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A Stockton spoken word poet became an unlikely reality television star

Stockton poet Brandon Leake
Stockton poet Brandon Leake performs his poem “Pookie,” which addresses the Black Lives Matter movement, during the “America’s Got Talent” live quarterfinals.
( Trae Patton / NBC)

This morning we’ll be taking a brief break from the usual 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 mike 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.

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.

For those unfamiliar with the nuances of modern reality television, “America’s Got Talent” is a bit like a high school talent show, if you fed said talent show a massive amount of steroids and then coated everything with the hyper-produced sheen of prime-time network television. Think celebrity judges and hosts, glitzy guest appearances and grand-looking stages.

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The show, which just finished its 15th U.S. season, is part of the global “Got Talent” franchise created by wise-cracking British entertainment mogul Simon Cowell. In 2014, the brand was recognized by Guinness World Records as “the world’s most successful reality TV format” for its spinoffs in 58 countries and territories.

Leake, a former high school English teacher who now works as an academic counselor at a local community college, was flatly rejected by the “AGT” screeners in 2017. The show’s contestant roster had been home to ventriloquists, magicians and acrobatic troupes, along with the dancers, comedians and musicians. But it was not yet ready for a performance poet.

In American life, poetry is often 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 less stodgy than the written stuff, rarely has a place on the national public stage.

Here’s how 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.”

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I don’t know if Leake has ever applied for a grant from the NEA, but he did try his hand at auditioning for “AGT” again in 2020.

After making it through the entrant rounds, he received a call from producers in mid-March, just as the coronavirus was beginning to rewrite the narrative in the U.S.

They told him that if he wanted to do the show (and, by extension, make history as the first spoken word poet to be granted a spot), he would have to be in Los Angeles the next morning. His wife, Anna Leake, had just given birth two weeks ago, but when he told her the news, she told him he had to go. He let her nap for a few hours and then headed south toward Hollywood.

As he was driving through the night, Leake’s 17-year-old Honda broke down on the Grapevine. He had barely had a wink of sleep when he finally made it to the Dolby Theatre. And Simon Cowell immediately expressed his skepticism before Leake had even begun his first performance, telling him: “I don’t really understand poetry, I’m going to be honest with you.”

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But rather than intimidating him, Leake said that Cowell’s words excited him. “I can be your introduction to this world,” he remembered thinking. “Let’s do this.”

And as the season continued, something even stranger than a spoken word poet earning a spot in a prime-time 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 might become “America’s next most popular hashtag,” along with his grief over his little sister’s death in infancy and his yearning for his father.

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

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Earlier in the day, he had been in and out of Zoom classrooms, talking to students at his Stockton alma mater, Edison High. But now he stood alone on the empty faux streets of the Universal Studios back lot, looking like a skinny college kid under the harsh spotlights.

For 3 minutes and 52 seconds, he spoke directly to his 6-month-old daughter, Aaliyah.

He grappled in urgent rhymes with the most intimate and universal of relationships, telling his child how he prayed his own inadequacies did not “become a family legacy,” that he could carry his sins to the cemetery “before they ever become hereditary.”

He told her how there was no longer time for fear or faltering when he felt so compelled to plant the best of himself in her, to guide her toward what she wanted to be. He finished with an “amen,” his head bowed and hands folded in worship.

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And then the camera cut back to “America’s Got Talent” host Terry Crews standing in a sharp suit, a giant glowing star and a stylized L.A. skyline emblazoned on the set behind him. Noting how powerful the performance had been, Crews asked the judges for their take.

“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 comedian, whose signature stand-up bit involved pulling a latex glove over his head and inflating it with his nostrils, had been an unlikely champion of poetry on the prime-time stage throughout the show’s 2020 run. He awarded Leake a coveted “Golden Buzzer” early in the season, granting him a straight shot to the live shows, and heaped praise during his performances. By backing Leake, one could argue that Mandel did more to shepherd poetry into American homes than perhaps any other public figure during the last six months.

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

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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 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 still be decided by the voting public.

“It’s time,” Crews said with great gravitas Wednesday night, as a socially distanced audience seated in neat rows of studio golf carts looked on.

“America has voted. The winner of the one million dollars and the star of the headline show in Las Vegas is ... [an interminably long 15-second pause] ... Brandon Leake.”

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Fireworks rose over the Universal Studios gates as Leake fell to his knees in joy and surprise.

In interviews after his win, he 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.

Speaking by phone on Friday, he told me he planned to lead student poetry workshops in the city, particularly in “our disenfranchised south- and east-side communities,” and get back to a writing curriculum he had been teaching at a prison northeast of town. He might even try his hand at acting and directing.

I asked him what he hoped his students and former students were thinking Wednesday night, as they watched him take the grand prize for his very personal work.

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“I hope that they were able to see themselves,” he said.


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