Watching ‘Just Sam’ Win It All on American Idol from a Douglass Houses Community Room


Just Sam’s family and friends gathered to watch the finale at the Douglass Houses.

By Michael McDowell

It was a moment of ecstatic joy on Sunday night at the New York City Housing Authority’s Frederick Douglass Houses, when Samantha “Just Sam” Diaz, a 21-year-old former subway busker and neighborhood favorite, won the eighteenth season of American Idol.

A cathartic commotion erupted after host Ryan Seacrest’s announcement, which concluded a suspenseful evening punctuated by multiple elimination rounds, each followed by a brief glimpse of Diaz via FaceTime.

Diaz—Just Sam—is a Douglass girl, and lives with her grandmother, Elizabeth Belfrom, in an apartment at 101st Street and Columbus. But she wasn’t home at Douglass on Sunday; to ensure she didn’t inadvertently expose her grandmother to coronavirus, Diaz has remained in an apartment in Los Angeles, by herself, where she traveled for Idol’s “Hollywood Week,” her daily expenses subsidized in part by a successful GoFundMe.

However, the hometown fans were with her virtually. Red and black balloons floated along the ceiling of a brightly lit community room at Douglass, which has most recently served as a distribution point for meals that volunteers deliver to seniors. That’s where a socially distanced crowd of a dozen fans in freshly printed “Just Sam” t-shirts—Belfrom among them, as well as a sister, Tyari Jasper—had gathered to watch the Idol finale live.

“From a very young age, she knew that she could sing,” Belfrom, who adopted Diaz and her sister Anabelle when Diaz was 6-years-old, told the Rag.


Elizabeth Belfrom.

“Sam is always singing,” sister Tyari Jasper nodded. “Everywhere she goes. She’ll be talking to you and in the middle of a sentence she’ll start singing. It’s almost like it’s out of her control. When we were younger, I remember that if she was inside, she would open a window and just sing out the window,” she recalled. “I don’t think she cares about being famous. She just wants everybody to hear her sing.”

Neither Belfrom nor Jasper are singers themselves.

“Only in the shower,” Belfrom chuckled. “What do I sing in the shower? ‘I Surrender,’” she said, humming a few lines. “It’s a song that brings tears to my eyes, which I learned in Africa.”

Belfrom arrived in New York from Maryland County, Liberia, in 1973. She’s lived at Douglass since 1980.

“If we weren’t social distancing, this place would be packed,” said Carmen Quiñones, president of the tenant association at Douglass Houses. Quiñones has known Diaz since she was 12, and Diaz has performed at many Douglass events.

“What was Sam’s’ first song on Douglass Day? Do you remember?” Quiñones asked a woman nearby.

“I think it was Whitney Houston,” she responded.

“That was a long time ago,” Quiñones nodded.

“This is a testament to public housing,” she continued. “When people talk about public housing, and people who live in public housing,” she shook her head. “There’s a lot of talent here. A lot of talent. Boom Boom Washington? He used to live right there, at 823 Columbus,” Quiñones gestured, referring to actor and musician Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs.

It was on the subway, however, that Diaz made a name for herself.

“I used to go with her on the trains, and sometimes take video” Jasper said. “Her frequent train was the 1 train, but she’d also sing on the A,B,C,Q,N, and R. She’d sing anything, from R&B to country, church and gospel. It was more R&B on the trains.”

As Diaz finished a performance of Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger,” Idol judge Katy Perry reflected on how Diaz’s circumstances have shifted, and for once, a narrative produced for television seemed, by and large, to correspond with the material conditions of its protagonist.

“You’re never going to go back to singing on the subway unless you want to,” Perry said.

Diaz performed Andra Day’s “Rise Up” in what appears to be the very same golden bomber jacket she can be seen wearing in footage taken in New York City’s great subterranean performance space.

As the conclusion of the finale approached, anxieties were satiated with plates of delicious yellow rice, salad, and chicken.

Belfrom and Jasper headed upstairs to Belfrom’s apartment, with an iPad. The production of American Idol, forced to contend with a pandemic, was a near perfect choreography of live television in the age of coronavirus.

“Ya’ll gotta bring the crowd home,” Quiñones bellowed, rallying the room.

“What do we want?

‘Just Sam’!

When do you want her?

‘Now!’

“Pa que lo sepa! Puerto Rico for Just Sam!” she shouted, broadcasting via her iPhone on Facebook Live.

The moment arrived. Seacrest would initially announce, in no particular order, two finalists. First, Arthur Gunn a 22-year-old singer from Wichita, Kansas.

The room fell silent. Earlier in the show, Sam had been the last contestant, of five, to secure a spot in the finale. There is nothing quite like the gravity of a moment where the fate of an individual hangs in the balance, at the mercy of arbitrary and invisible forces.

“Come on baby girl,” Quiñones said.

The room exploded. Seacrest’s “Just Sam” was inaudible after the first consonant.

Minutes later, the actual final announcement. On television, Diaz hugged an iPad, her grandmother on the other end of the screen, in her apartment a few stories above the community room at Douglass.

“The next American Idol for 2020, is…” Seacrest began, producing a moment of total agitation. Reader, Seacrest paused for nearly seven seconds. An eternity.

“Just Sam!”

The pandemonium attracted a passerby, who waited until things had settled down to inquire as to just what exactly this was all about.

“What happened?” he said.

“Sam won,” someone answered.

He nodded, and dissolved into the night.

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    1. Alice Gerard says:

      Just Sam is pure delight every time she sings. Her voice is so pure and so expressive. This was a well deserved win, and this is just the beginning of a great musical career! Congratulations, Just Sam!

    2. Jodi Kline says:

      Greatest story. Beautifully written! Yes please. More like this.

    3. MKing says:

      This young woman is not only a beautiful singer but she is humble and gracious. This story is really the American dream and now more than ever we need a little happiness in our lives. She was the reason I voted on Idol for the first time every. She deserves to go far and bring her grandmother and sister along with her.

    4. Leasa says:

      Well deserved.

    5. She’s the best 👍. God Bless Her.

    6. Dorothy Padgett says:

      She is just like an angle, I knew in my heart when I first heard her sing she would win. I voted for her. I just love her and yes we made the right choice congratulations Just Sam

    7. Jay says:

      I was cheering Just Sam on the whole time! What a beautiful voice and soul! She is all heart, and I’m so happy to see that she persevered.

    8. Juicy Booty says:

      So delicious!

    9. Michelle says:

      From Harlem to Hollywood I’m proud of you SAM I’m originally from Harlem my self I now live on LI but you will be inducted into Harlems most famous my nephew is Waka Flocka we LOVE YOU GOD IS POWERFUL

    10. Agatha says:

      This is a true Cinderella story, you have just begun, even the sky will not be able to limit you. Go and be an ambassador to the most high God proclaiming that it cannot be over until God says so.

    11. debbie Matos says:

      You go sing your little heart out and share it with the world. You need to be seen and heard that dreams do come true. You now belong to the world.

      Thank you,
      D Matos

    12. Robin Rice says:

      Over here on West End Ave. we were applauding and whooping and hollering too! So very, very, very happy! Just Sam earned that star – now watch her ride it!