PEOPLE’s Voices from the Fight Against Racism will amplify perspectives on the push for equality and justice

By Brandon Leake
December 01, 2020 02:43 PM
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Credit: Verena Boga

America’s Got Talent season 15 champ Brandon Leake is an award-winning poet, artist educator and motivational speaker whose creative mix of art, charisma and passion has taken him around the world to perform for thousands. But the 27-year-old is also passionate about his behind-the-scenes work as the founder and CEO of Called to Move – CTM. The organization seeks to inspire people through art. Here, Leake opens up to PEOPLE about using art to challenge the Black stereotypes he first encountered growing up in Stockton, California. 

It wasn’t until I was older that I began to realize the circumstances I grew up in weren’t normal.

No, it’s not normal that police drove by every day trying to find somebody. It’s not normal to hear gunshots on a weekly basis. It’s not normal living seven miles away from the nearest grocery store, or for the books at your school to be 15 to 20 years old. These experiences are part of systemic racism, a socioeconomic divide that is inherently racist due to the way economics has been tied to race, from slavery to Jim Crow to mass incarceration and segregation.

My grandma warned me about the drugs and violence in our neighborhood, but she also warned me as a young Black man about how my Blackness would be an issue to the remainder of the world.

In the ninth grade, my friend Evan and I were walking to grab a bite before a basketball game when a police officer pulled alongside us. He accused us of having sexually assaulted a young girl on the other side of town and said we fit the description of the suspects. He let us go, but a few weeks later, we found out that it was two young white kids who had done it. If his agenda was pushed forward, we would have been found guilty of a crime that we never even participated in.

I’ve experienced less explicit instances of racism, too. I went to a predominantly white college in Redding, California, and a friend there ignorantly told me, “Hey Brandon, they’ve got chicken and waffles in the cafeteria." A teacher also once said, “Hey, you speak so well.” If I don’t fit certain stereotypes or ideas, I’m suddenly either too Black or not Black enough.

Brandon Leake
| Credit: Brandon Leake

These scenarios I paint aren’t inherently bad, but it’s damaging to have my Blackness utilized to then frame all of who I am, as opposed to a portion of it. Blackness isn’t this static idea, it’s extremely varied.

I want to continue to write art that is reflective of the diversity that Blackness is and challenges institutions that hold these very stagnant, detrimental racial prejudices. I want to challenge them to be better.

I'm also of the sincere belief that if people are given better, they do better. My community just hasn't been given better. My community has been given liquor stores, drug stores, over-policing, underserved schools and things of that nature.

Locally, I plan on opening Stockton's first Black-owned grocery store. The area that I grew up in is a food desert. I want to purchase and revitalize this old local building and the entire parking lot to make it a Black-owned grocery store with healthy food options and a community garden. We could hold food classes and people could learn how to cook healthy fruit and fresh vegetables and then be gifted food baskets. I believe if we were to give our community a shot at some really fertile soil, you would see just how beautiful we can be and how much we can grow.

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I recently joined the Team Harmony foundation as a producing partner of its new web series HATE: What are YOU going to DO?, which works to educate and engage young people around the world about the fight against hate and violence. I got involved because I want to help uplift young voices and encourage them to take action. To lend my new platform [after winning America’s Got Talent] to eradicate hate, which drives racial discrimination, is something that’s important to me both on a societal and spiritual level.

Talking about and fighting against racism is important because we all coexist — people of different ethnicities, races, genders, beliefs, we sit in community together and have to be able to function and care for one another. That’s the simple answer. But the reality is that racism is a deeply rooted sense of pride and fear that people need to be willing to grapple with. It’s this idea that if somebody else is uplifted then that means someone else is being dragged down. We have to tackle that because our livelihood, as humanity, is always going to be rooted in the communal, not in the individual. As we begin to dive deeper into the communal sense of who we are together, and what ties us together, as opposed to what divides us, then the greater chance we have of being able to survive all the things that come in our opposition.

Everything we’ve gone through this year is sad and oddly familiar. It’s a sick, odd cycle where a Black person lives, a Black person gets pulled over, a Black person may or may not have committed a crime for which they are now being accosted, then a Black person is no longer with us.

When my 9-month-old daughter Aaliyah grows up, the only thing I would like to see changed in this world is that people are willing to be more gracious towards one another. I hope we are able to love people who make mistakes and give them opportunities to change and grow from them, and are willing to look at the other side of scenarios and say, “Hey, there's truth that lies on both my side and your side — let's figure out where we can meet in the middle.” I would like this world to be a less divided place, which, unfortunately, I don't know if that will be the reality of what we'll have, but that's I want for her: a more gracious world.

  • As told to Morgan Smith

To help combat systemic racism, consider learning from or donating to these organizations: