Willie K, Grammy-Nominated Hawaiian Artist, Dies at 59

Willie K
Marco Garcia/WireImage

Willie K plays at a live concert showcasing the musicians featured in the movie "The Descendants" on April 14, 2012 in Honolulu, Hawaii.

Willie K, the Grammy-nominated Hawaiian artist and producer, died Monday night (May 18) at his home in Wailuku after a years-long battle with lung cancer. He was 59.

Born William Kahaiali‘I and known affectionately as Uncle Willie, the celebrated artist mastered the blues from a young age, taught by his dad Manu Kahaiali‘I, himself a respected musician.

“My father was a great influence,” says Willie K in his biog. “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.”

Willie’s artistry wouldn’t be tied down to any genre or instrument. He could play almost any instrument needed in his performance, from guitar to bass, ukulele and more, and his music palate was just as broad, covering jazz, reggae, rock, country and even opera. Though traditional, indigenous Hawaiian was close to his heart.

Willie’s debut album Kahaiali‘I dropped in 1991 and the awards and plaudits soon followed. Over his career, he went on win several Na Hoku Hanohano awards and his 2004 album with Amy Hanaiali'I, Amy & Willie Live, earned a Grammy nomination for Best Hawaiian Music Album.

He was diagnosed with small cell lung cancer in January 2018, and in the same year was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Hawai‘i Academy of Recording Arts.

Willie “fought hard for over 2 years while still performing,” reads a statement posted to his socials. In mid-February of this year, he was hospitalized for pneumonia which caused complications with his lung cancer.”

The late artist was in “positive spirits" and appeared to be on the mend. "He then suddenly turned for the worse and lost his battle,” the statement continues.

A celebration of Willie's life will be announced in due course.

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