New York — When the American Idol finale winds down Sunday night on ABC Television, Samantha "Just Sam" Diaz, 21, a 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 climaxed 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.
The road from there has been stellar.
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."
Liberia Claiming Heritage
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 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."
She adds that the group continues to create support and build up our membership. "Tonight, we are on the watch. We need like 102 more persons to make us 25,000 in the group. We are very innovative in the group. We do different activities. We are her fan base. We create awareness; we teach the people and we let them know how to vote. We tell people about "Just Sam"; share her story; get people to get to know her."
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 could make or break Diaz's future. But in the eyes of both the judges and supporters, she is already a winner.
For Reeves, it is important for Liberians and the world to show up and vote for Diaz: "The significance for this Sunday is, right now we have the top 7, and "Just Sam" happens to be the second person in the top 7. The results from last Sunday's votes will be announced this at the beginning of the show this Sunday. So, we will know from the top 7, we will know who the top five are, and during the live program, we will vote from the top 5 to find out who the top three are and top 2, and then from there, we will know who the winner is. So, the show is going to end on Sunday, and we are looking forward to that because it's a competition. It's votes based. You who have the most votes, will be the one who's going to win it."
Win or lose, Just Sam is just happy that she has made it this far. "I know that at this point in my life, I've already made my grandmother proud," she posted on her Instagram recently. "Her seeing me on TV was my dream and it finally came true after all these years. I wish that I had the words to say right now, but I just don't. I'm currently filled with so much gratitude, joy, and so much peace. Being able to audition for American Idol has truly changed my life."