‘American Idol’ Winner Iam Tongi Speaks Out About Maui Wildfires: ‘Devastating’

Iam Tongi

Heavy/ABC "American Idol" winner Iam Tongi

Hawaii native Iam Tongi, the 2023 winner of “American Idol,” is urging fans to do what they can to help those who’ve lost their homes, businesses and loved ones in the wildfires on Maui that have left parts of the island unrecognizable. In a social media post on August 11, 2023, Tongi said seeing news coverage of the devastation “hits harder than I can express.”

Explosive wildfires began burning out of control on August 8, 2023, requiring mass evacuations as high winds helped the fires quickly gain strength. By August 12, NBC News reported that the death toll had risen to 80 with more deaths likely, in what Hawaii Governor Josh Green said will be “the largest natural disaster in the state’s history.”

Tongi, 18, grew up on the island of O’ahu, but his family had to move to a suburb of Seattle several years ago due to the rising costs of living in Hawaii. But he has returned multiple times to his home state for sold-out shows and has been celebrated by many of its artists and leaders, including Governor Green, for putting a national spotlight on Hawaii’s culture and people.

In an Instagram video posted on August 12, Tongi said he’d been struggling to figure out how to help, and decided he’d do what he knows best how to do, dedicating an emotional song to the victims of the wildfires and urging his fans to help however they can. Here’s what you need to know:

Iam Tongi Sings ‘Starting All Over Again’ in Wake of Maui Wildfires

In a video posted to Instagram, Tongi said, “I just wanted to come on here because these past few days I’ve been wondering what I should do and what I can do to help with Maui. I just wanted to encourage everyone to just go out there and (do) whatever you can do to help Maui.”

Before playing the 1972 song “Starting All Over Again” by Mel & Tim, performing a rendition originated by the late Hawaiian musician Israel Kamakawiwoʻole, Tongi said, “I just wanted to sing this song and dedicate it to everyone that lost their homes and family members. I just wanted to show my aloha and my love to Maui.”

Tongi played one of the custom ukuleles that he and fellow “Idol” contestant Oliver Steele were gifted by Hawaiian artist Sam Mangakahia, according to KITV.

The poignant lyrics include, “We lost what we had, that’s what hurt us so bad / It set us back a thousand years / But we’re gonna make it up, though I know it’s gonna be rough / To erase all the hurt and tears.”

To caption his post, Tongi wrote, “I have thought and rethought about ways I could help the people of Maui because I feel incapable seeing people donating so much money that I don’t have and talking with family members and watching videos of people helping each other has made me realize that there’s so much more way to help.”

He continued, “If you’re donating money, any amount would help as long we try to make sure it’s going to the right hands… if you can’t donate money, we can look into other ways of donating wether it be clothing, food, time, etc… anyway, the only talent I have is music and wanted to dedicate this song by Mel and Tim sing by the great Bruddah Iz… I love you Maui and you’re always in my prayers”

Oliver Steele Wants to Organize Benefit Concert For Maui

Tongi’s good friend and Top 8 “Idol” contestant Steele shared his own post about the wildfires on August 10. Steele recently said on an episode of the “Keep It Aloha” podcast that being raised in part by his Filipino grandma has inspired his affinity for Hawaii’s culture and community, and his friendship with Tongi.

“It’s breaking my heart to see the devastation and destruction that has fallen upon Maui,” he wrote in his post. “In no way do I want to put forth an idea that I’m some great savior, nor do I wish to benefit off of the misfortune of a community…but I cannot help but feel like maybe there’s a way I can help give back to the people of Hawai’i for being so kind and loving to towards me.”

In the video he posted, Steele said, “Having been treated with such kindness and such love by the community out in Hawaii, I feel like I want to be able to give back in some way, shape or form.”

Steele then said he has an idea for a benefit show, potentially at Turtle Bay Resort on O’ahu, where he performed earlier this summer with Tongi. He encouraged fans to write in the comments any musicians they thought would be interested, and to tag the resort, too.

Fans flooded the comment section not only with ideas for making the benefit concert happen, but also praise for Steele’s desire to help.

One fan wrote, “You are one if those rare people that truly understand the meanings of Aloha, kuleana and being pono. Please continue to support our islands. We could use all the help possible. So many here have lost so much.”

Another commented, “Oliver. Big Mahalo for even expressing your thoughts of helping our Ohana with a benefits concert. I think it is an awesome idea. We welcome you with open arms and mahalo you considering helping our Ohana in Maui.”

Others also suggested that the concert could be livestreamed to give non-locals a chance to contribute and participate.

Meanwhile, the Honolulu Civil Beat has released a list of reputable organizations and initiatives accepting cash donations and in-person help.

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