Johnny Kai, a contemporary Music Man battling cultural indifference, stands ready to orchestrate the promotion of all Hawaii music, only not everyone is playing in the same key.
By W. Knox Richardson
Kai stood in the lobby of a luxury beachfront hotel with microphone in hand and
digital music at the ready. It was 1999 and he had just been hired as a singing
barker for one of the hotel’s lavish floor shows.
had taken a job that no one else in the local music scene would touch. It was a
job beneath professional musicians. It was demeaning. This wasn’t a beggar’s
hall, like the subways of New York; this was Waikiki, Oahu, Hawaii.
Kai kicked off his act and his effusive form of musical salesmanship attracted
crowds — nay, throngs — of tourists. Kai was doing what he loved: selling
music and singing Hawaiian songs for anybody who would stop and listen. He was
purposely drawing attention to himself and he didn’t care who knew it.
50, was born on Kauai and raised in central Oahu. And he isn’t really a
Hawaiian street musician, not that such exist. But he is street-schooled in the
classic New York fashion, having swapped Oahu Island for Manhattan to pursue
“broader career goals” in the early 1980s. While there, he created one of
the most successful Hawaii music revues ever, playing for a decade up and down
the Atlantic Seaboard.
was the most successful Hawaii entertainer in New York City in those years and
financially doing very well,” Johnny Kai readily admitted. “I was being
booked for all the big Hawaiian lawn parties, television work, major showrooms,
MTV, Kings and Queens.”
Kai had ambition then and still does. Sometimes on Hawaii, though, ambition is
measured in near Shakespearian terms where someone gets ahead by climbing over
others. (Not Johnny.) And drawing attention to oneself in public? Well, that
just isn’t done, not here, not if you want to keep your friends. It’s
in 1995, upon returning home for a two-week stay to bury his father, Kai had
noticed a major change had occurred in the local music industry: live music
suffered from a severe lack of visibility. He called long-lost friends and music
industry people. Where is everybody, and why is there so little live music after
just 11 years of being away?
realized the local musicians were not motivated to take on such a daunting task,
nor did they have the marketing skills to make it happen,” Kai said. “It was
then that I decided to commit to six months out of every year to create and
develop projects to turn around the current situation.”
then, for nearly 10 years, Kai devoted his productive life to a single effort,
his personal cause celebre: The Music
Foundation of Hawaii, sponsors of the annual Hawaii Music Awards. He created the
non-profit, tax-exempt programs while still actively working in New York. Beside
awards, the foundation distributes funds for scholarships for outstanding music
students and provides venues for talent showcases. One of the first showcases
was a night of Hawaiian Music at Carnegie Hall in New York City.
Room for one more?
Hawaii Music Awards (HMAs) is often seen as competitive with another local music
recognition program — the Na Hoku
Hanohano awards from the member-based Hawaii Academy of Recording Arts
(HARA), a peer-voted industry awards program dating back to the late 1970s. In
contrast, Kai’s Hawaii Music Awards are a “people’s choice,” with the
worldwide public voting for their favorite artists and music via the awards’
Web site. Last year, 30,000 HMA votes were casts, each one from a different
Internet voting is what set this award show apart from others,” said “Aloha
Joe,” a global Webcaster of Hawaii music via his very popular Web site,
AlohaJoe.Com. “Johnny’s vision is clear. He understands that Hawaiian music,
in order to survive, must get off the islands. He knows that if island music
doesn’t receive a worldwide audience, it’s just going to be forever
local,” Joe concluded.
need to move away from Hawaii to appreciate the depth of the talent pool
here,” Kai said, adding almost any band, in any club or style of music, is as
good as most bands with working with major record labels on the mainland. “We
don’t even know how good we all are, and it hurts me sometimes.”
acknowledges he has detractors, those who would seek to put him in his proper
place for being an unabashed, self-styled self-promoter.
agree that there are those who haven’t embraced the awards and
foundation,” reported Linda Dela Cruz, a former New Yorker who first met Johnny Kai in 1984 and worked as a Polynesian dancer in Kai’s popular Hawaiian music show. Today, Cruz lives on Oahu and works as a print and Web writer for MidWeek. She also served
on the foundation’s board of directors.
of what the naysayers say, Johnny perseveres through it all and in the end,
it’s a good show and a good time, and the people in the music industry have a
great opportunity. He gets it done,” Dela Cruz declared.
is exciting to win either — being chosen by your peers or by the public —
and I don’t know that either is better or more significant than the other,”
said Keith Haugen, a well-known, local songwriter and entertainer, performing in
Waikiki for more than 30 years. Haugen has won three Hawaii Music Awards and two
Na Hoku awards, and once sat on the board of governors for HARA.
many artists and fans seem accepting of the HMAs, the most powerful local music
distributors and producers generally don’t enter Kai’s awards; some of the
top-rated, best-selling acts never have entered.
Hawaii Academy of Recording Arts does not discourage HARA members from entering
or voting in the Hawaii Music Awards. In fact, many of our members have won
Hawaii Music Awards and quite a few have participated in the ceremonies,” said
Alan Yamamoto, current president of HARA.
primary public criticism of the HMAs is “too many categories.” This year the
awards are broken down into 31 groupings. Even with the dozens of categories,
there often 10 or 15 entries in a category. (This compares with the more 100
categories in the Grammy Awards with thousands of entrants.) Each HMA entry on
the voting Web site includes streaming music clips, so voters can sample songs
before voting. Mechanisms are in place to ensure only one vote per e-mail
The Big Picture
several years, Kai also sought the attention of government and business leaders
to recognize the tangible contribution of music to the state’s economy.
Kai’s anecdotal research suggests that collectively “entertainment” is the
No. 1 draw for tourist dollars worldwide. Within this entertainment category,
the big three attractions are gambling, pro sports and theme parks.
we don’t have any of the big three,” Kai lamented. “We have ecotourism and
climate-related draws, but the real value we have to offer is music. It is the
key, its ties together all the elements, whether a live floor show, a luau, a
lounge act, or even karaoke.”
the government nor the tourist industry presently tracks the economic value of
music to the state coffers and private business. Kai wants the state to market
Hawaiian music to vacationers and the travel industry, including vacation
packagers and wholesalers.
most people, Hawaiian music is just hula, it is vacation music or souvenir
music,” Kai suggested. He wants to see a broader acceptance of Hawaiian music
in all its varieties, whether traditional, contemporary, rock, R&B, hip-hop
the HMA and other visibility programs, the Music Foundation of Hawaii has two
ultimate goals: a self-sustaining, popularly funded music and music business
education programs for K-12 and at the university levels, and state funding for
a music business program.
why is that Johnny’s vision seems so distant?
think the some of the lack of respect comes from a few media reporters and
industry members feeling that there isn’t a need for another awards
program,” said HARA’s Yamamoto. “And another indication of respect is
economic impact — retail stores are looking for, and are vocal about,
increases in sales of nominated and winning product.
not just the Hawaii Music Awards that gets questioned. After each Hoku Awards
show, HARA gets its share of questions, comments and complaints. A few of
industry members also feel that the first-time-ever Hawaiian music album Grammy
takes away from the Hoku Awards.”
Still, Kai believes he does have the answers to what ails Hawaii’s music business, what changes to make and how to implement them. Yet he presents himself more an impresario, showman and entertainer, thus making the difficult transition from show business to the people’s business all the harder. But if anyone can, Johnny can.