Poet cel­e­brates his ‘wild’ win on ‘Amer­ica’s Got Tal­ent’

USA TODAY US Edition - - LIFE - Bill Keveney

Bran­don Leake’s words res­onate in hard times, says judge Howie Mandel.

“Amer­ica’s Got Tal­ent” cham­pion Bran­don Leake didn’t ap­proach the NBC tal­ent com­pe­ti­tion fo­cused on win­ning, but he did have a plan de­vel­oped over years of par­tic­i­pat­ing in po­etry slams.

“You just have to strate­gi­cally place your po­ems. That way, you get to the end of the show and you have a chance to win with your best poem,” the first spo­ken-word poet on the show tells USA TODAY just af­ter be­ing named the win­ner in the Sea­son 15 fi­nale Wed­nes­day.

“So, the (first) time I felt like I had an hon­est shot at win­ning was the mo­ment I saw the judges stand up and give me a round of ap­plause af­ter my fi­nal piece for my daugh­ter. At the same time, I told my­self, ‘Even if you don’t (win), of course you did.’ ”

The 27-year-old from Stock­ton, Cal­i­for­nia, then paused, clearly still ab­sorb­ing the re­al­ity an hour af­ter be­ing crowned: “A young kid from South­side Stock­ton, a poet, came and won ‘Amer­ica’s Got Tal­ent.’ Wild!”

Judge Howie Mandel says he had no ex­pec­ta­tion Leake would win when he ad­vanced him from the au­di­tion round to the live shows with his Golden Buzzer, but that he couldn’t be hap­pier. The poet’s voice is needed dur­ing th­ese trou­bled, painful times, he says.

“Bran­don took us through the jour­ney of hu­man­ity. And this is what’s miss­ing right now: un­der­stand­ing, hu­man­ity and jus­tice,” Mandel says. “This has been a hard time for all of us, but I thought that the win and the vote for him has given me and the world hope. I’m so thrilled Amer­ica made this vote and lis­tened to their hearts and their minds, es­pe­cially on a day like today with what’s go­ing on in the world. I hope that he is the light.”

Leake, who tri­umphed over run­nerup mu­si­cal duo Bro­ken Roots, is “one of those great sur­prises” that can hap­pen on “AGT,” judge Heidi Klum says. A spo­ken-word poet “is some­thing you would not have thought of. (Then) some­one like him just walks in and pulls the rug out from un­der your feet.”

Her hus­band, Tokio Ho­tel gui­tarist Tom Kaulitz, is a big fan, too: “He’s my hus­band’s fa­vorite. When I go home, usu­ally we watch the show to­gether in bed, and my hus­band was like, ‘It’s al­most like mu­sic the way he says it, the way he enun­ci­ates cer­tain words and how he speaks in that rhythm.’ ”

In ad­di­tion to Leake’s poem about his 6-month-old daugh­ter, whom he saw for the first time in a month on Tues­day be­cause of the show’s pan­demic re­quire­ments, he also per­formed po­ems

about the loss of his sis­ter, his es­trange­ment from his fa­ther and the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment, which fea­tured the story of a mother’s fear of los­ing her son and men­tions of Ge­orge Floyd and Bre­onna Tay­lor, who both died this year at the hands of po­lice.

“My peo­ple are hurt­ing. I think the idea of Black Lives Mat­ter be­ing a po­lit­i­cal state­ment is an in­trigu­ing word, be­cause we never tried to as­sert the idea that we’re more im­por­tant than any other race. All we try to as­sert is the his­tor­i­cal fact that there has been dis­en­fran­chise­ment of African Amer­i­cans in this coun­try since its in­cep­tion and it’s con­tin­ued and it’s part of it’s legacy and we want to help re­write that,” he says.

That cri­tique is based on “a gen­uine love be­cause you only try to cor­rect things and peo­ple that you love. If you’re ap­a­thetic to it, you leave it alone and let it be hor­ri­ble,” he says. “When I did that poem it was for a time like this, know­ing that the world needed that type of en­cour­age­ment. It needed that time to not tap into some­thing po­lit­i­cal but to tap into some­thing em­pa­thetic.”

Leake’s vic­tory capped a roller coaster year for “AGT,” with Klum ab­sent for part of the au­di­tion round; a pan­demi­cre­lated pro­duc­tion shut­down; a re­sump­tion with COVID-19 pro­to­cols but with­out cheer­ing au­di­ences; and the loss of judge Si­mon Cow­ell for the live shows as he re­cov­ers from a bro­ken back.

“We went through so much, but we re­ally sol­diered on,” host Terry Crews says. “When you look at the show, it was patched up, it was mended, it was healed. But it also was bet­ter. It was big­ger. Look at that end­ing” out­doors with fire­works at Uni­ver­sal Stu­dios Hol­ly­wood. “We can’t do that at the Dolby (Theatre). That was Fourth of July qual­ity.”

Leake, who hopes to go on a world po­etry tour when health con­di­tions per­mit and is in­ter­ested in writ­ing, di­rect­ing and act­ing in TV and movies, wasn’t fazed by the pan­demic, which forced him to per­form with­out a sup­port­ive stu­dio au­di­ence.

“It just took me back to the begin­ning of my spo­ken-word jour­ney. Spo­ken word never gets top billing. We were al­ways the Tues­day, Thurs­day act, be­cause mu­sic and com­edy come Fri­day and Satur­day. The begin­ning of my po­etic jour­ney started with me per­form­ing in front of four or five peo­ple and try­ing to cap­ti­vate their time,” he re­calls. The lack of an “AGT” au­di­ence “was like step­ping back in time to say, ‘Bran­don, you re­mem­ber this feel­ing try­ing to get three peo­ple to pay at­ten­tion to you? You’re back.’ ”

CHRIS HAS­TON/NBC

Spo­ken-word poet Bran­don Leake cel­e­brates his “Amer­ica’s Got Tal­ent” vic­tory Wed­nes­day out­doors at Uni­ver­sal Stu­dios Hol­ly­wood.

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