Hours before Iam Tongi, winner of “American Idol” season 21, released his new version of the classic ballad “Over the Rainbow,” the 19-year-old revealed he was mourning the death of one of his grandmothers.
On October 26, 2023, Tongi shared an Instagram video of several family members watching the season 21 “Idol” finale and cheering wildly as Ryan Seacrest announced he was the winner.
“I’ll miss you forever, Grandma Kelela,” he wrote over the video as she was seen raising her arms in victory from her recliner, wrapped in a blanket adorned with an illustration of him.
This is not the first loss Tongi has had to deal with as a teen. To audition for the “American Idol” judges in the fall of 2022, Tongi sang a heartbreaking cover of James Blunt’s “Monsters” in tribute to his dad, Rodney, who died of kidney failure less than a year before, in December 2021. Video of his audition went viral, catapulting the Hawaii native to stardom, and the way he grappled with his grief throughout the season resonated deeply with viewers.
Upon learning of this latest loss, fans have showered Tongi with well wishes and expressed relief that his grandma was able to see him win “Idol” before her death.
Iam Tongi Shares Multiple Tributes to His ‘Grandma Kelela’
While on the road — with a concert in Warrendale, Pennsylviania, on the night of October 26 — Tongi added multiple posts to his Instagram Stories from his family members about the death of his “Grandma Kelela.” One post from a cousin featured an old family photo with halos drawn over Kelela and Rodney’s heads.
“Love you, Grandma,” Tongi wrote over the Story. “I’ll miss you forever.”
Tongi also shared a post from his mom, Lillie, who wrote, “Seems like we are never really prepared to say goodbye. My heart aches for Cynthia and the rest of the Lombards as they said goodbye to their dear mother/grandmother today. Kelela, you have done so much for our family personally. Thank you. You will continue to live in our hearts and our minds. Much Ofas to Steve, Cyn, Bryan, Liana, Jenny and the grandkids ❤️”
Cynthia Channels, who was referenced in Lillie’s post, was interviewed by multiple Hawaiian news outlets right after Tongi won, including KITV, and was often referred to as his “aunty.” Tongi also shared a touching post by his cousin Kelela Channels, who said she was named after her grandmother.
It’s not clear precisely how Tongi and his “Grandma Kelela” were related, but large extended families — or ‘ohana — with multiple beloved “elders” are common among native Hawaiians, according to the University of Hawaii.
“‘Ohana is perhaps one of the most famous Hawaiian words and values,” the university noted in its guide to understanding native Hawaiian families. “Most folks know that ‘ohana means family, but in Hawaiian culture, family extends beyond blood ties. Adults are often called “auntie” or “uncle” by their friends’ children because they are considered ‘ohana as well.”
In June, Tongi gave the New Zealand Herald a bit of background on his large family, with its blend of Tongan, Samoan and Irish heritages.
“My mum’s maiden name is Tuifua,” he began. “Her full name is Lilie Tuifua, she’s part Irish and Tongan. Her mum is from Kansas and her maiden name is McCormick, she married a Tongan man with the surname Tuifua. My dad is half Tongan and half Samoan. Asoau, that’s my Samoan grandmother’s side. I have a really big family. So if anyone is claiming to be my relative, they probably are.”
Fans React to Iam Tongi’s Loss as He Shares New Song
Fans were quick to shower Tongi with condolences after he posted about his loss.
One wrote, “❤️🩹🙏🏽❤️🩹 Sending you love and prayers for you and your ohana. May your grandma rest in Heavenly peace”
Another commented, “My aloha and pule to you and your ohana🙏🏽♥️ May she fly with the angels and rest in aloha.”
Another person wrote, “You made her a proud proud gramma!!!! Gave her one of her best moments!!!!”
Interspersed with Tongi’s Instagram Stories about his grandma, he also shared teasers of his newest song, “Over the Rainbow,” released at midnight on October 27. It’s a song he’s long loved performing, and which he sang on “American Idol” after the Top 26 was announced, as seen in the video above.
Tongi’s new rendition of the tune is a slow blend of classic country and the version made famous by a fellow Hawaiian, the late Israel “IZ” Kamakawiwoʻole.