American Idol: First Pacific winner pays tribute to dad and heritage

Iam Tongi (centre) with contest judges

Hawai’ian student Iam Tongi has dedicated his historic win at the American Idol to his late father and the Pacific whānau.

Tongi, 18, became the first Pasifika to win the international show after performing his original single I’ll Be Seeing You.

Tongi also became the first non-country singer to win American Idol in three years, scooping the US$250,000 prize and a recording contract with Hollywood Records/19 Recordings.

Enter Tonga Tourism. They want the talented singer so bad, the government is working with “Tongi’s people” to get him to visit the Pacific nation.

Just hours after his win, organisers of Tonga’s Heilala Festival are urging Tongi to return to his whakapapa in the Friendly Islands.

The festival, including the popular Miss Heilala Pageant, returns to Nuku’alofa from 26 June to 07 July after a three-year hiatus due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Tonga Tourism is reaching out to American Idol winner Iam Tongi to visit the Friendly Islands.

“An appearance by Tongi would boost Tonga Tourism,” the organisation posted on its Facebook page.

Thousands of people posted their support for Tonga Tourism, with thousands more taking to other social media platforms to celebrate Tongi’s achievement.

According to his Facebook posts, Tongi has Tongan, Samoan and Irish heritage but he was born and raised on the north shore of Oahu Island, Kahuku.

“I bleed red always,” one post read, referring to the Tongan national colour.

Tongi and his family moved to the state of Washington in 2020, where he attends Decatur High School in Federal Way, Washington, outside of Seattle.

Tongi’s audition on 19 February is the most viewed video on the American Idol YouTube page, amassing more than 16 million visits.

During that audition, Tongi sang an acoustic cover of Monsters by James Blunt, which the youngster dedicated to his father Rodney, who died in December 2021.

Tongi told Idol judges Luke Bryan, Katy Perry and Lionel Richie that he could still hear his dad harmonising with him when he sang.

“My dad, he wasn’t a perfect dude. He wasn’t like a saint or whatever. But he was the best father that I know. And I want everyone to know that he’s a tough guy. He always told me the truth, (and) he always loved me. And I always loved him too.”

During his trip back to Hawai’i for his homecoming concert last week, Tongi posted on social media that he had received a special guitar, made just for him.

“It represents my Polynesian heritage and love of music and the man behind this design is Laie cultural artist Sam Mangakahia.”

Mangakahia, who is Māori (Ngāti Huarere), is based in Hawai’i and has been creating custom-made musical instruments since he was 15 years old.

“And he even has pieces that were made for well-known musicians and artists like Josh Tatofi, Kolohe Kai and Stan Walker,” Tongi posted.

Following his win, Tongi performed Monsters with Blunt – the song he auditioned and had dedicated to his dad – but he wasn’t able to hold back his emotions.

“When we were about to sing it, I was telling myself I wasn’t going to cry because I cry a lot on the Idol stage,” he told Hollywood Life on Tuesday. “I could feel Dad with me. I miss him badly. Honestly, I just want to be the one that inspires all my talented Polynesians but most importantly all young Pasifika. I hope I have tonight,” he said.