Zimbabwean born Shorai rocks the US's American Pop Idol

MINNEAPOLIS, US – Zimbabwean born Sophia Shorai, a 28-year-old Minneapolis torch singer, wowed the "American Idol" judges during her Hollywood performance that was televised Thursday night and surely made her parents – Sara Jane Olson and Fred Peterson – very proud

Sophia Shorai Peterson was born in Zimbabwe in 1982, while Olson was California terror fugitive Kathleen Soliah, accused in the 1970s of conspiring to blow up Los Angeles police cars and participating in a deadly bank robbery near Sacramento.

Soliah committed those crimes on behalf of the Symbionese Liberation Army, the leftist radicals who staged the kidnapping of newspaper heiress Patty Hearst.

After changing her name, Olson and her family moved to St. Paul, and the DFL activist and community theater actress was caught by the FBI in 1999. She pleaded guilty to both crimes, served half of a 14-year sentence and was paroled in March 2009.

Shorai, who cleared the audition phase in Milwaukee, sang "Georgia On My Mind" as part of an ensemble and advanced to the next round of the popular Fox talent show. Judge and Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler called her interpretation of the soul standard "beautiful."

In next week’s show, Shorai and her 59 fellow survivors will be competing in a Beatles challenge in Las Vegas.

Her biggest singing success so far could well be in TV commercials. She has been employed by Minneapolis-based Modern Music to sing for Target (for which she sang the ubiquitous remake of the Beatles’ "Hello Goodbye") and for State Farm Insurance (a remake of "16, Going on 17" from "The Sound of Music").

Shorai is scheduled to perform Thursday in Minneapolis at the Dakota jazz club and restaurant, where she was part of the wait staff when her mother was arrested in 1999, Dakota co-owner Lowell Pickett said.

"Obviously, it was a huge thing for this young girl in high school to have her mother arrested and to have the whole family shown in all the newscasts," he recalled. "We did our best to comfort her."

Pickett remembered Shorai singing Johnny Mercer’s standard "Autumn Leaves" at a company holiday gathering around that time and "being stunned by her talent."

As she has become a regular at the Dakota over the years, Pickett said, "I’ve been very impressed by how strong she has become and how she has gotten past that major part of her life. She’s probably better-equipped to handle the pressure of ‘American Idol’ better than anyone."

Modern Music’s Eric Fawcett said Shorai has already proven she can handle the wide range of musical genres that her new TV role would require. She also sang on a track Fawcett and his writing partner John Hermanson wrote for the ABC series "Dirty Sexy Money" in 2007.

"One of her great talents is she’s able to sing music that works in a commercial or a TV show – which a lot of times can come out bland – and really sing it with heart and conviction and make it her own," said Fawcett, who has also played drums with the Hopefuls and N.E.R.D. "Her voice just knocks everyone’s socks off."

In her online "Idol" video bio, Shorai said, "I’m absolutely in awe of my parents and their ability to not only love each other dearly after 40 years (but to) promote each other’s good qualities."

As for Shorai’s family past impacting her pursuit of television fame, "Idol" spokeswoman Chloe Ellers said, "We don’t comment on the personal lives of our contestants."

 

Educated at Perpich Center for the Arts High School in Golden Valley, Shorai is no stranger to music competitions. In 2003, she beat out several far better-known acts in a demo contest sponsored by Grammy Award organizers at First Avenue. She auditioned in Chicago for "Idol" in 2009.

Fawcett and Pickett both said Sophia has been required to keep her "Idol" stint under wraps the past couple months. As for whether or not she kept her family’s story a secret from "Idol" producers, Pickett said, "She doesn’t hide it."

"I’m sure they know it," Pickett added. "’American Idol’ certainly loves a story."

 

In an interview about three years ago with the national fashion/glamour magazine Marie Claire, Shorai recalled how she and her sisters "had to watch our mother be pulled away by two big cops. The after-effects have been debilitating. I don’t know if people can understand that."

Sophia, the middle of three sisters born to Olson and Peterson, is using her middle name in her career. The name derives from the language of the Shona people of Zimbabwe and southern Zambia.

On her Facebook profile, she says she graduated from the Perpich Center for Arts Education in 2000 and studied psychology at the University of Minnesota. She has performed at various venues around the Twin Cities for the past several years, including the Dakota, Hell’s Kitchen and the Nicollet Island Inn.

In last year’s release of her second jazz CD, "Long as You’re Living," she paired up with former Prince keyboardist Tommy Barbarella for an impromptu one-day session.