Hawaiian Music Legend and Grammy-Nominated Artist Willie K Dead at 59

By Lorenz Duchamps

Hawaiian music legend William Awihilima Kahaiali’i, better known as Willie K, has died at age 59.

The Grammy-nominated artist and owner of record label Maui Tribe Productions announced he was diagnosed with lung cancer in January 2018 and lost his battle with the disease Monday night at his Hawaiian home in Wailuku, Maui, according to multiple sources.

Willie was born and raised in a Hawaiian family of musicians and began performing at a young age alongside his father, jazz guitarist Manu Kahaiali’i.

“Performing, along with his brothers, in his father’s band, at the age of 10, he played with a lengthy series of high school groups, often appearing simultaneously with as many as eight bands,” reads an artist biography on allmusic.com.

“My father was a great influence,” Willie said in his biography. “He groomed me to be where I am today. He was just as diverse as I am—the guy knew how to play everything: jazz, blues, and Hawaiian.”

Following Willie’s death, he was mourned by loved ones on social media. Close relatives released a statement on his official Instagram page after the news of his passing broke.

“Thank you to EVERYONE for all the love, support and prayers you have given,” loved ones wrote in the caption of the post, adding a picture of Willie.

“He fought hard for over two years while still performing. In mid February of this year, he was hospitalized for pneumonia which caused complications with his lung cancer,” the post continued.

“He was in positive spirits, doing okay, and he was looking forward to performing again. He then suddenly turned for the worse and lost his battle.”

Respected Musicians

Willie followed in his father’s footsteps, who was also a respected musician.

Just like his father, he could play almost any instrument, from guitar to bass, ukulele, and more, Billboard reported. But his specialty remained traditional, indigenous Hawaiian music.

On his rise to fame, Willie collaborated with Amy Hānaialiʻi Gilliom in 1993. The duo recorded, performed, and toured together for nine years.

NTD Photo
Amy Hānaialiʻi Gilliom and Dylan Bode attend the 62nd Annual Grammy Awards at Staples Centerin Los Angeles, California, on Jan. 26, 2020. (Amy Sussman/Getty Images)

The albums they recorded won seven Na Hoku Hanohano Awards, considered to be Hawaii’s equivalent of the Grammys.

In 2005, the Hawaiian stars’ reunion album “Amy & Willie Live” was nominated for a Grammy in the first year of the Best Hawaiian Music Album award.

Willie also produced on his own Christmas album named “Willie Kalikimaka,” which was the best-selling Christmas album in the year of 1999.

“The album, which included a duet with Willie Nelson of ‘Away in a Manger,’ was the biggest-selling Christmas album in 1999 and topped the worldbeat charts compiled by Billboard,” allmusic.com reported.

In this Sept. 22, 2012, photo, Willie Nelson performs during the Farm Aid 2012 concert at Hersheypark Stadium in Hershey, Pa. (AP Photo/Jacqueline Larma)
Willie Nelson performs during the Farm Aid 2012 concert at Hersheypark Stadium in Hershey, Pa., on Sept. 22, 2012. (Jacqueline Larma/Willie Nelson)

A celebration of Willie’s life will be announced in due course, according to the statement on Instagram.

Willie is survived by his wife, Debbie Kahaiali’i, and four children, Karshaun, Max, Lycettiana, and Antoinette.