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I’ve never been much of an American Idol fan. Not even a little. But the soaring success of Hawaii contestant Iam Tongi, or William Tongi, has changed that. It’s genuinely thrilling to see someone with such deep Hawaii roots receive international exposure and acclaim for his powerful performances in the 21st season of one of the most popular shows in television history. He’s made it to the short list of Top 10 finalists.
Tongi’s audition for the show went viral: a stirring, emotional rendition of “Monsters” by James Blunt. Fighting back tears while dedicating the song to his recently passed father, Tongi composed himself and delivered a performance so compelling that it had the judges in tears. It was remarkable for the courage he showed, and astonishing for the artistry of his musicianship and the unmistakable power of his voice. His love for family informs everything he does and believes in. He’s real.
Those of us in Hawaii tend to follow closely the success of our Aloha State neighbors on the national and international stage. Athletes who make it to the big leagues inspire new generations, actors who make it to the big screen (and little screens) prove to Hawaii’s young people that hard work and perseverance can help them reach their goals, no matter how lofty they might be.
Aloha Bruce pointed out to me recently, the 18-year-old performer is on the cusp of untold fame and fortune. Certainly, he has the talent to sell a zillion records (or streams, or whatever), and to fill seats in stadiums around the world.
Hawaii music fans will no doubt see the similarities between Tongi and Israel “Braddah Iz” Kamakawiwo’ole. They’re both big fellas. They are both wildly talented singer/songwriters. Braddah Iz became an overnight success with his rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What A Wonderful World”. That recording session is legendary: a middle of the night phone call requesting studio time, and a 15-minute one-take performance that is now indelibly part of popular music culture. Movies, television shows, weddings, celebrations of life…Braddah Iz has gone on to join the choir invisible but still serenades us with his otherworldly voice.
Tongi’s audition for American Idol and subsequent performances have gone viral all over the world. Braddah Iz and his “Over the Rainbow” went viral before the phenomenon had a name.
While the similarities between Tongi and Braddah Iz are obvious, there is one key difference between the two homegrown talents. Iam Tongi is just 18 years old and already has millions of views and followers across his various social media platforms. Bruddah Iz didn’t enjoy such wildly popular positive exposure at such an early age. He was a blue collar, working musician for many years with the Sons of Makaha before recording that fateful, wistful rendition of “Over the Rainbow”.
As Bruce pointed out to me, with the advantages of appearing on American Idol, a massive social media following, and a talent that comes along once in a generation, Tongi could very well become the next Bruno Mars: a blindingly brilliant performer whose voice and story require an international audience.
There’s no telling how the American Idol viewing audience will vote in episodes to come, or how the judges will…judge. But we can already be proud of young Iam Tongi for what he has achieved thus far. As for his fans in Hawaii, he’s already won us over. He had us (well, me, anyway) before he sang his first note in that now famous American Idol audition.
All that’s left for us to do is support Iam Tongi as he seeks the American Idol crown, and to support his young career as it develops. He’s one of us.
Posted by: Jamie Winpenny on May 1, 2023