Social media blew up in February when Kahuku-born Iam Tongi struggled to hold back his tears, bringing the judges to tears as well, while singing “Monsters” in his make-it-or-break-it audition for Season 21 of ABC’s “American Idol.” The song described English singer/songwriter James Blunt’s feelings as his father was facing death from kidney failure. Tongi could relate; his father, Rodney Tongi, had succumbed to the disease.
Tongi, who is the running today for the top spot on the popular singing competition, has continued to gain fans throughout the season while showing the world what island culture is about.
Tongi’s ties to his island roots were on display on May 7 when the names of the Top Five finalists were announced. Tongi was the third of five to be named, and as he was crossing the stage he stopped, shook hands with Oliver Steele — they’d sung a duet earlier in the evening — and gave Steele his maile-and-tuberose lei. Tongi also used the local term “Yessah!” on the show, which was quickly picked up by supportive fans who made banners and peppered social media with the slogan.
Nowhere was Tongi’s support stronger last Sunday than under a gray tarp-tent on the lawn of a home in windward Oahu where family members, friends and neighbors had gathered to see if he was going to be named one of the Top Three. Like any local gathering, there were people of all ages, from kupuna to infants. The adults and teens watched the proceedings intently, as the younger children entertained themselves on the grass and ate their way through two large pizzas.
“Idol” emcee Ryan Seacrest announced the first two finalists and then prolonged the suspense as long as possible before announcing the third. All it took was the word “Kahuku” and the hometown crowd under the tent went wild as they celebrated the success and shared their memories.
Tongi’s proud aunt, Verona Tuifua, remembered him as a boy who “was not able to sit still.”
“Music made him calm down, and he’s a sweet guy,” she said. “He connects with everybody. Little kids all the way to older, older, older people. That’s what makes him special. And he’s very humble.”
Tongi’s cousin Jenelle Channels said, “Out of his group of siblings, he was the only one who did not annoy me. He has the biggest heart, like if you’re upset, he’ll sing to you, he’ll come and hug you. He doesn’t want anybody to be mad at him or anybody to be upset. He was always the calm to our storms.”
Also watching at the gathering was Tongi’s sister-in-law Cristina Tongi who met him after the Tongi family had moved to Seattle and her husband-to-be brought him along to family gatherings.
“He would bring his guitar, he’d sing some Spanish songs for us. … He didn’t really talk about future things, but we knew he was going to do something big in his life. We felt it.”
On Tuesday, Tongi was back on Oahu and riding as the guest of honor in a “welcome home” convoy that took him from Kahuku High School to the Turtle Bay Resort, where he headlined a free concert for the community. The homecoming events were first envisioned by state Sen. Brenton Awa and quickly grew with the active support of other community members. As he was sharing his plans for the celebration on May 12, Awa described Tongi as “a super, super nice kid, and such a good pick to be showcasing our state now.”
“It’s such a big event when Kahuku’s football team win (the state championship) and they travel back in this type of convoy. The community always comes out,” Awa said. “Now Iam gets to feel that. He’s another talent from our community.”
Rodney Tongi, who inspired and encouraged the 18-year-old’s love of music, would be proud of his son’s progress on the show, winning the hearts of the judges and the viewing public.
Part of that is how Tongi has consistently represented himself on the show: Authentic and humble.
Tongi was initially reluctant to sing “What A Wonderful World” during the Judge’s Song Contest episode because he didn’t want people to think that he was presuming to put himself in the same league as the late Israel “Iz” Kamakawiwo‘ole, who recorded the song and scored a career-best hit with it in the 1990s. Eventually Tongi accepted the challenge, did the song his way, and scored another “American Idol” win.
Tongi also feels a personal commitment to home and family. After his father suffered a series of serious health problems, Tongi’s family left Kahuku and moved to Seattle in 2019; Rodney Tongi died in December 2021. During his “Idol” audition, when he was asked by judge Lionel Richie why he left the isles, he said his family had been “priced out of paradise.”
While Tongi will be graduating from Decatur High School in Federal Way, Wash., in June, he feels ties to two places. He was reunited with his former classmates at Kahuku High on Monday; he would have graduated with them had the family stayed on Oahu.
“I like Hawaii better but I want to live in both,” he said. “My dad’s grave is over there in Seattle and I don’t want to move him because that’s what he loves. He loved Seattle and he loved Washington, ‘cause that’s his kind of weather. … I really, really want to go back to Hawaii but maybe I can go back and forth.”
Whatever happens today, Tongi is planning a life in music.
“I would like to do like a lot of live performances, hold full concerts, and just jam out,” he said. “Because I like to perform live and connect with the audience.”
Someday he hopes to headline the Tom Moffatt Waikiki Shell.
Beyond that, Tongi said his “American Idol” journey shows the importance of persistence. He auditioned for the show several years ago and didn’t make it past the preliminary video audition online. Rodney Tongi saw it as a momentary setback and told him to keep working on his music, but Tongi wasn’t as sure.
“When they said no the first time it kind of killed my confidence,” he said, adding that his mother signed him up for the show this season without his knowledge. “This time around, I kind of was in a bad mood about it. I didn’t want to do it because I thought it was wasted time because I’m not going to make it because I’m not good enough and all this stuff.
“Just don’t give up. Be proud of who you are. You never know what happens. So just always give everything a try. Even if you don’t think it’s gonna happen.”
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