Story by Shannon Wianecki
Photos by Sue Hudelson
In April 2009 a young African- American musician took the stage at the I Love Kailua street party in windward O‘ahu. Dressed in a stylish aloha shirt and dark sunglasses, he bantered with the crowd. “We’re going to play something traditional,” he said. “Bring out your stopwatches if you like.” Who knows what the scattered festival-goers expected as he started to sing. But when Kamakakehau Fernandez let loose an angelic, perfectly pitched Hawaiian falsetto, people set their plate lunches down to listen. As his voice soared thrillingly into the upper octaves to linger on one ethereal note, which he held … and held … and held … for a full thirty seconds, his awestruck audience erupted in cheers and whistles.
Twenty-eight-year-old Fernandez never had to try to be different. From the time he arrived in Hawai‘i as an infant, he occupied the tiniest demographic. Less than 2 percent of the state’s population is African-American. An equally small fraction speaks Hawaiian fluently, as he does. On top of that, he’s adopted. And on top of that, he was a hyperactive child— the kind that exasperates teachers and prompts doctors to write prescriptions. A Venn diagram—one of those illustrations that uses overlapping circles to show common elements — might include just one person at its center: himself.
But when Fernandez sings, stereotypes come undone. Now an ascending star in Hawai‘i’s music scene, this unlikely falsetto phenom managed to marshal his differences into major assets. He may not have Hawaiian koko, blood, in his veins, but he emanates pure aloha — and was raised by a family with ties to King Kamehameha.
By the time Fernandez’s adoptive mother, Robyn Nae‘ole, was 30 years old, she knew she couldn’t bear children of her own. The Native Hawaiian social worker had tried to hanai, or informally adopt, a child from within her circle of friends and family—once a common practice in Hawai‘i — but to no avail. So when she heard a Catholic deacon talking about foster children in the southern United States who needed parents, her heart opened wide. She talked it over with her husband, and everything fell quickly into place. She hadn’t even finished filling out the paperwork when she got the call: A newborn was waiting in Little Rock, Arkansas. Three weeks later she was on a plane bringing her son home to Maui.
“She came back with this pohaku of a baby, this solid rock of a kid,” laughs Robyn’s brother Iokepa Nae‘ole. “I picked him up by his forearms, and he came up in this warrior stance. I’ve never seen a baby that strong.” Robyn named the boy Kamakakehau, “heart’s desire,” and introduced him to a large, extended family that was in the midst of a cultural reawakening.
The Nae‘ole clan is huge and hugely influential in Hawai‘i. Being adopted by a Nae‘ole is akin to being inducted into royalty— there are protocols, expectations and scores of relatives to remember and respect. Robyn and Iokepa’s eldest brother, Clifford Nae‘ole, is the Hawaiian cultural advisor at the Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua. He presides over the resort’s annual Celebration of the Arts, one of the most prominent Hawaiian arts festivals in the state. The opening ceremonies involve a formal procession, ho‘okupu (symbolic gifts), ritual ‘awa drinking and royal Hawaiian guards. At the festival’s closing lu‘au this year, the Nae‘ole family filled three long banquet tables.