When the American Idol finale winds down Sunday night, Samantha “Just Sam” Diaz, 21, Liberian born New York City Subway singer who stole the hearts of judges Lionel Richie, Katy Perry and Luke Bryan from her first audition, will be hoping that her stellar performances so far will climax what has been an eventful and emotional journey.
The last time a Liberian took part in the program, now in its 18th season, was in Season 12 when Zoanette Johnson who resides in Oklahoma City. Johnson made it to the last four before being eliminated despite making it among the Top Ten girls.
Just Sam, whose grandmother is from Liberia wowed the judges during her audition and Hollywood week, walking on stage with her trademark, “lucky box,” trumpeting her musical journey as a singer on the city’s subway and herald her comfort zone.
At her audition, Diaz broke down in tears after only singing a few notes of Lauren Daigle’s “You Say.” After a pep talk from Katy Perry, she composed herself, covering Andra Day’s “Rise Up,” to the amazement of the judges.
During her performance in Hawaii, Diaz boldly took on Selena Quintanilla’s 1992 hit “Como La Flor,” despite reservations from her Mentor Bobby Bones about the risks of singing a song in a foreign language.
“I trust myself and my ability. I trust that I will impress the judges,” Diaz would later say.
Diaz, who grew up in the projects had to endure a rugged life. Her mother spent time in jail when she was young but that did not deter her from pursuing her dreams.
Both she and her sister wound up being adopted by their grandmother, Elizabeth, who she still lives with in the Frederick Douglass Houses in Harlem.
Diaz says she’s been singing in the subway and on the trains in New York since middle school. She says she earns enough doing that to cover her bills and pay her rent.
Following her performance in Hawaii, Diaz called her beloved grandmother to tell her the good news. “I feel so happy, I cannot put that in words,” said Grandma Elizabeth.
Diaz says she took on the nickname growing up when many consider her a Tomboy. “I would switch up my style a lot. In high school, they didn’t know which category to put me in. I wasn’t a girl, not a boy, but both. And I’m like ‘Just Sam.’ You can’t tell them anything else. It sounds perfect, I think I’m going to use that as my stage name forever.”
The rise of Just Sam has brought pride to her grandmother’s roots, Liberia where hundreds of Liberians have been rallying support and GoFundMe for her cause.
Glendy Junius-Reeves, a Liberian living in Virginia who is part of a support group for Samantha “Just Sam” Diaz, says she and thousands of Liberians were driven to Diaz’s story. “One of the things that attracted us to the “Just Sam” story is, this is somebody who did not allow situation to determine how her story would be written tomorrow,” Junius-Reeves told the VOA’s Daybreak Africa Thursday.
“She continued to sing, even if she did not have the right clothing; even if she did not have the right shoes on, she continued to go to the subway every day to sing, and finally, she was able to contest in the American Idol.”
Reeves says the group Is known as the “Just Sam” American Idol Support Group. “I usually refer to him as my boss – Michael Padmore. He started this support group to be able to bring “Just Sam’s” story out to the public, let people know about this young African American woman from Harlem who has a very intriguing story; who believes in her dream and continues to sing. Actually, we got to love her because she’s a natural singer. Somebody singing in the subway with no band, no guitars, and she would beautifully and naturally. And so that’s how we started the group.”
Diaz is currently one of the top 7 contestants of American Idol. With the final show on Sunday, Reeves says she hopes more and more people will be driven to Diaz’s story. “The final show is Sunday. “Just Sam” is from Harlem, New York. She’s from the Projects, living with her grandmother and her siblings. She started singing as far back as when she was in the 7th grade. She used to go and sing at her parents’ job. Because there were too many challenges for them financially, they decided that they would continue to do singing because it brought them some income, and then they could help their grandmother.”
Sunday’s finale on ABC television could make or break Diaz’s future. But in the eyes of both the judges and supporters, she is already a winner.