A Palestinian musician has conquered the American pop charts. DJ Khaled has cemented his reputation as one of the most recognisable faces of contemporary hip-hop, thanks to his new No 1 album, working with Beyoncé and expert use of social media.
Major Key, released last week, features an all-star line-up of collaborators, including J Cole, Lil Wayne and Rick Ross.
Born Khaled Mohamed Khaled in New Orleans to Palestinian parents in 1975, he has become an unlikely poster boy for American hip-hop culture.
His memorable catchphrases – including “they don’t want you to win” and “lion order” – have helped the savvy Snapchat user and hashtag king to seep through to mainstream American culture and become a household name.
Perhaps Khaled sensed his time has come – the cover of Major Key is fit for a king: Khaled sits on a throne adorned in flowers with a lion by his side.
The early hustle
It is a far cry from the kid who started DJing as a 13-year-old in his garage in Orlando. He watched his immigrant parents struggle to make a living selling clothes at flea markets on weekends and credits their travails as being the key to his own path.
He moved with his family to New Orleans when they fell on hard times, then worked his way back to Florida, landing a job at Odyssey Records in 1993.
He was also a pirate-radio announcer at a Caribbean music station in Orlando, sleeping in the studio between shifts as he couldn’t afford to live in the city.
His grandiose style of delivery eventually turned him into a local celebrity. This translated quickly to hosting massive hip-hop parties in Miami’s infamous clubs in the mid 1990s. His persistence and limitless energy caught the attention of other Florida rappers, including Lil Wayne and Birdman, who have worked with him ever since
DJ Khaled’s enduring power is evidenced by the inability to pin him down: it is not exactly clear whether he is a glorified hype man, rapper, producer or a performance artist.
Khaled’s lyrics, to stretch the term, are a series of shoutouts, energy grenades, management mantras that are all designed to hype up the listener. He is constantly in a confessional mode, telling the story of his life: of working hard to get to where he is – the most prominent Arab in hip-hop.
That said, even though Khaled is proud of his Middle Eastern and Muslim connections – wearing a diamond necklace featuring the word “Allah” in some of his videos – he rarely mentions his political and religious affiliations in his songs.
When he does, the results lack any compelling content.
Last year, Palestinian activists lambasted him for his support of Sabra, an Israeli food company that sponsored one of his gigs during a Super Bowl party.
During the Israeli bombardment of Gaza in 2014, he tweeted out messages of support to Palestinians but his engagement with the diverse Arab hip-hop scene coming out of the Middle East and the diaspora has been negligible.
DJ Khaled’s rise stems from the oldest trick in the pop-music book: the repetition of a simple hook till it becomes dogma.
The heavyset rap producer – who once went by the stage name Arab Attack, until the September 11 attacks in 2001 – speaks in curt and excitable phrases that have become his signature.
His breakout hit in 2006 was a collaboration featuring Akon, Rick Ross and T.I called We Takin' Over. Since then he has released one prolific album after another, featuring some of the biggest names in hip-hop. It's a simple formula that has worked in his favour, eventually earning him a No 1 album. Khaled clearly has a talent for bringing together diverse hip-hop personalities to produce hit songs and albums. His persuasiveness has propelled him from a minor Miami music figure to a major hip-hop star through the power of marketing.
Then there is what is perhaps his strongest attribute: a digital savvy in harnessing social media, which turned him into a celebrity who regularly appears on late-night shows, has toured with Beyoncé and even had a meeting with US president Barack Obama.
Khaled’s social media accounts – especially Snapchat – have millions of fans. Each ridiculous phrase such as “don’t play yourself” or “special cloth alert” is supposed to induce inspiration, but most of the time ends up as parody.
Yet Khaled has the last laugh. He has managed to perch himself atop the hip-hop scene and American culture with his own brand of personal success.
With Major Key sitting pretty at the top of the charts, DJ Khaled's story is perhaps another example of the so-called American dream – where no matter what your background or faith, hard work, persistence and talent can still be the keys to success.