Rapper, activist, radio star Ke‘ala Kawa‘auhau dies

  • Photo by P.F. Bentley/Sunbums Ke'ala Kawa'auhau
  • courtesy photo Ke'ala Kawa'auhau

Ke‘ala Kawa‘auhau, a member of the seminal Hawaiian rap group Sudden Rush, Hawaiian activist and longtime Hilo morning radio personality died in his sleep Monday. He was 47.

Kawa‘auhau, born in Hilo as Donald Kawa‘auhau Jr., was a basketball standout at St. Joseph High School in the late 1980s. He was a student in the Hawaiian Studies program at the University of Hawaii at Hilo when Sudden Rush, the first group to popularize Hawaiian language in rap, was formed.

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Kawa‘auhau worked at the Hawaiian immersion school Punana Leo O Hilo prior to his successful 19-year run at KWXX-FM. Before automation and prerecorded voice tracks became the norm in radio, disc jockeys usually began as weekenders or overnighters and worked their way into drive-time air shifts. Kawa‘auhau’s street cred from Sudden Rush, however, allowed him to start his on-air career in the prestigious morning drive slot, first as part of the team Kat and Ke‘ala with Kat Konanui, then partnering with singer Pomai Bartolome, and most recently, with Bartolome’s brother, singer Loeka Longakit, as half of the KWXX Breakfast Lu‘au.

“It was perhaps a leap of faith to hire somebody that didn’t have any prior radio experience, but we just felt that he had the right vibe and the right personality for what we were looking to do,” said Chris Leonard, New West Broadcasting president and general manager. “And it turned out to be very much the right call.”

“He was funny and witty and lived and breathed the music that we play — and he was well-liked by everyone.”

News of Kawa‘auhau’s passing spread quickly via social media, with fans, listeners and fellow musicians and on-air people sending their condolences.

Singer Mark Yamanaka described Kawa’auhau as “a solid Kanaka and a talented one at that.”

Bartolome thanked Kawa‘auhau “for all the laughs and the memories.”

“God knew I needed your humor, intelligence, faith and love,” she said. “I know you are in Heaven and that makes my heart happy.”

“Certainly, his legacy will live on through his music and … through all the people he impacted on a daily basis as part of the morning show for the past 19 years,” Leonard said.

Kawa’auhau is survived by his partner Kalei, sons, Kealoha, Mala‘e and Cheydon, parents, Donald and Stella, brother Kawika, and sisters, Nani and Kahea, the latter also a KWXX on-air personality.

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Services are pending.

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.