"I can picture this island boy at MIT studying nuclear fusion. Even when you sit with Kealoha, it’s as if he himself is a source of energy… And when you first meet him, he leaps out of his chair to shake your hand. It’s not just physical. His mind seems to always be on the move, searching for something new, fresh, and challenging. With his positive messaging, his boundless energy, and his ability to lead and mentor people of all ages, we can’t wait to see what he’s going to do." --Leslie Wilcox, President/CEO of PBS Hawaiʻi and former news anchor for KHON-2
Kealoha was born and raised in Honolulu, Hawaiʻi. He spent most of his childhood as a closet nerd, hiding his academic interests by spending most of his time on soccer, basketball, theater, break dancing, surfing, ʻukulele playing, and hula dancing. Although he was enrolled in honors Math, Science, and English classes, only a handful of people knew that he was ranked 9th in the nation in the National Math League, and that he got a perfect 800 in his math SAT’s. Therefore, it came as a surprise to his peers when he announced that he would attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the top school in the nation for science and engineering.
While at MIT, Kealoha pursued his passion for environmental energy technology by choosing Nuclear Engineering (Applied Nuclear Physics) as his major. He was primarily interested in researching the process of Fusion Energy, which is commonly referred to as the “Holy Grail” of energy production. During his University tenure, he worked as an intern at MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center and at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.
Towards the end of his undergraduate career, however, Kealoha realized that the fundamental problem with Fusion Energy progress had more to do with political funding issues. To explore this path, he worked at the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA), a federal think tank near Washington, DC affiliated with the Department of Defense. In 1998, he was the primary author of a white paper presented at the Pentagon regarding the national security consequences of Global Climate Change.
In 1999, Kealoha obtained a Bachelor of Science degree from MIT with Tau Beta Pi and Alpha Nu Sigma honors (with a minor in writing). For his science and policy work, he held both confidential and secret security clearances to access classified information. The title of his thesis was “Proliferation Issues Associated With the Transmutation and Stabilization of Plutonium.”
The Corporate World
Upon graduation, Kealoha decided to make a radical career switch by going into management consulting. He saw it as a great way to learn about the business world and as a chance to try something new. He was hired by the San Francisco branch of the Mitchell Madison Group, a worldwide company that was acquired three times while he was there. During his 2-years of wearing suits and traveling back and forth between major cities, Kealoha did marketing, aggressive sourcing, business development, internet strategy, corporate strategy, and energy research for clients such as Adidas, Visa, Samsung, Mattel, Sun Microsystems, and Health Net. He was promoted in July of 2001 to Associate, the level of hire for employees with MBA degrees.
The hours were long in the consulting world, however, and the work was unsatisfying. Kealoha could not get over the feeling that his time was being wasted on helping rich companies to get richer. He longed for a new direction.
Inspired by the movie Fight Club, Kealoha started a weekly gathering known as The Think.The Think brought together a diverse group of intellectuals to explore various fields of study. Each week, a member of the club was designated as the leader/expert, and he/she brought a thought experiment, activity, or challenge that fully demonstrated a chosen field of study. The topics of The Think were wide-ranging, exploring fields from architecture to philosophy, from music to politics, from economics to moral dilemmas. For Kealoha, each session was like doing mental steroids.
Introduction to Slam Poetry
In the year 2000, while looking for something to do in San Francisco’s weekly newspaper The Guardian, Kealoha read about a slam poetry event near his apartment. He had never heard of slam poetry before, but decided to check it out since poetry was one of his interests in high school. The experience was life changing, and a whole new inspiration set in. After years of focusing on Nuclear Physics and Management Consulting, the creative hemisphere of Kealoha’s brain had been cooped up for far too long. That night, the floodgates were flung wide open, and Kealoha went home and wrote incessantly. He wrote for days, neglecting his consulting work. To him, slam poetry was the perfect combination of thinking, writing, and theater. He attended every poetry slam that he could in the Bay Area and soaked it all in.
Organizing The Think and attending poetry slams gave Kealoha a sense of urgency to do something meaningful with his life and a desire to contribute to society. He didn’t know exactly what he wanted to do, he just knew that he didn’t want to keep working at a job without passion. At the end of 2001, he decided to leave the comfort of a well paying career in consulting for an unknown path. In short, he derailed off of the corporate track. He moved home to Hawaiʻi to reconnect with family and with nature. Using his savings and sleeping on his brother Mike’s couch, he surfed and hiked daily. He ate mangos. He wrote a lot.
Open Mics and Artistic Endeavors
Kealoha started sharing his work at open mics and showcases. He regularly performed at India Cafe open mics and Wordstew events. With time, he built a small following. In 2002, he hosted his own open mic at an ʻawa (kava) bar known as Hale Noa with Hawaiian Ryan. The weekly event was called the “Open Mind,” and was a hybrid of an open mic and The Think, where the audience was frequently asked to discuss philosophical topics as a roundtable group, and artists were encouraged to interject with relevant songs and poems.
Along with a group of talented musicians and MC’s, Kealoha found himself as a front man for Communication, a hip-hop/funk/groove based band with co-founder Jonathan “Intrepid” Sypert. He also started doing poetry workshops in numerous schools, and played the lead role in Chase, a hip-hop theatre production directed by Cristian “See” Ellauri.
At this point, Kealoha was earning his living as a full time poet.
Hawaiʻi Slam’s First Thursdays
In April of 2003, Kealoha founded Hawaiʻi Slam and started First Thursdays at Studio1, a monthly poetry slam that was based on what he experienced in San Francisco. The goal was to create a home base for Honolulu’s poets, visual artists, and DJ’s. The first slam attracted 300 people who were primarily Kealoha’s friends and family. Word spread and the next month attracted 500 people. At that point, Hawaiʻi Slam’s First Thursdays became the largest registered slam poetry competition in the world, edging out Germany’s attendance of 400 and San Francisco’s attendance at 300. Soon after, downtown Honolulu went through an artistic renaissance, hosting regular art, music, and poetry events that Kealoha frequently was either a part of or attending.
In November of 2004, Studio1 shut down and Kealoha moved Hawaiʻi Slam’s First Thursdays to the Hawaiian Hut. The event continued to grow, reaching an average attendance of 600+. In December of 2008, however, Hawaiian Hut closed down and Kealoha was forced to move the slam once again. During 2009, Kealoha hosted the slam at Cupola Theater, Next Door, and Pipeline Café, looking for a suitable home for Hawaiʻi Slam's large audience. From 2010-2015, Hawaiʻi Slam found a home at Fresh Café Kakaʻako, but unfortunately, Fresh Café closed as well.
In 2016, Kealoha found Hawaiian Brian's and has hosted Hawaiʻi Slam's First Thursdays there ever since. Hawaiian Brian's is located at 1680 Kapiʻolani Boulevard, and the slam occurs at 8:30pm on every first Thursday of the month. The event is still as big and as beautiful as it always has been.
Hawaiʻi Slam Team at the National Poetry Slam
In 2004, Hawaiʻi Slam’s First Thursdays produced its first official slam team, which competed at the National Poetry Slam in Saint Louis, MO. The rookie team did extremely well, missing semi-finals by one-tenth of a point and finishing in the top third of all teams from around the nation. The next year, the team finished 7th out of 75 teams, and Hawaiʻi Slam has had a distinct presence in the National Poetry Slam scene ever since. During the first 7 years that it participated in the National Poetry Slam, it made it to the semi-finals 4 times, showcased on the finals stage twice, made it to the group piece finals, and finished as high as 5th in the entire tournament. In 2007, Kealoha qualified for the National Poetry Slam Individual Finals, ranking 8th out of 350 of the world's best poets. In 2010, he was honored as a National Poetry Slam Legend.
Hawaiʻi Slam still sends a team up to the National Poetry Slam, and will compete in Boston, MA in August 2012. The team is determined through the competition at Hawaiʻi Slam’s First Thursdays.
Youth Speaks Hawaiʻi
Kealoha started touring Hawaiʻi’s schools in 2002, performing in assemblies and conducting classroom workshops throughout the islands. After 3 years of spreading the artform of slam poetry, he realized the need for a place where teenagers could call home for exploring their voices. In January of 2005, Kealoha applied for some grants and used the money that he received to found Youth Speaks Hawaiʻi, a local branch of the national Youth Speaks organization. He employed poets from Hawaiʻi Slam’s First Thursdays to teach free weekly workshops to Hawaiʻi’s youth.
In 2009, HBO produced the Russel Simmons Presents “Brave New Voices” documentary, which followed 7 teams from around the nation as they traveled to the International Youth Poetry Slam. Kealoha was featured on the documentary as the strategic coach for Youth Speaks Hawaiʻi, which won the entire festival and was one of the seven teams that the documentary focused on.
Although Kealoha has passed the organizational leadership of Youth Speaks Hawaiʻi on to Lyz Soto (Hawaiʻi Slam Team `07), he remains peripherally involved with the organization by helping out whenever needed. As a solo artist, he continues to visit schools, libraries, and community centers to expose both youths and adults to slam poetry. To this date, Kealoha has been hired by over 300 distinct institutions throughout the state of Hawaiʻi, and maintains a regular schedule of workshop and assembly visits.
Kealoha lives in Honolulu and makes his living as the Poet Laureate of Hawaiʻi by touring the world, performing in music concerts, and visiting schools, libraries, and community centers (for a full performance bio, click on the home page). He shares stories from his life during his shows. He looks at the world through scientific eyes and Googles everything that piques his interest. He still surfs and hikes a lot. He still eats mangos.