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