Brandon Leake has experienced firsthand the potential of words to heal, inspire and transform lives.
He grew up on the south side of Stockton, California, under the watchful eye of his dedicated single mother, Carla. He remembers a happy upbringing, but it was not an easy one. The sense of community was strong, but resources were scant. And his sister Danielle, who was four years younger than him, died at just eight months old.
Brandon started writing poetry in middle school as a safe way to express himself away from the judgement of his peers, and when a best friend died during his freshman year at university, he further threw his attention into the art form to help him process his loss, and began dedicating his life to making positive change.
That led him to launch the community initiative Called To Move, which is committed to helping young people find their purpose in life through the arts.
And this year, Brandon had the opportunity to share his talent and message on the world stage, when he became the first spoken word poet to appear on the hit NBC show ‘America’s Got Talent.’ And beating the odds, he won the competition and the $1 million prize.
His self-penned poems that he recited on the show included ‘Pookie’, which he performed in front of nearly 10 million TV viewers while protestors took to the streets to support the Black Lives Matter movement around the world.
The poem, titled after his mom’s pet name for him, referenced young black men and women who have lost their lives — and they’re names that Brandon has switched out over the years to replace with the latest victims of racial violence. Here’s an extract of that poem:
“Normally death don’t really bother me, I’m from south side Stockton,
I’m all too familiar with how some family reunions only ever take place on graveyard grass, and a hole can be a safe haven for a soul in this mortal game of hide and go seek,
But, there is something so different about Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Jacob Blake and the countless others,
And as I stared at that screen, I couldn’t help but think I was looking at a mirror image of myself being choked out for merely existing or for daring to be more than three-fifths of what them folk thought them to be,
Or maybe it was simply due to they hue and in that moment I better understand my black mother’s greatest fear was every time I left her home,
On the other side of her phone would no longer be her son, it would be America’s most popular hashtag.”
Other poems performed on the show focused on his relationship with his absent father, the loss of his sister and becoming a dad to his eight-month-old daughter Aaliyah.
And here we talk to Brandon, 28, about using our voice to help ourselves and others, encouraging young men to express their emotions, and how, as we approach the presidential election, politicians should take more responsibility for the words they use.
What was your childhood like and how did it shape you as a man, and an artist, to go down this path that you have?
I’m born and raised here in Stockton, California. And the cool part about that neighborhood was, even though it was like a massive food desert, surrounded by poverty, over-policing, lack of resources and low income, I had such a great community around me. I lived in a single parent household, though I had my mom, my grandma, my grandpa, and my uncle, who was like an older brother, all there for me.
Then at around middle school age, I started writing poetry. I’m a huge R&B nut, but I couldn’t sing, and that resulted in me having to write poems to convey my message. Then I got to high school, and I’m still writing poetry, but I’m really not sharing it with anyone for the sole fact that I was a basketball player. And being a hooper, especially in the 2000s, we didn’t really do nuance in that age bracket. So I just kept that type of stuff under wraps, because I knew that people wouldn’t really appreciate it the way I hoped they would. They’d be like, “What’s poetry? That’s soft stuff. That’s not cool.”
Then I leave Stockton and go to Simpson University in Redding, California, and while there, I end up dealing with the tragic loss of one of my best friends who drowned in a levee not too far from where we grew up. And with him passing away, the only real way for me to deal with my emotions was to write, so I wrote a poem about it. We had an open mic for our psychology department which I participated in, and I shared a poem about it. And from there I quit playing basketball a year later, when I was a sophomore at college, because I felt God wanted me to do something different with my life, and I started up this group, which is now my nonprofit Called To Move. It was just an eclectic group of weirdos on campus, the people who didn’t really have a spot to figure out their stuff.
But it became this really big phenomenon on campus and even around the city of Redding, where we were bringing culture that was never there before. And I think the reason that was so important was because art is something in which traverses culture. Redding is a very white place, and I was able to talk about racial issues, societal issues, socio-economic stuff from my community, in a way that was palatable for a group that didn’t ever have to deal with those circumstances. And that was the cool part, because I knew that they were able to not only hear it, but understand it. Not everybody, of course, but we were able to get some people and that meant something to me.
After you won ‘America’s Got Talent’, I saw Harvey Mandel praising how your words had the ability to put him and others in your shoes, and thought that was a very astute point. Can you talk a little bit about the power of words to put people in someone else’s shoes, and perhaps find more empathy?
For me, the poetry started off as a space for me to find healing for myself. It was a very selfish thing, where I was able to purge my own thoughts and ideas and put them on paper and nobody would judge me for them. But then, as time went forward, I was able to utilize poetry and my stories as a way to be able to convey messages to the world. The mission is to convey your stories in a way that is compelling enough that people not only want to hear it, but that they understand it too.
So with Called To Move, and your other work, I know you’re trying to inspire others, perhaps particularly young black men, to use their words to make positive change for themselves and for others. How do you encourage others to find that voice?
After college, I came back to Stockton and Called To Move essentially transitioned into me leading poetry workshops here for youth to be able to learn how to do spoken word and different artistry forms. The workshop that I came up with was called Dreamers, where we would create a roadmap and a goal map that they would set forth in their writing. And the goal was the important part, the writing was secondary. That’s what I wanted them all to learn, that your story is valuable, so let’s figure out how to tell that story. The writing is just a tool to convey the message, the message is the most important part.
How did it feel performing on this huge stage on ‘America’s Got Talent’ at a time where there were obviously a lot of protests going on in the world? I know these issues have always been there, but they were particularly prominent in everyone’s minds during this time. So what was it like having that public voice with all these wider societal issues going on?
As you said, it is always going on. Being a black man in this country, it’s never something that’s too far from the forefront of your mind on a daily basis. And then particularly now, as a black father, I have to consider the ways those things not only affect myself, but affect my family. Where I go, how long I stay in places, how I interact when I feel disrespected by somebody, how I elect to engage with that disrespect.
It has happened so much, and it has happened so frequently, that it’s not a surprise to me anymore. So as these things were going on around the world, and in our country, I was able to stay focused on the task at hand with the show. So while being on the show, I was like, “I can utilize this energy for something genuinely positive, and display this message to the masses in a way that they may need to hear right now.”
I read that you’ve changed the names in your poem ‘Pookie’ several times over the years, which is obviously very sad, but also has a powerful message in itself. So tell me a bit about that poem and the inspiration for it.
Yeah, in being able to change the names in ‘Pookie’, it is just really indicative of the fact that this is a systemic issue that isn’t going away. This is something that we’re dealing with on a recurring basis. I remember the first thing after George Floyd died that I was asked was, “Are you gonna write a poem about it?” And I told a friend of mine, “I’ve already written this poem. Five times. I don’t have any more to write.” And I literally told him, “All I have to do is switch out the names.”
Obviously, we’re in the middle of an election campaign, and we’re talking about the power of words to make change, and you clearly use yours very eloquently. So how do you feel about some of the words that are being used by politicians?
I think there needs to be a severely greater sense of intentionality. Not only the words that they use, but the intentions behind those words, and understanding that they mean something. If you make a promise to us, as the general public, that they’re going to go after something for us, you need to make sure that you come good on that promise if we elect you to that position. But even bigger than that, I think the rhetoric in which people utilize to speak about marginalized communities is something we really have to keep a very close eye on. Because as we talk about ways in which we’re going to try and be solution-oriented about the problems that we face, we need specifics, not generalities. I need people who are going to say, “Hey, the plan and the roadmap to success is A, B, and C, and this is how we’re going to do it.”
Watch all of Brandon’s AGT performances here
And what about some of the other issues you touched on in your poems? I loved them all, but I think the one that moved me the most was the one about your dad. What was it like sharing that with such a huge audience, because it was so open and raw? And I read that you’ve reconnected with your dad as a result, is that right?
My dad and I have definitely reconnected. It’s not like a typical father and son relationship, I compare it more to a really good friendship. But sharing that story was the poem that I probably felt most nervous about. And not even because of the content matter, there are more angry poems about me and my father’s relationship. But I think for myself to be able to see the potential of what it could do for people who are like me, children who grew up without parents, whether it be a father figure or a mother figure, and for them be able to say, “How do I find it in myself to forgive them? Not for them, but for myself.” So that poem and ‘Pookie’ are the two that people often say have helped them out so much, followed closely by my poem for my sister.
I don’t know what my life would have looked like had that not happened to my sister, I was so young my life didn’t shift too drastically with her passing, unfortunately. But for myself, what it really showed me was just how much of a superhero my mother is. Because my mom still gave me a phenomenal childhood, in spite of the fact that she lost a child, she was still able to be my mother. I couldn’t imagine, being a parent now, if my daughter were to pass, how I could raise another kid and be completely and fully invested in that, and not breaking down on a daily basis. And my mom had a great support system, my grandma, my grandpa, our church family, and all these different factors. But more than anything, it showed me, especially as an adult now, that my mom is superman.
I think what is so important is that you’re showing young men in particular that they can share their emotions in a way that is, I’d rather not use this word, but in a way that is ‘cool.’ And also how sharing these emotions can help them.
Yeah, showing men that it’s culturally acceptable for them to be emotional creatures, I think is the wave currently. Because I think a very intriguing idea is that men have always been emotional, it’s just what’s been the accepted emotion. We’re allowed to be angry, but we don’t consider anger to be emotional. There’s a lot of ways we can continue to learn and grow, and I think that writing for me has been such a safe haven because it’s a space where I haven’t been judged for my emotions.
I think that as men, the thing that we need to really begin to focus on in terms of life, and who we want to be, is giving ourselves the freedom to explore. And by that I don’t mean going out and being promiscuous, but instead explore ourselves internally, and figure out who we are, and be able to say, “This is stuff that I like.” Because for myself as a young black man, I never went camping, I never did any outdoor activities, because that was all stuff that was outside of my cultural experience. But as I grew older, and I began to give myself permission and freedom to do those types of things, I found more of who I was, and who I wanted to be, and that was a beautiful thing. And so I challenge young men to really explore, try out different things, go to a place you’ve never been, and see what the experience is like. Try something that you’ve never done before. And if you’re afraid to dive into your emotions, write about it, and then see where it takes you. Because I think that’s where a lot of our healing will be.
And finally, what do you plan to do with your ‘America’s Got Talent’ prize money?
I’m going to pay off my student loans. But I’m also going to start using some of it as seed money to improve myself and Stockton, and open up Stockton’s first black-owned grocery store. There’s an old K-Mart building, and I’d like to purchase that, and with that building is this huge plot of grass. I’d like to turn that into a community garden and let Called To Move run the garden as a food pantry. Whatever we grow, we package and we give out for free to needy families. And at the grocery store, we only get produce from locally-owned farms and black farmers as well. And will become the spot for the neighborhood.
For more information on Called To Move, go to calledtomovectm.org, and details of Brandon’s upcoming US tour are on his Instagram page. Virtual auditions for Season 16 of ‘America’s Got Talent’ are underway. Interested acts can register for an upcoming virtual audition or submit a video at AGTAuditions.com.