Stockton’s spoken word poet has become an unlikely reality TV star


This morning we’ll take a brief break from the usual coronavirus and wildfire programming to talk about a Central Valley poet and his unlikely trip to millions of living rooms.

Brandon Leake perfected his craft open mic evenings on campus from a small Christian middle school in Redding, to slam poetry teams, to high school classes and wherever he could. Raised by a single mother on the south side of Stockton, he used to, like he said, to “play this game of life with the decks stacked against you”. But he also knew his vocation.

In 2017, the year that Leake first auditioned for “America’s Got Talent,” he had visited “all the high schools in the city” to do oral poetry or lead workshops with their black student associations.

For those unfamiliar with the nuances of modern reality TV, “America’s Got Talent” is a bit like a high school talent show, if you feed said talent show a massive amount of steroids then coat it all up. from the hyper-produced glow of premium- hourly network television. Think of famous judges and hosts, lavish guest appearances and awe-inspiring scenes.

The show, which has just completed its 15th season in the United States, is part of the global “Got Talent” franchise created by British entertainment mogul Simon Cowell. In 2014, the brand was recognized by Guinness World Records as “the world’s most popular reality TV format” for its coverage in 58 countries and territories.

Leake, a former high school English teacher who now works as an academic advisor at a local community college, was flatly rejected by “AGT” reviewers in 2017. The show’s list of contestants housed ventriloquists, magicians and acrobatic troupes, as well as dancers, actors and musicians. But he was not yet ready for a performance poet.

In American life, poetry is often relegated to the dustbin of academia and the obscurity of a small audience. It’s less popular than jazz and knitting, according to government data cited by the Washington post. Even spoken poetry, which is younger and less burdensome than written material, rarely has its place on the national public scene.

Here’s how poetry critic David Orr put it in his 2011 book “Beautiful and Pointless,” which clearly dealt with the state of modern poetry: “For decades now one of the world’s favorite pursuits of the poetry was lamenting his lost audience, then lamenting, then lamenting, until finally everyone shrugged their shoulders and applied for a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

I’m not sure if Leake has ever applied for a NEA grant, but he tried to audition for “AGT” again in 2020.

After going through the participant stages, he got a call from the producers in mid-March, just as the coronavirus was starting to rewrite the narrative in the United States.

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

While driving through the night, Leake’s 17-year-old Honda broke down on the Grapevine. He had barely winked when he finally arrived at the Dolby Theater. And Simon Cowell immediately expressed his skepticism even before Leake had started his first performance, telling him, “I don’t really understand poetry, I’ll be honest with you.”

But rather than intimidate him, Leake said Cowell’s words turned him on. “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 winning a spot in a prime-time talent contest happened: Leake became something of a kind. star of the series, generator securities with its deeply personal and powerfully performance rendered.

Viewers and judges alike watched Leake sing poems on the Black Lives Matter movement and his mother’s fear that one day her son’s name would become “America’s next most popular hashtag,” with his sorrow on the death of her little sister in infancy and her yearning for his father.

During the first installment of the show’s finale on Tuesday night, with over 5 million viewers tuned in, he performed a spoken poem in the form of a prayer for his little girl.

Earlier in the day he had walked in and out of Zoom classrooms, speaking to students about his Stockton alma mater, Edison High. But now he stood alone in the empty fake streets of the Universal Studios backyard, looking like a skinny college boy in the harsh spotlight.

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

He struggled in urgent rhymes with the most intimate and universal relationships, telling his child how he prayed that his own shortcomings would not “become a family heirloom”, that he could carry his sins to the cemetery “before that they do not become hereditary “.

He told her that there was no time to be afraid or waver anymore when he felt so compelled to plant the best of himself in her, to guide her to what she wanted to be. He ended with an “amen”, head bowed and hands clasped in worship.

And then the camera returned to “America’s Got Talent” host Terry Crews, standing in a crisp suit, a giant glowing star and a stylized Los Angeles skyline on set behind him. Noting how powerful the performance had been, Crews asked the judges for their opinion.

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

But the television personality and comedian, whose little stand-up signature involved pulling a latex glove over his head and puffing it up with his nostrils, had been an unlikely champion of poetry on the prime-time stage throughout the show’s airing in 2020. He awarded to Leake a coveted “Golden Buzzer” at the start of the season, giving him a forehand at live shows, and praised his performance. Supporting Leake, one could argue that Mandel has done more to bring poetry into American homes than perhaps any other public figure in the past six months.

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

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

The judges had had their say, but the ultimate winner – like at least some US elections – would still be determined by the voting public.

“It’s about time,” Crews said with great gravity Wednesday night, watched by a socially distant audience sitting in neat rows of studio golf carts.

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

Fireworks rose above the doors of Universal Studios as Leake fell to his knees in glee and surprise.

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

Speaking by phone on Friday, he told me he was planning to run poetry workshops for students in the city, especially in “our disenfranchised communities in the south and east”, and to return to a writing program he taught in a prison northeast of town. He might even try his hand at acting and directing.

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

“I hope they got to see each other,” he said.

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