Brandon Leake was being a realist when he stood on the “America’s Got Talent” stage during the announcements of who had won the fifteenth season of the NBC reality competition show. Despite knowing he had made it to the final completions after getting the Golden Buzzer from Howie Mandel, the Stockton native was certain he was going to finish third.
“I never saw myself winning. I knew if it was about the talent and the art, spoken word could go far,” Leake says. “But, oftentimes there is a lot more to it. Some of the most talented artists in the world never get the fame and acclaim that more catchy and hooky artists get.
“I am not catchy nor hooky. I am just a really good writer and a really good performer. I was just going to have to see if that was enough to lean on.”
It was and his win made history as the educator and motivational speaker became the first spoken word artist to take the top prize. Past winners had been more traditional acts from singers to magicians.
Leake’s returning to the “America’s Got Talent” stage for a special performance scheduled for the Aug. 11 telecast. He promises an original work for his special appearance.
The journey that earned Leake the $1 million dollar cash prize, a brand new Kia Stinger and the opportunity to perform at the Luxor Las Vegas didn’t start in his hometown. Leake was more into playing basketball than competing in debate or acting when he was in high school.
Leake is not 100% certain where his love of words started but he knows he’s always been in love with stories.
“From a young age, I used to love reading books when it wouldn’t take me 50 days to get through an actual story,” Leake says. “I was always – for sure – in love with television and film. I often comment on how the late 90s and early 2000s were the golden age for cartoons. They were narrative based stories where you got to learn something by the time it was all said and done.”
That influence sparked Leake creatively but not immediately toward words. He loved to draw but eventually realized he was not a great artist. What he did see was the story he was telling through his drawings.
He had written poetry when he was in high school but was not willing to share them because he played basketball. He knew the athletic world would be OK if he had wanted to be a rapper but not as open to him as a poet.
“Nuance is something that teenagers don’t do well,” Leake says.
Leake could have turned his poetry into songs but that had no appeal to him. He didn’t want anything to be a distraction to what he was saying because of the feeling of freedom he has with the spoken word. Even during his performances on “America’s Got Talent” all his performances featured minimal staging.
Freedom is key because poetry is a free flowing style to Leake. He has no problem adjusting what he is talking about in mid-sentence if he feels a different emotion. That kind of verbal improv is not possible with a musical performance.
The key for Leake is to all focus on the story he is wanting to tell. Those stories focused on his family during his “America’s Got Talent” performances.
The stunning revelation that he could make a living as a spoken word artist didn’t hit Leake until he was in college.
“I met a professional poet and I never even knew you could be a professional poet,” Leake says. “He told me how he got paid to travel around the world sharing his poetry and stories with people.
“That blew my mind that I could essentially make a living off of doing what I enjoyed doing the most anyway.”
Along with his appearance on “America’s Got Talent,” Leake has performed in 36 states, New Zealand, Mexico and Canada with his Dark Side Tour to promote his published poetry and his album called “Deficiencies: A Tale from My Dark Side.”
Life hasn’t changed much when he’s at home as Leake teaches – with his wife – at the Brookside School daycare center in Stockton. He’s the founder and CEO of Called to Move, an organization that helps youth through poetry.
He’s just finished filming a movie that he wrote. Leake realized that his poems are short stories but there was a story inside him that needed more time.
There’s one bit of business pending for Leake. He owes a debt to Mandel who saw so much power in his performance that he gave him the Golden Buzzer. Leake knows Mandel is a germaphobe but as soon as the world gets less scary from the pandemic, he owes Mandel a lunch.