Iam in the House
Despite his family being “priced out of paradise,” Kahuku native Iam Tongi has found a new home on the show American Idol, where he’s capturing the hearts — and votes — of millions.
For the past few months, Iam Tongi of Kahuku has been captivating audiences around the world with his performances on American Idol.
Video of his audition, titled “Iam Tongi Makes The Judges Cry With His Emotional Story and Song,” has reportedly become the most viewed audition ever on American Idol’s YouTube page, with more than 15.5 million views since it was first posted in February.
And to think, that audition almost didn’t happen.
“I was supposed to go to Vegas (to audition), but then I got COVID,” explains Tongi. “I thought it was over. I was crying, but then my mom was talking to the lady, and she said, ‘Oh, you can try out at the New Orleans one.’
“I was so excited, so I got up and went to New Orleans, but my mom couldn’t go because she had to work, so I went with my uncle Manatau (Tuifua). He lives in Hawai‘i, but he flew up to take me.”
For his audition, Tongi covered Monsters by James Blunt, a song he dedicated to his late father, Rodney. After his tear-jerker performance, judge Katy Perry described Tongi’s voice as magnificent, Luke Bryan said it was great and that he did everything perfect, and Lionel Richie added, “The story is one thing, your delivery of your story was phenomenal. … Young man, you take this into the world and you’re going to fracture some souls.”
While all three judges agreed to send Tongi to the next round of the competition in Hollywood, this wasn’t his first time trying out for the long-running TV singing competition, which is in its 21st season.
“I auditioned online the year before and I never made it and it kinda killed my confidence,” reveals the 18-year-old high school senior. “But my mom signed me up and the rest is history. Now, I’m in the top 5 (as of press time last Friday).”
This past Sunday, the top 3 finalists were announced during American Idol’s live coast-to-coast show on ABC, and locally, arrangements were already underway for a parade through Kahuku and a Hometown Hero concert that is scheduled to take place on Tuesday, May 16 at Turtle Bay Resort, with a film crew from American Idol covering the event if Tongi was to make it to the next round.
Week after week, Tongi has continued to hypnotize viewers with his epic performances, including a moving rendition of I Can’t Make You Love Me by Bonnie Raitt and beautiful cover of Bring it On Home to Me by Sam Cooke that received thunderous applause.
“I had no idea this was gonna happen, but I’m glad I touched so many people,” says Tongi. “And when people chant my name, it just makes me feel like this is unreal and I’m so grateful.”
Born William Guy Tongi and raised in Kahuku, he attended Lā‘ie and Kahuku elementary schools, and Kahuku High & Intermediate School before moving to Seattle a few years ago because, as he explained on the show, they were “priced out of paradise.”
“My favorite memories growing up was walking down to Kahuku Famous Shrimp and all of us were like, ’cause we never had much money as kids we were all broke, someone would bring $5 and someone would bring $2 and we would go down to Kahuku Famous Shrimp and get $1 garlic rice,” remembers Tongi. “We would just sit there and just eat the garlic rice and jam out, and that’s one of my favorite memories.”
As for the things he misses most about Hawai‘i, he lists family (he has “at least a couple hundred cousins”), the food and the beach.
“(My favorite restaurant is) Da Bald Guy — they’re so good,” says Tongi. “It’s the best breakfast on the whole island. It’s a little food truck by the sugar mill in Kahuku.
“Oh man, I get the kalbi, it’s boneless kalbi with eggs and stuff, it’s so good. We also like to get the shrimp and they have the best mac salad I ever had.”
In addition to singing, Tongi says he also loves to cook (he enjoys making shoyu chicken, fried rice, pork chops and steak) and draw.
“And, I love to call my family and irritate them,” laughs Tongi, the youngest of five children.
He credits his dad, who was an electrician, for teaching him to sing. He was in the fifth grade at the time, which is also when he learned to play the ‘ukulele, and remembers his dad really pushing him to make it a career. Sadly, his mom, Lillie, shared on the show that his dad got sick a couple of years ago and had to go through dialysis. Music was how they bonded, and Tongi admits it’s been hard since his dad’s passing. He notes the tears when he sings come from hearing his dad’s harmony. However, with some encouragement from his family, and a determination to make his dad proud, he decided to take his music seriously.
“For me, it feels awesome to see Iam be able to reach so many people,” says mom Lillie. “This is something his dad always told him that that was his ability or his magic was to get people to believe him when he’s singing or to touch their souls, and to see him believe in himself now with American Idol helping him with that confidence, it’s been magical.
“I think something I would want to put out for everybody is you’re in charge of your future, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Shoot for it and just give it your best.”
Each week, before taking the stage, Tongi shares that he has a ritual of sitting down and singing a song called Teu Hiki A Hoku Leo.
“It’s a Tongan gospel song that me and my dad used to sing together all the time,” explains Tongi, who is of Tongan, Samoan and Irish ancestry. “It kind of gets the nerves out and gets the feels in and brings out emotion.”
Looking ahead, Tongi says he wants to record a lot of singles and perform at live concerts. Among his favorite artists, he lists Josh Tatofi, Josh WaWa White, Fiji, Allen Stone and Teddy Swims.
“I love a lot of artists,” he says. “My favorite artists of all time is probably George Strait and Lionel Richie. Lionel Richie was my dad’s favorite.”
Throughout his journey on American Idol, Tongi says the best part has been making new friends along the way, hanging out with them and just “jamming out and having fun.” So, naturally, the hardest part has been saying goodbye to some of them as contestants get eliminated each week.
He also knows that American Idol is his “chance to be something more.” But, at this point, it’s already changed his life and many others, too.
“My dream is just to continue to touch people’s heart and make them feel the music and see what I’m trying to put out there,” says Tongi.
When MidWeek asks if he’s already enjoying the dream life, he responds, “Yeah. I’m living it right now.”