Genre-bending high-schooler from Hawaii makes ‘American Idol’ history

Iam Tongi, a high-schooler whose guitar broke midway through the season, became the first Hawaiian and Pacific Islander to win “American Idol,” putting a national spotlight on island culture and sparking a wave of local celebration.

“Hawaii is a very close-knit community, and so when we see somebody trying to succeed, a lot of us are all cheering from the privacy of our living rooms, just making as much noise as possible,” said Roman De Peralta, frontman and songwriter for the local Hawaii band Kolohe Kai, whose music Tongi performed in the Season 21 finale. “He just pulled on the heartstrings of not only Hawaii, but the whole world.”

His win, punctuated by local concerts and school celebrations, is especially rare, considering that country singers typically dominate “Idol” and other reality singing competition shows. A fan favorite, the 18-year-old from Kahuku, Hawaii, traversed genres with his finale performances to prevail over Christian music singer Megan Danielle.

The songs Tongi sang Sunday night were dedicated to his late father, who died after suffering from kidney failure months before Tongi auditioned for the show. He covered “Making Memories of Us” from country music artist and former “Idol” judge Keith Urban. He revisited James Blunt’s “Monsters,” which he sang for his viral audition, this time duetting with the song’s British pop singer. And he performed his original song “I’ll Be Seeing You,” a stripped-down ballad about grief. “Gone but your love / Is all I have left / I’ll stand tall / You’ll stay in my arms,” Tongi sang.

Reminders of Tongi’s father have followed him the entire season. He promised his dad before he died that he would always play the guitar he gifted him. Midseason, the instrument broke, and Tongi had to sing Sam Cooke’s “Bring It on Home to Me” without it.

“It was almost like a sign that my dad was giving me that I could do it on my own,” Tongi said later on “Live With Kelly and Mark.”

Many of the songs Tongi took the stage with were tunes he’d grown up singing with his father, and he said he still hears his dad’s harmonies in his head.

The ‘American Idol’ winner is no surprise. There’s a reason for that.

Tongi stayed true to his Hawaiian roots Sunday by performing Kolohe Kai’s “Cool Down,” a 2009 reggae hit that is popular on the islands. De Peralta said he felt honored and humbled when he saw it.

“I am BEYOND stoked right now!” De Peralta wrote alongside a video he posted to Instagram.

The high-schooler received praise from the Hawaiian government, including Gov. Josh Green (D), who posted a selfie with the musician and wrote in a statement:

“He represented our state with grace, humility and of course, his fantastic talent. Congratulations to Iam, his entire ‘ohana, and his beautiful hometown of Kahuku.”

“American Idol” premiered in 2002, and it remains one of the most popular shows in the country, though its ratings have slid. About 5.6 million viewers tuned in for last year’s finale, according to Deadline. Ratings for Sunday’s show were not immediately available.

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