Willie K performs live in 2012
Photo: Marco Garcia/WireImage
Willie K, GRAMMY-Nominated Hawaiian Artist And Producer, Dies at 59
Willie K, a GRAMMY-nominated Hawaiian artist and producer lovingly known as Uncle Willie around the world, died Monday (May 18) in his home in Wailuku, Hawaii, after an extensive battle with lung cancer, Billboard reports. He was 59.
Willie K was considered "one of Maui's most iconic and passionate musicians," MauiTime, the weekly newspaper for the Hawaiian island of Maui, writes.
In a note published on MauiTime, Mayor Michael P. Victorino, the mayor of the county of Maui, said Willie K "remained positive" during his fight with cancer, noting that the artist continued to "perform and entertain fans even while ill."
"He was generous with his time and immense talent that spanned musical styles from Hawaiian to rock, to blues and opera," Mayor Victorino said. "We mourn a great loss for our community. He will truly be missed but never forgotten."
Born William Kahaiali'I, Willie K was a versatile musician and artist who could play multiple instruments and diverse genres, including reggae, heavy metal, country and classic rock, Marin Independent Journal notes. Known as The Hawaiian Hendrix for his guitar and ukulele skills, he also sang operas and performed traditional Hawaiian music.
Willie K, who was born into a music family, began his career in music as a child. His father, the celebrated musician Manu Kahaiali'I, taught Willie K the blues at a young age. The two formed a family act in which a then-10-year-old Willie K played ukulele and sang traditional Hawaiian music, according to the Marin Independent Journal.
In 1991, Willie K released his debut album, Kahaiali'I, the title taking after his family's name. He began a years-long collaborative relationship with singer-songwriter Amy Hānaiali'i Gilliom in 1993; the two dated for nine years, according to Frolic Hawaii. Their 2003 collaborative album, Amy & Willie Live, earned a nomination for Best Hawaiian Music Album at the 2005 GRAMMYs, the first year the category was awarded.
A decorated musician, Willie K won several Na Hoku Hanohano Awards, "Hawaii's version of the GRAMMYs for locally produced music," as described by Hawaii 24/7, throughout his career. He received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Hawai'i Academy Of Recording Arts in 2018
According to a post shared on his official Instagram page announcing his death, Willie K was diagnosed with small cell lung cancer in January 2018; he subsequently canceled his performances one month later. This February, "he was hospitalized for pneumonia which caused complications with his lung cancer," according to the post.
"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," the post continues.
A celebration of Willie K's life and music will be announced at a later time.
Willie K is survived by his wife, Debbie Kahaiali'i, and his children, Karshaun, Max, Lycettiana and Antoinette, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reports.