Almost every song Khalid Robinson, mononymously known as Khalid, sang at his SXSW showcase on Thursday night was introduced in the same way: the title, and then a proclamation from the singer that “This song is one of my favorites.” The 20-year-old, who got his professional start in El Paso, has been famous for just about a year now; at SXSW 2017, he was playing inconspicuous mid-afternoon slots at day parties. So when the five-time Grammy nominee is on stage singing the songs he wrote in his bedroom toward the end of his time at El Paso High School, it’s easy to see why Khalid would have a hard time naming anything in his life as an absolute favorite. And judging by the energy on Thursday night, the fans singing his choruses back to him and dancing earnestly might not have their top picks locked in, either.
On recordings, Khalid’s voice rings out over his eighties-inspired tunes with a tone so pure it almost sounds auto-tuned, and the resonance carries over into his live performances. He took the audience through eleven songs in total—ten from his 2017 debut album, American Teen, plus his portion of “The Ways” from the Black Panther soundtrack, a collaboration with Kendrick Lamar.
Before the show, Khalid sat down with Texas Monthly to discuss El Paso, SXSW, and the status of his next album.
Texas Monthly: What’s the difference between playing SXSW last year versus this year?
Khalid Robinson: I feel like last year, I was in a completely different headspace. I didn’t know about myself, not only about me as an artist but also about me as an individual. I was very nervous. But this year, I’m really comfortable. I’m walking around, looking everywhere, and I’m just enjoying the moment, accepting it, and living the best life I possibly can at the moment. It’s awesome.
TM: You’re here with the debut of the virtual reality video for “Young, Dumb, and Broke.” Is VR something you’re interested in?
KR: Oh, yes. It’s so crazy, because I had been holding off trying VR for a long time, because I was nervous about it. I was so nervous because it was unbelievable that we have this much technology. Things are advancing at such a rapid pace, it’s insane. And the moment I tried this Sony VR, I opened my eyes, and I was in a completely different space mentally. I looked around and thought, “Wow. I’m in a whole different world.” It’s crazy how you can remove yourself from where you are, and then in a span of three, five, or thirty minutes, however long, you’re in a completely different world. The moment you take [the headset] off, you’re back in reality. Which sometimes isn’t the best.
TM: What’s it like to see your video in virtual reality?
KR: It was hilarious. It was so much fun. I feel like the funniest thing about it was seeing myself, as a video game character, dance. It’s like, I’m not that great at dancing as myself, but I’m even worse as a video game character. It was super cool. The experience was so much fun. It made me love the music video even more, now that it was virtual, and now that I was inside of my own music video. It was an experience I’m going to want to do over and over and over again. I’ll never get tired of it.
TM: The original video came out in the spring, and it’s at a high school with big, pronounced columns on the facade. Is that El Paso High School?
KR: I wish. I tried so hard, and I wished, but the coolest thing about it is that I brought my friends from El Paso to Los Angeles [to film]. I brought my closest friends out there, and they’re all in the video, and we all were just having so much fun. That video is my favorite video I’ve ever shot by far. I left that video shoot with tons of best friends. We all hang out. It’s almost a year later and I still hang out with everybody in that video.
TM: How much time do you spend in El Paso these days?
KR: As much as I can. But the thing about going back to El Paso, it’s overwhelming sometimes. I look at the support that I get and the success that I’ve had, and I can’t walk anywhere without being spotted. My hair might be the biggest crime in this situation. I’m not gonna shave my head bald to deal with it. I’m gonna accept it and I love it. I love giving back, I love visiting my family. I love visiting my two dogs that are there. I love visiting my friends because it makes me feel normal. We only really get to hang out in rooms—we don’t get to go out to eat and do teenage stuff, but just the fact that I get to see them, and just the fact that twelve of my friends get to pile into a room together just to enjoy each other’s company is amazing. I love El Paso, and I’ll always come back.
TM: El Paso is such a presence on American Teen. What’s making music in a new place feel like?
KR: Even though I wasn’t born or raised in El Paso, it’ll always be a part of me until the day that I die. Making music outside of El Paso was tricky at first, because I was so comfortable [there]. I’m trying to force myself to regain the El Paso mentality that I had when I was there, and put it into a lot of the new music, because I don’t want that sonic quality to go away. But I’ve learned a lot, and I still go back to El Paso—I went back to record one song, came back to LA, and I finished it. It’s one of my favorite songs ever, and maybe that’s because I went back home to record it.
TM: What’s the status of your new music? Do you have a follow-up album in the works?
KR: I’m definitely working on a lot. I can’t say anything is finished. Nothing’s finished right now. There’s no album. I’m not gonna lie to you and say I have an album ready—I don’t. But I’m working towards it, and for me, whatever project I put out next after American Teen is going to be an embodiment of myself, my youth, and my friends, as well. I always try to keep my friends within my music, I always play them all of the songs, and they are my biggest critics, and they love it, so that’s a good sign. Hopefully I keep making music I love, and then I give it to you guys.