At Long Last, DJ Khaled Gets Real
“I can sit in my backyard and not leave, ever,” says Khaled Mohamed Khaled, the reigning king of memes and club bangers and self-love. “Sometimes my girl calls me the party pooper, or whatever. When I go out to do a show or something like that, I don’t hang out.”
It’s a Sunday morning and Khaled is sat in his backyard in Miami Beach, looking out over his pool and ornate garden, which back out over a creek. The setting is palatial and humid: a sort of perma-vacation tower of solitude. It’s easy to get lost here. When one member of GQ production sends out a WhatsApp blast asking the crew to meet them in the living room, a quickfire debate erupts as to which of the three they meant.
At Khaled’s place, everything is exactly as it ought to be. The pool – replete with a floating cinema at one end – is a clear shade of Maldives blue, a hue that pops off the white tiling like something out of a George Clooney Nespresso ad set in Lake Como. There are flowers dotted about, intricate arrangements which are changed weekly by a team of discreet in-house staffers.
Right now, Khaled is putting his face on. That involves sitting on a chair atop a cushy blanket, which protects the precious off-white limestone underneath. (Like most nice things, the limestone is super sensitive to regular human being stuff like scuffing, scratching and staining.) Khaled has a “WE THE BEST” smock draped over him while his beard and hair are precision trimmed, lined-up and expertly de-greyed.
“I’d rather be here, where I can control the energy. Don’t get it twisted: I have hung out. There’s nothing wrong with it. But 99 percent of the time, I’m in and out,” he says.
At 34-years-old, there’s a certain intensity to Khaled: an urgency you might not expect. Maybe it’s the impending drop of his 11th album, Father of Asahd. Or maybe it’s the urgency that comes with new fatherhood.
On Khaled: Shirt, $1,250, Versace. On Asahd: T-shirt, $125, Givenchy
DJ Khaled, by instinct more than anything, pre-empted most of the things that drive the way a heap of us live our lives now, for better and for worse: unflappable self-love, unputdownable smartphones, a brand shout-out, a personality big enough to make an impression amidst our thousands of daily swipes and taps. Khaled is an avatar for the modern internet. Khaled is an avatar for the modern star, for the wannabe star, and for the star inside us all.
He is a genre-breaker: an embodiment of Floridian rap, fused with an unmistakably Arab identity – he’s probably the world’s most famous Palestinian. His is an appeal built off positivity and Snapchat stories, cheesy-yet-infectious catchphrases and mainstream rap hits. It’s an appeal which has earned him a social media audience in the tens of millions, a swag of awards from BET to MTV, and an appreciation that spans the worlds of pop, hip-hop, the NBA, Nickelodeon and beyond.
There is no celebrity who’s been more memefied, nor contributed to top-tier memes, as much as Khaled. You know this. You get it. Bless up. Another one.
Congratulations, you played yourself. We the best. All have rightfully been woven into internet iconography, remixed to meme transcendence, and, wherever possible, monetised to the nth degree. (We The Best is also the name of his record label, his clothing line, his furniture collection and his charitable foundation.)
Admist all things brash and sponsored and larger than life, things have changed for Khaled: Asahd, his two-year-old son, is responsible for most of those changes. Ask Khaled, and he’ll draw a dividing line in his life, one that passes directly through the day his son was born.
“The day Asahd came into my life is the day I became greater. Also the day I experienced the purest form of love,” he says, as the barber lines up his neck.
“I always thought I knew what love was, until I met Asahd. Asahd, he came out of my queen’s belly: God and my queen delivered my son to me and to our family. When he first locked eyes with me – I’ll never forget it.”
Shirt, robe, trousers, prices on request, 5001 Flavors (designed by Terrell Jones). Watch, price on request, Patek Philippe. Bracelet, price on request, Pristine Jewelers
The first time Khaled went to Palestine, it was meant to be a week-long trip for a wedding. It was 1984. He ended up staying for almost two years. There, he explored his mother’s hometown of Ramallah. He visited his father’s town of al-Mazra’a ash-Sharqiya, and saw the home his father and uncles had built for his grandmother.
“They came from nothing. They built the house. They used to live in one room, all on the floor, and cook on the floor. All the brothers – all my uncles – built her a beautiful home…It just woke me up to know what life is really about. That’s why my mother and father made sure I went to visit my homeland.”
Khaled went to the Dead Sea. To the Dome of the Rock. He visited Bethlehem.
“I’ll never forget that trip. It was the most beautiful trip ever,” he says. “But even before I went to Palestine, I was in Palestine. I’m Palestinian – it’s just who I am. I know people see me, I know I’m heavy on social media, but you can’t give them everything. I have a Qur’an everywhere I go. My mum makes sure certain things are in my house. I gave my son an Allah piece. I have my Allah piece everywhere I go. I’m blessed to be loved. The way I was raised was with love. That’s why I raise my son with love. Love is the key, love is the answer, love is the solution, because Allah is love.”
When his mum comes around to Casa Khaled, she’ll make a big batch of food – all knafeh and maklouba, with portion sizes that could only be conceived by Arab parents, destined to be eaten for two or three serves, then carefully frozen and stored, ready to be re-heated and enjoyed all over again.
“Some people are born a certain way, and they might change later. They might decide to do something else. Me? No. I love it. It’s so beautiful. I’m all in. I’m so all in…have you ever read the Qu’ran? Man, it’s so beautiful…I learn something from it every day. That’s the beauty of it. You might be going through an experience in life, and it always goes back to Allah. And then you feel better. My mother, she’ll text me, call me every day, and pray. It’s a way of life for me.”
Shirt, shorts, price on request, 5001 Flavors (designed by Terrell Jones). Sneakers, $175, Nike Air Jordan
Khaled says he’s usually touring or working during Ramadan. Has he broken fast before? Sure. But not for a lack of trying.
“I’ll be honest with you, many Ramadan times, I’ll fast, and then I get dehydrated and have to go to the hospital. Just because I work so hard. I try my hardest to fulfil the beliefs and how beautiful what we fast for is. It’s so beautiful, what we’re doing it for.”
Many Arab families will talk about how trauma can be traced across generations – passed down as a shared burden. Fewer talk about the other, remarkable qualities that are passed down. Khaled, from a young age, was taught the grind, the hustle, the won’t-be-denied spirit of making something where nothing was before.
“My mum and dad worked seven days a week, selling clothes out of a truck in the flea market. I got to see a real hardworking mother and father – because they raised me at work.”
Florida. Early ’80s. There was Lil’ Khaled – a money pouch around the waist, helping the customers. Selling the heck out of whatever there was to be sold.
A teenage Khaled would throw parties once a week – turning $100 into $500 by selling tickets at the door. He would take clothes from his parents’ store, and sell them out of his car: wool suits, crocodile shoes, whatever.
“People knew I had the hot stuff. I always spoke the real game. If it’s music, I’m going to give you the best music. If it was a piece of clothing, it was really the best, the best material. I was raised like that.”
One time, Khaled will tell you, he threw a party with his friends Nasty and Caesar. He was maybe 15. That night, he pulled in around $2000. When he finally got home, almost at dawn, he wrapped the money in a rubber band, and left it on the kitchen counter.
“I slept on the couch, so that when my mum and my dad woke up, they would see that $2000.”
Khaled says, over and over, that his positivity, his penchant for giving, his rejection of all bad vibes, was something imbued into him at birth by his parents. Everything, he says, traces back to family. And family, for him, traces back to homeland.
“I’m a Palestinian-American. It might be different for some people seeing it from the outside. The same way you love to go on vacation somewhere – like an island – Palestine is so, so beautiful. I know I keep using the world ‘holy’ a lot, but it’s so holy out there,” he says.
“Everybody has a different version of the Bible or the Qu’ran, but it all goes back to the holy land. You can watch a movie all you want – but that’s it. You see it, you feel it, it’s in the air. I wave the flag. I am born Palestinian. I don’t know nothing else. I love it.”
Were there times, as a Muslim or as a Palestinian, living and growing up in America, that you felt like you couldn’t represent? Like you had to hide who you were?
“Man,” he says simply. “My name is Khaled.”
It’s difficult to imagine meeting a boy as outwardly loved as Asahd. Which other two year old has had life-sized cushions of him splayed on mum and dad’s couch? Which other two year old has custom, totally functional mini cars from Ferarri, Mercedes and Rolls Royce (the latter casually parked next to his father’s)?
Material world aside, he’s a child who’s cooed, hugged, kissed and praised by the minute, all by a mighty cast made up of Khaled’s family and beyond.
And that’s before taking into account the nearly two million people who follow his life on Instagram.
The night Asahd arrived into the world, Khaled Snapchatted the whole experience: a digital moment for the digital generation, filmed by one of the generation’s ringleaders. “Doctor! The water broke!” he says on one video.
“With Snapchat, I didn’t know how to use it at the time, and I didn’t realise the whole world was watching. It was a new device for me. I probably had one follower. I was just talking to myself, praying, loving nature, loving the ocean, and my queen was pregnant. The world got to see what people that really know me got to see. The world got to see Khaled, personally, and it really uplifted the world.
“I felt the whole world really have this energy of spreading love. I’ve always made hit records, but the difference this time is that you met the hitmaker, personally. They felt something in me, in them.”
Shortly after Asahd’s birth, by his wife Nicole’s side, Khaled held his son, took out his phone, and played something few would have expected: the Islamic call to prayer.
“I held him, and let him know Allah. Allah has blessed us. I prayed for Asahd, myself, my family and protection and pure love. It’s my biggest blessing.”
Naturally, those averse to the digital age questioned the wisdom of a man filming his wife giving birth, and broadcasting that to the world. Naturally, the thought of a livestreamed birth is enough to give most people life-long heart palpitations. Come on: is a materity ward really the place for a Major Key Alert?
“He’s my son, but he’s also someone that I feel brings happiness to the world. Some people say, ‘Yo Khaled, why do you post so much of your son?’ Well, because I can’t control my love. I just can’t. And, guess what? I only do things with love and positivity. If I see something that can make me smile, or inspire me, I want to see that everyday. It could be from me, it could be from you. That’s the way the world could be better.”
In the months leading up to Asahd’s birth, Khaled was tapped by Jay-Z and Beyoncé to open up their double-headliner tour. For Khaled, Jay-Z went from idol to friend to manager to something bordering on family. For Khaled, Jay-Z always has the answer. Hov holds the key that can open any lock.
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“I’ve seen how beautiful their family was, working every day, city to city, doing shows. I’m blessed for them to have invited me on their show. Even through all the shows that they had, it was family first. It was the best thing ever to happen to me. It taught me so much. It taught me how to work and balance. Now, everybody around me knows: don’t worry about me, worry about my son and my queen. I’m a father. And then the minute it’s time to go on stage, I go do something that I love. The other best feeling is watching my son watching me perform. It’s beautiful, man. I wouldn’t change nothing. I’m about to work even harder.”
On that tour with the Carters, Khaled learned that a dressing room can be a home. That a family can – and should – leave together, return together, and build a shield around themselves. “Jay-Z told me, ‘You think you’re great now? When you have a kid, you’re going to be greater.’ Boy, he was not lying. He was right again.”
Khaled has one big fear. Something that can drag down even the most major of Major Key Alerts, or the up-est of blessings. That fear is flying.
“That’s why I haven’t gone back home yet, to Palestine. I lived in a tour bus. It cost more money to get to the show. I paid more money than I made. It didn’t even make sense, and I did it for 12 years straight. I was beating my body up...I don’t even want to think about it. It was crazy.”
This year, he wants to build up the flights. He wants to take baby steps.
“I know we’re blessed, I know Allah got us. But I’m human. I don’t like turbulence. My nerves get real bad. But it’s a lot better.”
Like with most of his recent breakthroughs – like shedding 50 pounds off his weight – he credits Asahd for newfound courage, and newfound discipline.
On Khaled: Shirt, price on request, 5001 Flavors (designed by Terrell Jones). Shorts, $210, Vilbrequin. Watch, price on request, Patek Philippe. Bracelet, price on request, Pristine Jewelers. On Asahd: Shirt, price on request, 5001 Flavors (designed by Terrell Jones). Shorts, $120, Vilbrequin
“When Asahd’s with me, it don’t matter what’s going on – because I want to make sure he’s alright. It’s not about me no more. That’s what I’m trying to tell you: I’m the father of Asahd. Nothing’s about me no more. It’s about going hard to take care of my family. It’s something I have to do: travel,” he says.“My son’s smile is the cure for everything. That’s it.”
Across the 10 hours we spend together, Khaled never hints at a kernel of negativity. There’s nothing cruel, or not vibey, in his orbit. As prepared as you want to be to call that out, to wonder privately if his act drops when his iPhone XS does, Khaled never lets the facade slip. Maybe it’s now fused to his face, totally impenetrable and imperceptible, like a really, really good FaceTune. And maybe it’s not a facade at all. Because, of course, there have been hard times too. Clutch times. Times when viral positivity wasn’t a given.
“There was a time when I could have lost it all. Right before Asahd came. I wanted to start a family more than ever, when I was about to lose it all. I found peace in life,” he says. “I looked at Nicole one day and said, ‘I really want to have kids. And I don’t care if I have a dollar or not – so long as I have a home, and a backyard where I can barbeque with my son or daughter – whatever Allah blessed us with – I’ll be happy.’ And that’s how we made the decision at that time.”
This guy ain’t dumb. You don’t acquire a following in the tens of millions, and record sales to match, without understanding the mood of the people. Khaled gets the haters. He hears them – he knows the familiar melody of the taunts. He merely chooses to discard them.
“I’ve never been ashamed of who I am. I never let words tear me down. Am I human? Does some of it bother me? Of course it does. Even with the weight. People will call me fat. Fat ass. This and that. That don’t bother me. When that happens to me, I’ll speak up and say, ‘Yo, anybody out there having weight problems, don’t let that discourage you. You’re beautiful. You are blessed. And if you want to get rid of weight, get rid of weight because of your health. Cos you look beautiful,’” he says. “If somebody tries to tear me down, I probably end up trying to uplift the person that’s tearing me down. You know what I’m saying?”
And really, Khaled comes back to a fundamental rule of society: if you haven’t got anything nice to say…but well, of course, there’s a digital way of saying that. Of course, there’s a Khaled way of saying that.
“If I’m going to comment, I’m going to comment with love. If not, I’m not going to comment at all.”
Father of Asahd is out May 17
PHOTOGRAPHY: Sarah Bahbah
STYLING: Terrell Jones
PRODUCTION: Sophie Meister (Production LA)