“I wanna go somewhere exotic/Let the summer search my body/Meet a sexy stranger in the lobby/Hey, hey, hey, hey.”
You can thank Pitbull for that updated motto, which is an excerpt from his song named, “Sexy Beaches,” which was commissioned by the state of Florida’s tourism agency for $1 million in an appeal to draw folks to our neck of the Sunshine State. Indeed, the rapping Miami native (formerly Mr. 305, currently Mr. Worldwide) has long been one of the most visible examples of Miami’s ability to make noise without really saying anything at all, a phenomena in no short supply when it comes to the city’s musical superstars.
Consider the holy trinity: Pitbull, Rick Ross, and DJ Khaled. Always moving, promoting, shouting, hammering home a manufactured catch phrase until you snap out of a deep trance one night at four in the morning to discover that for the last 12 hours you’ve been muttering Anotha One, Anotha One in between sips of Luc Belaire Rosé. They are Ocean Drive incarnate, big neon margaritas the size of bathtubs who dazzle you with theatrics and a direct message of relentless positivity so you don’t think too hard about what you’re actually drinking.
I thought I could be the hero to tear down that wall when I set out to write a cover story on Mr. Khaled himself last year during my tenure as music editor for the Miami New Times. Like Excalibur, I’d finally pull unfiltered sincerity and cognizance from the stone of Miami’s most hyped celebrity who, up until that point, seemed to have a vocabulary consisting of about seven words.
Getting in the room with the man was not easy. To set up an interview with DJ Khaled means peeling through the layers of his team, a troupe that starts at national public relations representative and flows down to personal assistant, with omelet chef and sneaker organizer stuffed somewhere in the middle. No one on the “We The Best” team is too keen on specifics like time and location, so my very first face-to-face contact with Khaled came after aimlessly wandering through the halls of Citrus Grove Middle School, where he was receiving the key to the City of Miami in a ceremony featuring mayor Tomás Regalado, another Miami personality who has made a career out of not answering any tough questions.
I finally found him in the principal’s office after trailing the squeals of 12-year-old girls. We spoke for almost an hour about his new album, his personal philosophy on success (it involves winning, winning more, winning in the face of those who seek to thwart such winning, cocoa butter, etc.), and his childhood. I asked him to reflect on his own middle school career — to describe the sort of person he was when he wandered hallways not so different from the ones around him now. He thought for a moment and came up empty. It was like the thought never once crossed his mind.
Nonetheless, I left the school feeling good, confident in the interview and the material I had to work with. But that feeling evaporated when I listened to the recording. It’s a phenomenon I’ve encountered before with celebrity interviews, including the first time I sat down with Rick Ross. In the moment, the conversation feels intimate, genuine. You somehow forget that there is a publicist waiting to shank you with a pen the minute you dive into unsavory territory. You also realize that your questions aren’t as original as they seemed and the answers you’re hearing have probably been spoken before, to a reporter under the same spell as you.
Khaled’s a master at making you feel like you’re doing a great job. He maintains eye contact, nods his head in vigorous agreement, and sometimes seems downright emotional during sentimental topics. Only afterwards, separated from his musky charisma and buzzy aura, you realize you’ve gotten nowhere. A quick Google search reveals the same answers you thought were coming from a place of emotional purity were nothing more than recycled soundbites.
Lucky for me, I had wrangled myself a second chance at Khaled. This time, we were to meet at Finga Licking, the Miami Gardens restaurant Khaled co-owns, after his annual Thanksgiving turkey giveaway. The scene was ripe for the sort of watershed moment I wanted to build the story around.
Nothing of the kind happened. There were no tears. No Oprah-quality breakthroughs. Instead I succumbed to the same spell and fell for the same verbal jiu-jitsu that had blown through me weeks earlier. I was hypnotized by the way he shoveled rice into his mouth, lost in the noise of the moment. The final tally on the amount of times he used the word “blessed” required a calculator. I had not put so much as a dent in Khaled’s wall.
I’ve spent a lot of time since wondering if the facade is intentional. Are DJ Khaled and his cohorts knowingly attempting to side-step the truth? When their heads hit the pillow, and silence finally surrounds them, is there no last-minute mental detour into self-reflection? And if there is, why keep it hidden from the public attention they seem hell bent on capturing?
But lately, in the case of Khaled, hope has emerged. This new Khaled can be traced back to the birth of his son, Asahd. News broke that he was expecting his first baby boy back in May 2016. Three months later, in August, Khaled comes out in support of Hillary Clinton during an interview with Katie Couric. By October, he opens for Barack Obama at a campaign rally in Miami. Three days later, Asahd is born, healthy with a full head of hair. Finally, Khaled joins the ranks of the many celebs publicly condemning Trump’s controversial immigration policy and Muslim ban. Himself a Muslim and son of Palestinian immigrants, Khaled takes a stand the best way he knows how, through social media. “Bless up [prayer hand emoji] I am a Muslim American love is the [key emoji] love is the answer. It’s so amazing to see so many people come together in love! I pray for everyone I pray we all love and live in peace. #NoBanNoWall [prayer hand emoji],” he said in an Instagram post featuring a photo of Asahd lying on Khaled’s stomach, his pleading gaze aimed at the camera.
Examining the intensity of the xenophobic climate alive in America today, one begins to understand why Khaled finally decided to speak his mind, and what took him so long. Being a Muslim in a post 9/11 world has been anything but easy. Khaled knows this. He decided to change his DJ name from “Arab Attack” after the September 11 attacks. For him, being unfiltered and outspoken carries its own unique set of consequences.
He seems to have tossed those fears aside the moment he saw a future bigger than himself. And just like that, with both literal and metaphorical baby steps, Khaled has shifted his booming voice towards change. That wall of glittery babble crumbles underneath tiny feet. But where will he go next? Will Khaled, one of the most famous Arab-Americans alive today, use his voice to continue pushing back against the current political climate which represses his people, or will he revert to the blessed positivity that has typified Miami rap-culture celebrity and made him obscenely rich and famous? It’s hard to guess, but from someone who has broken bread with the man, I’ll say this: Khaled wants, above all else, to leave a mark on the world. And that means more than fame, more than wealth. He needs to feel important, on a global scale. And when he discovers a new way to accomplish that there’s no stopping him.
Ryan Pfeffer is a freelance writer living in South Florida and former music editor of Miami New Times.