‘American Idol’ Winner Iam Tongi Opens Up About His Father’s Impact and Wanting to “Represent My People” in Music

Long before Iam Tongi made his way into the hearts of fans on season 21 of American Idol, he planted musical roots in his native Hawaii that blossomed into worldwide connections. 

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Born and raised in Kahuku on the island of Oahu and later moving with his family to Washington state in 2020, Tongi first felt a connection to music after his fifth grade teacher taught him how to play the ukulele. “I didn’t like it at first,” Tongi laughs in a Zoom interview with American Songwriter fresh off his Idol win. “I started feeling a connection to music when I went home and I told my parents, my family, I can play. They didn’t believe me, so I wanted to prove them wrong.” Much to their surprise, the young musician was skilled at the ukulele, his father Rodney, in particular, supporting his budding talent. Tongi says his passion for music was solidified during his fifth grade talent show when he performed a cover of The Black Eyed Peas’ “Where is the Love?” on the ukulele.  

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Growing up, Tongi was introduced to a variety of music through his father, with an emphasis on island and country music. As a fan of country greats like George Strait and Keith Urban, Tongi cites country music as his favorite genre.

“They really influenced me by opening my eyes to different genres,” he says of the artists he was raised on. Describing his own style as leaning more toward the singer-songwriter realm, Tongi got to show off his affinity for lyricism when he auditioned for American Idol with a poignant cover of James Blunt’s “Monsters.” But there was a chance that moment may have never occurred. Tongi also auditioned for season 20 of Idol but didn’t make it. With his spirits dampened after his father passed away from kidney failure, it was Tongi’s mother Lillie who took the initiative to sign her son up for auditions for Idol season 23 and didn’t tell him until days before. 

“After my dad passed away, I didn’t want to do music anymore,” Tongi shares. “I just practiced hard because she was like, ‘Do this one for dad.’” Tongi admits that he went into the audition with a “bad attitude” based on the rejection he got from last season and didn’t expect to advance past the audition round. But his world changed as he stood in front of judges Lionel Richie, Katy Perry, and Luke Bryan, tearfully sharing how his father had passed away a few months prior, which led into his stunning rendition of James Blunt’s  heartbreaking song, “Monsters.” With the guitar his father gave him in hand, Tongi captured the emotion of the song, his beautiful spirit shining through just as much, earning a coveted golden ticket to Hollywood. “It was hard for me to sing that song because music was shown to me by my dad,” Tongi recalls of the audition. “My dad taught me what I know about music.” 

But that wasn’t the only moment that challenged Tongi on his Idol journey. During Hollywood Week, Tongi’s sacred guitar broke at the same time he lost his voice. But it taught him a meaningful lesson that helped carry him through the rest of the competition.

“When they asked me, ‘What happened with the guitar? I just started crying,” he says. “I feel like it was a way of my dad telling me I could do it on my own. In other rounds, I’ve done it without my guitar because I was trying to break off from that and let my dad know I can do it on my own.” The 18-year-old got to honor his father’s legacy again during the finale when he not only joined Blunt for a duet of “Monsters,” but also performed the original song “I’ll Be Seeing You.”

[RELATED: ‘American Idol’ Crowns Winner of Season 21]

Writer Francisco Martin VI sat down with Tongi and listened to his life story to write the tear-inducing lyrics like, All your wits / All of the laughs / Your grin / Stay in my heart / Stay in my mind / For all of time. “It’s almost like a conversation, saying to my dad, ‘I’ll be seeing you wherever I go, I’ll be with you wherever I go,’” Tongi expresses. “[It’s like] my dad talking back to me now that he’s gone, no matter what happens, where he goes, he’s going to be with me in my heart and in my mind and through the memories.”

While rehearsing the song for the finale, Tongi says he made his best attempt not to break down in tears, knowing he would struggle through the rest of the performance. But hearing fellow contestant Colin Stough rehearsing one of his songs opened the floodgates. 

“During our rehearsal, I was trying not to cry because it’s such a beautiful song,” he expresses. “It hit me, it really got me in the mindset of being sad and I was trying to get out of that, but when I sang it on the stage, I was trying to close my eyes, feel it, and not cry because I know if I cry, I’m going to mess up. On the stage, it felt really good to perform it.”

Once the performances were done and the votes tallied, Tongi says he approached the moment of the winner being announced with a clear mind. “I didn’t expect to make it this far,” he confesses. “No matter what, I was going to be happy.” Sparks flew from the stage and the audience and judges met Tongi with roaring applause when he was named the winner, the singer leaving them with a performance of his new single, “Don’t Let Go.” As he prepares for a bright future, the gifted teen hopes to be a source of inspiration for his community and anyone else chasing a dream. “The kind of artist I want to be is to represent for my people and for people that are too afraid or too prideful, they’re scared to embarrass yourself,” he proclaims of following one’s dreams. “Do what you love. Don’t let people tell you you can’t do it.” 

Photo by Lorenzo Bevilaqua/Disney General Entertainment

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