Julia Lofstrand – Khalid and Courtney Stewart
Khalid (center) and manager Courtney Stewart (right) in conversation with Billboard senior editor Gail Mitchell at Pollstar Live!
Khalid celebrated his 21st birthday in unique fashion on Wednesday, participating in a keynote Pollstar Live! conversation with manager and Right Hand Music Group founder Courtney Stewart and Billboard senior editor Gail Mitchell.
The acclaimed Texan musician used the platform to announce his first headlining arena tour, set to begin in June, and to tease his forthcoming sophomore album as “way better than American Teen,” his 2017 debut LP.
But the wide-ranging conversation also went deep into Khalid’s meteoric rise, focusing on his artistic integrity and unwavering commitment to his fans.
“Khalid is one of one,” said Stewart, recalling first meeting the artist as a 17-year-old high school student. “He wasn’t a carbon copy. There was nothing out there like him. For him to be so young and to know who he is and what he wants to be, that’s just completely impressive.”
Industry executives sometimes made it challenging for Khalid to maintain the singular creative vision Stewart identified in him early on, because they would see the color of his skin and expect him to make a specific type of music. “I walked into a couple of labels who told me they wanted to make me the next this and they wanted to make me the next that,” said Khalid. “I’m like, ‘I’m not here to be the next anybody, I’m going to be the first me.'”
Establishing that creative space early has allowed Khalid to become of the most genre-bending musicians of his generation, from his R&B-rooted solo work to team-ups with artists from H.E.R. to Marshmello. “They all had their own space and they all had their own sound and area that they lived in,” explained Khalid, though he mentioned a dream collaboration he has yet to achieve: “I love Stevie Nicks. If I could do backing vocals on any song or anything like that, that’d be amazing.”
But, as he and Stewart repeatedly emphasized, Khalid’s connection with his fans enabled his ascent from SoundCloud artist to freshly minted arena headliner in four short years. “The major step was not following the analytics and actually seeing what his fans looked like,” Stewart said. That meant that, despite selling out every 300-capacity room on his first North American tour in early 2017, Khalid went the extra mile. “He personally took the time to talk to every single fan after the show,” remembered Stewart. “He would stay two to three hours and have a five minute conversation with each fan.”
Khalid took those steps to condense the distance that can develop between musicians and their listeners. “I want to make sure that my relationship with my fans is genuine, that they know that I genuinely care about them and that they can come to me and they can ask me questions,” he said. “I go super hard just to make sure that my fans know that I am human and i am them as well.”
If follows that the few conflicts Khalid and Stewart have had in their otherwise harmonious relationship — “We look at each other as big brother, little brother, more than anything,” the singer shared — have stemmed from the depth of Khalid’s connection to his fans. For one, Khalid has never missed a show, even when Stewart urged him to postpone due to sickness or dangerous weather.
Another rare source of tension came over social media. “One of the first time we bumped heads, someone hacked his Twitter and he had a meltdown,” said Stewart. “I said, ‘Dude, chill! We’ll get it fixed in a couple days!’ And he said, ‘No, you better fix it now!’ What I had to realize is I’m significantly older than him, so Twitter doesn’t mean the same thing to me as it does to Khalid.”
Added Stewart: “With respect and a great relationship, the tough part is the tough conversations we have to have. There are a lot of tough conversations but we get through it. He might not talk to me for five or six days, but we have those tough conversations.”
Khalid’s earnest bond with his audience and the methodical approach he and his team have taken to his career — “not skipping steps,” as Stewart put it — indicate that even as his star rises, he has a solid foundation. And true to form, after the keynote’s conclusion, Khalid walked to the edge of the stage, lingering to talk to fans in attendance.