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Iam Tongi | American Idol Winner

Unless you have been living on another planet the last couple of months, Hawaiians across all the islands have been celebrating the result of the latest American Idol competition, thanks to Oahu-born William “Iam” Tongi, the series winner. In fact, celebrations could be heard across the Pacific as Iam is the first Pacific Islander to win the competition, which is in its 26th year.

Iam is of Tongan, Samoan and Irish descent, having lived in Kahuku, Hawaii. However, his family was forced to leave Hawaii and relocate to Federal Way, Washington, because of what Iam described as being “priced out of paradise”. There he attended Decatur High School and in fifth grade he learned to play the ukulele and the piano. For his thirteenth birthday, his father bought him a guitar out of his holiday paycheck—certainly a luxury for the family at that time, and something that Iam has never forgotten.

Oahu Tour

Iam is only 18 years of age and the competition itself was a real emotional roller coaster ride for him. His audition rendition of James Blunt’s Monsters moved the panel of judges to tears and saw the video of his performance receive 16 million views over a three-month period.  Only months before the auditions he lost his father and during ‘Hollywood Week’ he broke the guitar his father gave him and also lost his voice. However, he chose to continue throughout the competition, singing solo without the guitar.

During the season Finale, Iam teamed up with James blunt and together they sang Monsters, Iam’s audition song which, once again reduced the judges to tears. However, at one point during the performance, Iam also broke down, but managed to regain his composure soon afterwards. Iam went on to say, afterwards, that:

            “My dad always told me that I’m gonna make it one day and that he probably wouldn’t be around to see me be successful. When I was on stage, I was crying because I was thinking about when he said that to me. He was hoping this for me since the beginning.”

Despite moving away from Hawaii three years earlier, Iam managed to remain true to his roots with a number of his song choices throughout the competition. He included a cover version of the Hawaiian reggae group Kolohe Kai’s song Cool Down. This saw Iam garner considerable praise from not just Hawaiian record producers, but Hawaiian artists alike for bringing Hawaiian Island reggae to the national stage. Roman de Peralta, frontman for Kolohe Kai commented:

         “[The American Idol audience is] a demographic that we don’t really get to share our culture, our island vibes with. I feel like [Iam’s song choices] really paved a beautiful way for us as artists to be in front of people we really never got to.”

Iam responded by saying that he was so grateful to be able to showcase Island reggae to the Idol audience:

        “I wanted to represent the islands, and represent where I’m from, people in Hawaii.”

American Idol wasn’t Iam’s first venture into the world of commercial music though. From very early on it was recognised that he had an exceptional talent, and he wrote the song Dreams for his sister’s wedding, and which he subsequently released as a single. Beyond that, he also released his own cover version of Abba’s The Winner Takes it All and another original song, Gone.

However, Iam’s greatest commercial success came with his release of the song I’ll be Seeing You which reached No. 3 on Billboard’s Digital Song Sales and No. 1 on Rock Digital Song Sales, from 11,000 downloads.

And the really good news for all of you in Hawaii is that Iam is heading back home for the first time since he won American Idol Season 21! He will be headlining a two-day event at the Turtle Bay Resort between July 1 and 2. Even better news is that he will be sharing the stage with Kapena, Likkle Jordee, Paula Fuga and Natural Vibrations. A percentage of the proceeds will benefit “I Can, I will Hawaii” — a nonprofit empowering Hawaii’s youth through music, art, sports and culture.

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