It’s hard to be a black musician in 2019. Juggling the pressure to create a sound that appeals to mainstream white audiences and staying true to one's roots isn’t easy, but the R&B crooner Khalid makes it look effortless. At just 21 years old, he's selling out stadium tours and topping the charts with songs such as his latest hit single, "Talk." As a voice of and for the youth, he speaks (and sings) volumes as a role model, inspiring up-and-coming musicians and offering mainstream representation for those who look like him.
Khalid Robinson was born in Fort Stewart, Georgia, to military parents. With a childhood that involved a lot of relocating, Khalid followed his mother's footsteps into singing and musical theater, activities that didn't require him to be stationary. After settling in El Paso, Texas, during his junior year of high school, a 17-year-old Khalid began streaming his early creations on SoundCloud. By 2016, the dreamy, melodic R&B sound of “Location” resulted in his first hit single. Though its internet-age subject matter places the song in a specific time, the longing he communicates in it achieved a universality that's endeared him to audiences of all stripes.
Part of that global appeal also lies in his expert genre-blending. “I’ve learned the capability I have as an artist,” he said in a recent interview. “I don’t want to limit myself to one sound or genre. I love music across the board. I might write a folk song in my Notes app, or I might go into the studio and do an R&B track. My purpose is to make music that’s true to me... I want to push it as far as I can go, experiment, try new genres, and tell stories I haven’t told.”
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Those relatable stories also contribute to his global appeal. His debut album, American Teen, addressed the duality of being young, dumb, and broke while having your life together in other ways. Those themes are as relatable to kids in high school as they are to aunties on their third husbands. Both have experienced the confusion that comes with youth.
Khalid's second album, Free Spirit, reached number one on the Billboard 200 after it debuted in April. But as a black pop artist, he often battles white artists such as Billie Eilish, Shawn Mendes, Ed Sheeran, and Taylor Swift for chart status. The implications of that struggle are noted in a Los Angeles Times piece that explores the challenges black artists — particularly black women — face in being seen as "pop" artists despite their musical versatility. Perhaps that's part of the reason Khalid is reticent to stick to one genre.
It’s difficult to relate to the soulful roots of R&B’s black inventors through white voices, and Khalid’s music nods to R&B's black roots. In the process, he's centering a black voice in pop culture and proving that chart-topping singles and sold-out shows are attainable despite the extra hurdles.