When Katy Perry heard this N.C.-raised ‘Idol’ hopeful’s name, she ran out of the room

ABC didn’t air Zika Masmoudi’s initial audition for the celebrity judges on “American Idol,” but he did indeed get a “golden ticket” and advanced to the Hollywood rounds, which begin next week.
ABC didn’t air Zika Masmoudi’s initial audition for the celebrity judges on “American Idol,” but he did indeed get a “golden ticket” and advanced to the Hollywood rounds, which begin next week. ABC

First impressions are of critical importance for singers hoping to break through on ABC’s “American Idol,” but celebrity judges Katy Perry, Lionel Richie and Luke Bryan typically at least wait until a few notes are sung before forming an unusually strong one.

That wasn’t the case in Los Angeles last November, though, when a bespectacled Charlotte native walked into the audition room.

“So the first thing they (the judges) say is, ‘Introduce yourself, tell us your name, tell us your age and what you do.’ I was like, ‘Hey, my name’s Zika...’” recalls 24-year-old Zika Masmoudi, laughing, “...and I started to go into other stuff — ‘I’m 23, blah blah blah’ — but Katy’s like, ‘What??’ I was like, ‘I’m Zika.’

“Then she runs out of the room.”

Bryan, the country singer, chose his next words carefully: “Like the virus?” Perry returned with a napkin over her mouth.

But after the Zika-related jokes and the laughter subsided, the mood turned serious (more on that in a minute) and eventually, Masmoudi performed a cover of a ballad by British R&B star Labrinth called “Jealous” that earned him three yeses from the judges and a spot in “Idol’s” upcoming Hollywood rounds.

ABC did not include his audition in the first several episodes of the new season, and it remains to be seen whether viewers will get a good look at him when the Hollywood rounds air this Sunday and Monday, but here’s what we learned about the Ardrey Kell High School alum/2017 N.C. State grad during a recent phone interview.

1. Zika isn’t really his name. Not his given name, anyway. Born Zakarya (pronounced “ZACK-uh-ree-uh”), his parents used the nickname Zika pretty much from birth, and it stuck — today, that’s what’s on the business cards he uses in his job as marketing and customer success manager at Map My Customers. Masmoudi had Googled “Zika” as a boy, “so I knew that the virus was a thing, but I was like, that’s never gonna be something people would know about.” But ever since the mosquito-borne virus landed in the Americas and earned rabid media attention in 2015, introducing himself to strangers has never been the same experience. Friends give him a hard time about it, too, often sending him links to stories with “Zika” in their headlines. “My favorite one was ‘Do We Underestimate the Impact of Zika on Women?’ I was like, ‘Absolutely, we do.’ I think we cannot overestimate Zika’s effect on women.’ ... It’s just crazy, man.” His Instagram bio, by the way, reads: “I’ve gone by Zika my entire life, so I think the virus should have to change it’s name #freezika #notavirus #iwaszikafirst... oh and I music sometimes.”

2. His roots have North Carolina all over them. Born in Maryland, his family moved to Charlotte when he was 4 years old. He went to McKee Road Elementary School, Randolph and J.M. Robinson middle schools, Myers Park and Ardrey Kell high schools, and N.C. State, from which he earned a degree in business administration with a concentration in entrepreneurship. He lived in Raleigh for more than a year after graduating, but was transferred to New York by his employer this past October.

3. He also has roots in the North African country of Tunisia. Both of his parents were born and raised there, then moved across the ocean as young adults. Masmoudi and all three of his siblings were born in the U.S. “We have that dual identity. My parents, their slogan is, ‘You’re a hundred percent American and a hundred percent Tunisian.’” So Masmoudi was taught Arabic and brought up Muslim, but he also was an avid soccer player from a young age, was a member of the speech and debate team at Ardrey Kell from his sophomore through senior years, and sang with the choir and in high school musicals as a teen. Theater became such a passion that he hoped to study it at New York University, but...

4. His parents talked him out of pursuing a career in the arts. “I don’t know if you’ve heard the stereotype of immigrant parents, but they’re always like, ‘You need to be like a doctor, a business person, a lawyer.’” It wasn’t just talk: When Masmoudi got accepted to NYU, his father told him, “There’s no way you’re gonna major in something like that. You need a real job. Something that’s secure.” So off to Raleigh Zika went. As he pursued his business degree, though, he scratched the musical itch by singing with the school’s Wolfgang A Cappella group. And all the while, he told himself, “As soon as I graduate and get a stable job, I want to try and do music — to see if I can make something happen while I’m working.” Last year, as he was still adjusting to his new job at Map My Customers, a friend posted that he had a friend who was a producer for “Idol” looking for hopefuls; one thing led to another, and at the end of August, Masmoudi found himself making the drive down to Charlotte for an open-call audition.

5. Despite all the goofing around Katy Perry did at the front end of his big audition, things actually got pretty deep. (Note: Masmoudi went through several auditions, including the initial one in Charlotte, before the one he did in L.A. for the celebrity judges.) At one point, the pre-performance conversation delved into his background, and Masmoudi mentioned that he had been friends with Deah Shaddy Barakat, one of the three Muslim students killed in the 2015 Chapel Hill shooting. “(As I said) I feel 100 percent American and 100 percent Tunisian, but that put the American side into question. Like, are we welcomed here? Is this really our country? ... Is Islam antithetical to being American? Are they polar opposites, or are they one in the same? Is this country about freedom of religion, freedom of expression? That was a big piece of our conversation (with the judges).”

6. He’s had negative experiences as a Muslim-American, but he’s focusing on the positive. He talked about a time when his grandmother came to visit from Tunisia; after she left, the FBI knocked on the door of his family’s house and wanted to “ask her some questions.” “My mom literally laughed in their faces.” He says that just this month, he was on a snowboarding trip when someone yelled “Make America Great” at one of his friends. He also constantly worries about the safety his mother and his older sister, who are “identifiably Muslim” because they wear hijabs. “There are people out there who are very mal-intended toward Muslims. I mean, we literally just saw this days ago, in New Zealand.”

Meanwhile, he performed two songs — an original song and a song in Arabic — at a show in New York with a group called Mipsterz (a slang term used to describe Muslim hipsters) that strives to represent “modern, Western Muslims” to a mixed audience. He also periodically reaches out privately to strangers who have posted hateful or ignorant comments on stories about Muslims: ”I try to engage with these people in a way that I’m like, ‘Hey, I am a Muslim-American, I grew up in the States, I love this country, I am an average American kid, I’d love to like engage with you and get to know you and answer any questions and just try to like put a face to the religion basically.’ And I’ve actually honestly gotten some good responses. One of these dudes messaged me back one time and was like, ‘Thank you for approaching this in such a respectful way. You’re right, I posted that comment when I was really angry and that’s not actually what I believe. I don’t actually know a Muslim. So I’d love to connect with you and engage.’ Most people ignore it, but I have gotten genuinely kind and decent responses.”

7. Getting back to the music real quick... if you’ve heard of that Labrinth song (“Jealous”), you have an idea of his influences. He also digs John Legend, Ed Sheeran and “soft-R&B stuff” like Daniel Caesar and Moses Sumney.

8. What did his parents think of him auditioning for “Idol”? Um, well, they actually didn’t know. “Basically, nobody knew that I was doing it until I got through to Hollywood Week. And then I called my parents on camera basically. (Note: That is, ABC filmed it in November for possible use on the show, though it didn’t ultimately air.) I FaceTimed my whole family. And I was like, ‘Hey, by the way, I know I told you guys I was in Raleigh this weekend, but I’m actually in L.A. and I just auditioned for American Idol and I got through to Hollywood Week!’ And they’re like, ‘What the heck??’ ... My dad’s (become) super-supportive of my music, and he thinks I’m really talented, but he’s still like, ‘No, you need to get a job,’ so I wanted to come to him with something concrete. Like, ‘Hey, here’s an accomplishment that proves I could potentially do this.’”

David Cook, who grew up in Blue Springs, won Season 7 of “American Idol” in 2008. Ten years later and now living in Nashville, he maintains a hectic schedule.

Théoden Janes has spent 12 years covering entertainment and pop culture for the Observer. He also thrives on telling emotive long-form stories about extraordinary Charlotteans and — as a veteran of 20-plus marathons and two Ironman triathlons — occasionally writes about endurance and other sports.