Khalid, the teenager with 5 Grammy nominations: ‘They got it right this year’

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 didn’t even mean as an artist, let alone one who was nominated. ‘Just to watch, just to see,’ he recalled on Tuesday of his mindset then.

Now 19, Khalid will make his first trip to the ceremony — on Jan. 28 in New York — 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 industry 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 like 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-times 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.

He has also been a near-constant presence on the award show circuit, including the MTV Video Music Awards and the BET 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 phone 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. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Q: So how did it feel? Where were you this morning? Take me through it.

A: I woke up at like 5:30 in the morning in L.A. 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 mom 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.

Q: So she’s your date then?

A: Definitely.

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

A: I was in high school in New York — I think I was a sophomore. 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. It was just off of energy.

In 2015, that’s when I started writing music. I didn’t remember the tweet until 2017. I couldn’t have prepared myself for the roller coaster that I just rode this whole year. Even as a young boy who was very confused, I put that out in the world, and it came true.

Q: How many times do you think you’ve performed ‘Location’ this year? Are you sick of it yet?

A: 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.

Q: When you look at the slate of best new artist nominees — none of whom are white men — what does that tell you about where music is right now?

A: I feel like music is in a place where — I mean, I feel like 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.

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

A: 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. There’s so many amazing songs in 2017. I’m very excited to see who wins, because it’s tough — every song is good.

Q: Do you have personal favourites among the nominees, people you’re really rooting for?

A: Oh, Kendrick. Kendrick Lamar deserves a Grammy. He’s one of the biggest, most influential rappers of my generation.

Q: How are you going to celebrate tonight?

A: I’m actually 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 normalcy. I’m not really the type to — I’m only 19, so I can’t pop bottles at the club.

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