Why you should care

Because there’s more to Hawaii than hula.

Travelers can get the quintessential Hawaiian experience at the House Without a Key restaurant in the Halekulani Hotel. Seemingly every evening, the sun sets redder than a postcard, and the wine is divine, as is the lau lau chicken. Meanwhile, uke-pickers croon out a rendition of “Over the Rainbow” while a former Miss Hawaii hulas under the century-old kiawe tree. This is exactly what most come to paradise for.

But if you don’t want to be most, you might head a half-mile down the Waikiki streets to the Laylow Hotel, where a different soundtrack is on the menu. Opened last March, the Marriott property regularly plays host to singer-songwriters and R&B artists. It’s not the only fresh venue to risk a shift in the set list. An ornate downtown shopping mall that reopened after renovations in mid-2016, the International Marketplace, has four or five hangouts playing live music nightly. The acts? Mostly upbeat pop and soul, the types once rarely booked on an island dominated by the tunes of reggae, island folk music and Jawaiian — the sex-on-the-beach love child of the former two.

It’s a total turnaround.

Jenn Wright, musician

In fact, Hawaii has grown an appetite for the rhythm and blues. “It’s just been over the last year and a half,” says Jenn Wright, a 38-year-old musician affectionately called “Mom” by many rising R&Bers — many of whom she books gigs for and manages, formally or not. “Now, it’s more of a movement. Most venues, when they call and are looking for music, this is what they are looking for. It’s so refreshing. It’s a total turnaround.” As Izik Moreno, a 30-year-old musician bred on Mariah Carey and Aaliyah while raised by his grandma on the island of Molokai, says: “The smaller boutique hotels are looking for something a little different … they are trying to appeal to younger crowds.”

Hawaii has long had talent. Still, it’s often been muted by an island culture that stymied new voices while encouraging classical music and popular covers that were sure to sate tourists. That’s kept reggae on the airwaves, but the narrow market has forced folks with innovative tastes to pack their bags for the contiguous states (think Bruno Mars, who was born and raised in Honolulu but relocated to Los Angeles for his career). With only a few radio stations willing to branch out from the Hawaiian norm even today — just “college stations and NPR,” says 23-year-old singer-songwriter Keilana Mokulehua, and a few Top 40 stations — most locals traditionally haven’t heard much R&B playing across the airwaves. Unless they are headed across the Pacific anyway, many major artists skip Hawaii because of the prohibitive cost of flying their touring acts to the islands, which makes it difficult for young pop aspirers to imagine themselves in the spotlight.

Yet those challenges are slowly receding, thanks to a combination of technology, talent and tact. Moreno says the increased popularity of “live looping” technology, which allows solo artists to create a fuller sound closer to that of a full band, has opened more doors for R&B acts. Both in Hawaii and on the mainland, music lovers have shifted their listening habits from the radio to streaming services such as Pandora and Spotify. “It opened the local population to other types of music,” Mokulehua says, and video platforms like YouTube and Facebook have transformed word-of-mouth promotion. As people become more familiar with the genre, they want to hear it everywhere, from their backyard barbecue to backroom bars.

State leaders have also begun to address the scarcity of big acts. The Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism has launched music immersion programs to nurture local talent, partnering with others to send Hawaiian musicians like Moreno to pop-up events everywhere, from California and New York to Australia and New Zealand. They’re working with trendy venues such as the Republik to import top names — upcoming shows include singer Jhene Aiko, popular alternative R&B artist SZA and Grammy nominee Kehlani.

But today’s rise of R&B in Hawaii may not have been possible without artists like Wright, who gutted it out during the lean years, often turning down paying gigs as a singer and percussionist for the acoustic duet Simple Souls. “Management would say, ‘You have to do something Hawaiian, or contemporary island,’” she remembers, but they would refuse. “By standing our ground and keeping who we are, eventually it’s withstood the test of time.”

Now Wright works with island musicians, including Mokulehua and Moreno, former Oprah Winfrey guest Lina Robins-Tamure and American Idol finalist DeAndre Brackensick, to ensure soul lives on. The five artists are supportive, cheering their friends on, often appearing as backup singers for each other in live shows or music videos. There are still difficulties: Despite often being asked to open shows, “to be the headliner, you have to be island-reggae,” Wright says. And while “everyone loves a good cover,” adds Moreno, original music remains a harder pitch to venues. Still, business has been booming, Wright says: “Now, everybody is so busy that all my kids are too busy — so I have to scout out for new guys to cover the scene.”

After watching a YouTube video, the group affectionately started calling themselves “the Brunch.” “I just don’t want to wake up that early, but I still want breakfast … and I want a mimosa in the morning,” Wright says. “It represents that mindset of ‘I’m going to just do what I want, when I want.’ There are no rules.” Just like brunch, their music lives in what Mokulehua describes as “the sassy in-between” — a refreshing and welcome addition to the sometimes schmaltzy islands of Aloha.

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