AGT Season 15 Champion Brandon Leake Talks Historic Win, Using Poetry to Fight Racial Injustice
Brandon Leake just made history on America's Got Talent.
Not only is Leake, 27, the first-ever spoken word artist to compete on the NBC franchise, but he's also the first-ever poet to be crowned champion. On Wednesday, the father of one from Stockton, California, triumphed over fellow finalists Daneliya Tuleshova, Kenadi Dodds, Archie Williams, Bello Sisters and BAD Salsa, as well as Top 5 acts Alan Silva, Cristina Rae, Broken Roots and Roberta Battaglia.
After the historic victory, Leake and judge Howie Mandel, who pushed the Golden Buzzer for the poet during the audition round, spoke with PEOPLE to discuss Leake's next career moves and what he plans to do with the $1 million prize.
Congratulations! Brandon, have you been able to celebrate this milestone with your wife Anna and baby daughter Aaliyah, whom you dedicated your finals piece to?
I was able to talk to my wife, she was in tears and super ecstatic. She was just over the moon. She's like, "Get back here as soon as you can!" That's my partner for life.
You won during national protests that erupted hours after the grand jury in the Breonna Taylor case in Louisville announced none of the officers involved in her shooting would face charges for her death. How will winning the show influence the ways you're able to speak to a larger audience about racial injustice?
Brandon: First and foremost, me as a believer in Christ, I'm compelled to stand on frontlines of social and racial injustice. I go out there into those protests because I know that God would want me out there advocating for people to continue to be free and have the autonomy to be able to be who they desire to be. This platform that I'm now having is going to do nothing more than give me more eyes and more audience to be able to broadcast that message. I hope a poem like "Pookie" [his quarterfinals performance in which he spoke Taylor's name, along with George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery] can resonate in the conscious minds of those on the fence or on the other side of the argument or don't believe in the idea because sincerely, that young lady should've had time to live.
She should've had an opportunity to watch this moment and be able to resonate and share in this moment with us. But she had her life taken. This is not a stance against all police officers. All police officers aren't bad, in the same way that all people of color are not criminals. We just demand that those two things can co-exist and we get our fair shot in court and for justice.
Howie: If you listen to Brandon, he's not preaching. He's opening the door to his life and you realize in his first poem, he talked about the loss of his sister. I don't think there's any human being — white, Black, male, female, doesn't matter who you are — that won't experience a loss and deal with that. The next poem was about his mother and how she has to worry about having a Black child and how that may be a different experience.
But as a white man, who happens to be a parent, Brandon opened my eyes to that experience and how much more fearful you have to be when you send out a Black child into the world. I think what is missing in this world, with this divisiveness, is understanding of others. And what Brandon does really clearly and articulately, is making us understand other people and other human beings who may be a different gender and color but how much we have in common. How we all experience loss, fear, injustice, unfairness and hurdles. He's got to just keep speaking.
Brandon, do you already have plans for your headlining gig in Las Vegas?
With the show, I look forward to being able to incorporate spoken word with more music, live painting, digital art and interactions with me and the audience. There's going to be a beautiful array of things that get to be brought into the show. But beyond the show, I'm looking forward to write, act and direct movies and television shows. Looking forward to tour and take my one-man show around the world. And hopefully, pitch it to places like Netflix and Hulu so we can get spoken word as one of their first-ever one-hour features. I'll be the second one to do it because my homie Roscoe [Burnems] did it on Amazon Prime with his show Traumedy.
Brandon, how will you spend the $1 million prize?
My bank account is super happy and so is Sallie Mae, they can't wait to collect on my student loan debts. Beyond that, I look forward to using it to build up my family in ways I only dreamed of. Not only that to build up my community. I want to take poetry workshops to the south side of Stockton, our most underserviced side of town, and being able to offer them completely free of charge by collaborating with non-profits to make that happen. That money is not just going to buy me a Tesla, though I do want a Tesla, it's most certainly going towards making sure I'm not the last spoken word artist out of Stockton.
How do you think the historic season 15 win will inspire more poets or artists of different genres to audition for AGT?
Howie: I've never been more thrilled about the winner of our show or the winner even before I was on the show. I think more than ever, this is exactly what the doctor ordered. Beyond being talented, deserving of the $1 million and winning this year, Brandon renewed my faith in humanity in the United States of America. We're just a talent show and just TV, but I think with the crowning of Brandon as the winner, this is something even more than just the show.
I actually called Simon [Cowell] and said, "This show is the soul of Simon Cowell. Without Simon Cowell, this show wouldn't exist and none of us would be here." His production did one of the most important things on television right now. I'm so excited on so many different levels, but the fact that the winner is not a singer, is not a dancer — it's something you can only see on AGT. Brandon just opened the door wide open for spoken word artists all over the world.
Brandon: That was the goal when I came on the show. For myself, one of the biggest moments that I had after my Golden Buzzer moment aired, I had the chance to talk to two young poets out of Jersey and they both told me, "After seeing your performance, my parents actually believe that my art can do something. So that made me believe that my art can do something and I think I'll try out for the show next season." I can't wait to talk to them now after winning, because more than just opening a door to come on AGT and be able to compete for a championship, this right here is genuinely a moment in which spoken word got a chance to be on the forefront of the American conscious. And we won. To know that an art form that was so underground for so long got the public eye and took a win, that's more than any million-dollar prize could ever be.
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