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Newsletter: A Stockton spoken word poet on the national stage

Stockton spoken word poet Brandon Leake
Stockton spoken word poet Brandon Leake, just after he was named the winner of Season 15 of “America’s Got Talent” during Wednesday night’s live finale.
(Chris Haston /NBC )

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Friday, Sept. 25, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.

This morning we’ll be taking a brief break from our regularly scheduled coronavirus and wildfire apocalypse programming to talk about a poet from the Central Valley, and his unlikely journey into millions of living rooms.

Brandon Leake honed his craft at open mic nights on the campus of a small Christian college in Redding, on slam poetry teams, in high school classrooms and wherever else he could. Raised by a single mother on the south side of Stockton, he was accustomed, as he put it, to “playing this game of life with the decks stacked against you.” But he also knew his calling.

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By 2017, the year Leake first auditioned for “America’s Got Talent,” he had visited “every single high school in town” to perform spoken word poetry or lead workshops with their Black student unions.

If you are unfamiliar with the intricacies of modern reality programming, “AGT” is a bit like a school talent show, if you fed it steroids and added the general sheen of primetime network television. Think glitzy guest appearances, grand stages and celebrity hosts.

Leake was roundly rejected by the show’s screeners in 2017. The show’s contestant roster — which had included ventriloquists, magicians and acrobatic troupes amid the dancers, comedians and musicians — was not yet ready for a performance poet.

In American life, poetry is typically relegated to the dustbins of academia and narrow-audience obscurity. It’s less popular than jazz and knitting, according to government data cited by the Washington Post. Even spoken word poetry, which skews younger and a bit less stodgy than the written stuff, rarely has a place on the national stage.

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Here’s how the poetry critic David Orr put it in his 2011 book “Beautiful and Pointless,” which was obviously about the state of modern poetry: “For decades now, one of the poetry world’s favorite activities has been bemoaning its lost audience, and then bemoaning the bemoaning, then bemoaning that bemoaning, until finally everyone shrugs and applies for a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.”

But Leake tried again in 2020, and he made history this year as the first spoken word poet to be granted a spot on the show.

And as the season continued, something even stranger than a spoken word poet earning a spot in a primetime talent competition happened: Leake became something of a breakout star on the show, generating headlines with his deeply personal and powerfully rendered performances.

Viewers and judges watched in awe as Leake performed spoken word poems about the Black Lives Matter movement and his mother’s fear that someday her son’s own name would become “America’s next most popular hashtag,” his grief over his little sister’s death in infancy and his yearning for his father.

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During the first installment of the show’s finale on Tuesday night, with more than 5 million viewers tuning in, he performed a spoken word poem in the form of a prayer for his 6-month-old daughter.

“I’ve never experienced anything like this in my life, and especially on this show,” celebrity judge Howie Mandel said, adding that he had never really experienced poetry before.

But the television personality and stand-up comedian, whose most famous stage bit involved pulling a latex glove over his head and inflating it with his nostrils, had been an unlikely champion of poetry on the American stage throughout the show’s 2020 run. He awarded Leake a coveted “Golden Buzzer” early in the season, and heaped praise during his performances.

“Like Howie said, this is a new experience for me and I have loved it,” actress Sofia Vergara said, sitting at the judges’ table in a sequined black-and-white bustier.

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Finally, the third judge, Heidi Klum took her turn. “I truly believe you deserve a show in Las Vegas,” Klum told Leake, marking perhaps the first time those words had ever been uttered in that order to a poet. “And we as people, we deserve more artists like you.”

The judges had had their say, but the final winner — like at least some American elections — would be decided by the voting public.

On Wednesday night, fireworks rose over the Universal Studios backlot as Leake was crowned this season’s winner. The honor comes with a million-dollar prize and, yes, the opportunity to headline a show in Vegas.

In interviews after his win, Leake said he wanted to cut a check to Sallie Mae and pay off his student loans, to go on a world poetry tour and to keep investing in Stockton.

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“I want to open up a locally owned grocery store in my food desert back at home,” Leake told Parade. “I want to run my poetry workshops in the disenfranchised portion of Stockton. I want to make my city a better place with the finances that I get as well as make my own family’s life better.”

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

“If you think it’s bad now, just wait”: California faces new fire threats, further straining resources. A new heat wave is building, bringing dangerous fire weather to parts of the already fire-scarred state. And fire season is just beginning. Los Angeles Times

Video shows O.C. sheriff’s deputies fatally shooting a Black man: The fatal shooting of a Black man by two Orange County sheriff’s deputies during an altercation in San Clemente, captured on video, spurred a protest and the arrest of several activists who blockaded a street on Thursday. Los Angeles Times

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A truck drove through a group of protesters in Hollywood on Thursday night, striking and running over at least one person as it sped through the crowd, news footage shows. Los Angeles Times

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L.A. STORIES

A recent rise in COVID-19 cases threatens to slow L.A.'s reopening: With recent increases of coronavirus cases in Los Angeles County after nearly a month of decline, L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti said the next few weeks will be crucial if the city wants to see more reopenings. Los Angeles Times

The lineup for the first-ever virtual L.A. Festival of Books includes Natalie Portman, Jerry Brown and Viet Thanh Nguyen. This year’s e-festival begins Oct. 18 and continues over four weeks, rather than taking place over the usual two weekend days. Los Angeles Times

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POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT

President Trump remains widely unpopular in California, but his campaign support in the state runs broad and deep. Here’s a look at some of his biggest donors in the state. Los Angeles Times

Does Gavin Newsom have the hardest job in politics? “I think Gov. Newsom clearly wins the prize for having to cope with the most crises at the same time,” says former California Gov. Gray Davis. Politico

Two new California laws will require app-based delivery companies to more closely work with local restaurants before advertising their menu options and drivers to ensure the safety of meals while the orders are in transit. Los Angeles Times

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Meet the state senator shifting California’s workplace culture. Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson has been the driver of several new laws aimed at eliminating gender-based barriers. New York Times

CRIME AND COURTS

Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey has recused herself from investigating a fatal shooting involving the daughter of a powerful figure in the L.A. police union, which has helped to raise millions for her reelection campaign. Los Angeles Times

L.A. Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey in her office in 2012.
L.A. Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey in her office in 2012.
(Los Angeles Times)

Parents are suing the LAUSD, blasting its online learning as an “educational crisis.” Los Angeles Times

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HEALTH AND THE ENVIRONMENT

California’s largest-ever fire threatens cannabis farms worth millions. Many won’t evacuate. Los Angeles Times

CALIFORNIA CULTURE

An Orange County doctor pulled out a gun during an antimask video, saying his 9-millimeter handgun offers more protection against COVID-19 than a face mask. Orange County Register

Almonds finally overtook grapes as Kern County’s most valuable crop, according to a new report that contained a few surprises pointing to fundamental shifts in local farming. Bakersfield Californian

A poem to start your Friday: “Recuerdo” by Edna St. Vincent Millay. Poets.org

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Get our free daily crossword puzzle, sudoku, word search and arcade games in our new game center at latimes.com/games.

CALIFORNIA ALMANAC

Los Angeles: sunny, 82. San Diego: partly sunny, 75. San Francisco: partly sunny, 69. San Jose: partly sunny, 75. Fresno: sunny, 85. Sacramento: sunny, 84. More weather is here.

AND FINALLY

Today’s California memory comes from Denise O’Leary:

Our family moved from New York City to Venice in 1973. We were “in awe” to find slugs in our yard. We had never seen or even heard of them before. I gave my first-grade daughter a coffee can to collect some, then suggested she take them to school for show ‘n’ tell. She did that and when she returned home, she told us the other kids and teacher said that was nothing special and they were everywhere. She was embarrassed. Too bad she couldn’t take the can of slugs back to New York City, where the kids would be impressed.

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If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints, ideas and unrelated book recommendations to Julia Wick. Follow her on Twitter @Sherlyholmes.


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