream, and she made the sacrifice of not pursuing her own music career outside of the Army to take care of me as a child.”
He was back in Germany in February, when the American Teen tour took him to Europe. “I want to show people that I am the youth of America,” he says. “The youth has the power to change everything. I am not my elders. I’m able to go over there and tell them our truth of how it feels to be an American teen in this day and age.” As he says in the title track of American Teen, he’s proud to be an American. “I’m not proud of the state of America,” he adds, and he knows he’s not the only who feels that way. “But you hop on a plane and you go overseas, and there’s a lot of people over there who are also upset with America, and they’re singing every single word to ‘American Teen,’ screaming and that they’re proud to be American. Crazy.”
There’s that word again. As he explains this, Khalid is in Los Angeles, where he now makes his home, and where he’s begun work on his second album. He’s enjoying his first visit to Huntington Beach, watching the waves come and go, and some surfers bobbing in sea, looking to catch a ride. “It’s super peaceful here,” he says. And then he has to go. He met some people (“I don’t want to call them fans”) while walking on the boardwalk. “They asked me if I want to sit down and eat with them,” he says. “It’s crazy. It’s great.”