On 21 May 2023, Iam Tongi decided to end his long stint on the 21st season of “American Idol” the same way he started it; by performing James Blunt’s “Monsters”, this time joined on stage by James Blunt. Like kindred souls, the two men sang for their fathers, James Blunt grateful that his father, for whom he wrote the song, beat the illness that threatened his life, while Iam Tongi sang for his father who was not as lucky, and had had the lights turned off before he could witness his son making history. The performance tugged at the heartstrings of every person who heard it, and had the audience sharing in Iam Tongi’s pain over the loss of his father. By the time he sang the last note, there was no doubt that he would be declared the winner of the competition. As predicted, Tongi walked away from the show with the title of the newest “American Idol.” As Tongi comes down from the high of winning the coveted title, fans are wondering what’s next for him. Here is a recap of Iam Tongi’s personal and musical journey and a glimpse at his future.
Unknown to many people, who only know the sensational singer for his music, Tongi is only 18, and still a high school student, but has been awarded an honorary diploma from his former high school in Kahuku. He lives in Federal Way City in Washington DC and attends Decatur High School. Iam Tongi was born in Kahuku, Hawaii, where he spent his childhood and part of his teenage years before the burgeoning cost of living in the tropical paradise forced his father to relocate the family to Seattle, Washington State in 2020. Although Tongi is glad that the move opened up his world to opportunities to pursue his love for music, his father didn’t get to enjoy his son’s new-found fame or celebrate his wins, since he passed away early in 2023.
Tongi has been passionate about music his whole life. His late father helped him nurture his musical talent while living in Hawaii, and continued his support when the family moved to the mainland. So Tongi started his musical journey long before his successful audition for “American Idol.” He released his first single entitled “Dreams” in November 2020, and has written other songs besides “Dreams,” one of which he performed on the night he was crowned the winner. This year, Tongi has released several singles, among them “I’ll Be Seeing You, “Gone,” “The Winner Takes It All,” and “Trust Me.” Through his soulful music, Tongi has reached millions of people across the world, who undoubtedly share the sentiments of anyone who has met him in person, that the musical prodigy is kind, humble and honest, despite being insanely talented and gifted.
Tongi longed to be on “American Idol”, and had applied to audition for the show before his ultimately successful audition. The first time he auditioned for the show, he was accompanied by his father, but didn’t make it past the audition. Although he was heartbroken and disillusioned from the experience, Tongi’s father sat him down and encouraged him to keep working on his music. Tongi followed his father’s wise counsel, put in the work, and his efforts were evident in his performance the second time he auditioned for the show. His performance of James Blunt’s “Monster,” a dedication to his father, moved the judges and audience so much that it broke the record to become the most viewed video of the show on YouTube.
After a successful audition, Tongi got to work getting through the subsequent stages of the singing competition that gave us musical powerhouses such as Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson, Adam Lambert, Jennifer Hudson, Chris Daughtry, and Jordin Sparks. Tongi, who had the live audience and television audience rooting and voting for him in each stage cruised easily through to the finals. He put on his best performance at the three-hour finale, starting the night with a tribute to guest mentor Keith Urban before paying tribute to Hawaii with his second performance of the night. His performance of “Memories of Us” guaranteed Tongi a position in the top two, leaving Megan Danielle and Colin Stough battling for the remaining spot.
For his final performance, Tongi was joined by James Blunt on stage, and took his audience back to the moment that earned him a spot in the competition. His emotionally-charged performance had judges in tears, watching the teenager sing his heart out, sure that he was on the verge of a monumental win. As soon as Tongi belted out the last note, the crowd erupted in cheering, celebrating the raw, heartfelt and powerful performance. A few minutes later, Iam Tongi joined the 20 American Idols who came before him to become the 21st winner of the competition. Weeks later, Tongi’s fans and music lovers who continue to discover his talent every day when they stumble on his performance on YouTube, are still caught in his spell, showering praise on the young prodigy, and wishing him success in his future musical endeavors.
A Night of Firsts
The night of Iam Tongi’s coronation as the 21st American Idol was a night of many firsts, making his win even more impressive than originally perceived. On that night, Tongi became the first person from the Pacific Islands to win “American Idol. Tongi also restored hope for country singers hoping to win the coveted title, by becoming the first country singer to take the crown in three years. Third, Tongi became the first Hawaiian-born winner in the show. Finally, Tongi became the youngest male contestant to ever win the show and second youngest overall, his record only beaten by Jordin Sparks who won Season Six “American Idol” at 17 in 2007. Tongi ended his night of many firsts with a title, the prize of $250,000, and a three-year recording deal.
Tongi’s win was a happy experience for the 18 year old and his family, but some allegations that he wasn’t a deserving winner threatened to dampen his victory. As soon as Tongi was announced the winner, some disgruntled fans of “American Idol” took to social media to trash his victory, arguing that the rightful winner of the competition should have been the runner-up, adding that Tongi was rigged into his win. As more people came out to trash Tongi’s victory, their reasons for believing that he was rigged into the title and prize became wilder. Some argued that Tongi was handed his win for having the saddest story compared to his fellow contestants, while others claimed that the contestants with real talent are never crowned winners. Both groups identified several instances in the show when judges treated Tongi as if he had already won, long before voting was closed and concluded that Colin, the runner-up, was the deserving winner. Some critics went as far as calling for new judges, claiming that the current team of judges is biased.
Tongi responded to the people who came out to challenge his win and claim that he won by appealing to the audience’s sympathy and not for his talent, with the classic optimism and humility that had endeared him to the show’s audience. He confessed that his win felt surreal and acknowledged Colin’s talent and agreed with the critics who said that the second runner-up was a better singer. Tongi added that he and Colin had become friends, and would continue to hang out even if the season had ended. He appreciated his fans for defending him, and promised to focus on the people who believe in him rather than those who do not support him. Tongi concluded his response to his critics by thanking the judges, particularly Katy Perry, for showing love and compassion towards the contestants. The teenage American Idol is ignoring the rigging allegations and enjoying his win.
Tongi’s win lit up his future in music. He’s kickstarted the next phase of his musical journey, by making a series of media appearances in New York to talk about his time in the show, and his goals for the future. He’s visited Hawaii, and staged a concert in his former hometown, attracting a large crowd of 14,000 people. Tongi is set to graduate high school in June, allowing him to dedicate more of his time to music. As part of his prize for winning the competition, Tongi signed a record deal with 19 Entertainment. He will likely maintain the momentum he started by releasing several singles earlier in the year and create more music, and hopefully release an album. For now, fans of the musical prodigy who took America by storm can only hope that Tongi follows in the footsteps of the winners before him who are making waves in the music industry in the US and beyond.