When Brandon Leake, 27, heard his name called as the winner of season 15 of American’s Got Talent, he celebrated. But not just for himself. The new father took that trophy home for his daughter, his wife, his late sister, spoken word artists everywhere, and the city of Stockton. “The journey made that win so much sweeter because it wasn’t even just about me,” Brandon says.
Born and raised in South Stockton, Brandon let life experiences guide his performances on the show. Turning out poems on topics close to his heart, from the early passing of his baby sister, to social justice issues in the Black community, Brandon won over both the judges and America, as was evident in his monumental victory as the first spoken word artist not only to win the competition, but to appear on the show at all. “This is such a big win for spoken word,” Brandon says, adding the performers tend to get second billing behind musical artists and comedians.
Leading into the finale, Brandon had already tackled some tough topics, but his final piece was a personal favorite. Dedicated to his (now) seven-month-old daughter Aaliyah, Brandon talked about his greatest journey in life—becoming a dad. “That was the poem I always knew I was headed to,” Brandon says. “My daughter… may not understand what that moment means now but one day when she is older… she’ll never doubt how much daddy loves her.” Unapologetically, Brandon says he didn’t care what America or the judges thought of it. This one was a gift for Aaliyah.
Brandon started writing at a young age, coming up with stories for Dragon Ball Z characters he liked tracing out of comic books. Soon, he stopped drawing and focused on the words. For him, it was a way to fall into make believe without getting into trouble for making things up, but as Brandon grew, he put writing on the backburner, turning his attention instead to basketball. “To be a basketball player, to be Black, to be from my side of town, and to be a poet, would have been perceived as soft in a very demeaning sense,” he says.
While playing ball at Simpson University in Redding, one of Brandon’s friends drowned. For the first time in a long time he turned to his notebook to find healing in words, and after that, he quit basketball. Instead, Brandon turned his efforts to an open mic night on campus, growing the event from a small gathering of “artsy weirdos” to a finale event with over 300 people. Over the years, the self-described man of faith has repeatedly asked God if spoken word is his calling, and every time he’s received a positive affirmation.
While working jobs in the community with Lincoln Unified School District and the Child Abuse Prevention Council, Brandon pursued spoken word as an art form, going as far as to book his own tour in 2018-2019, traveling across the United States, Canada, and New Zealand to perform for crowds of anywhere from three people to a couple thousand people. Recalling a performance on his tour where three people showed up, he says he didn’t feel much different on AGT. Sure, the people in front of him could change his life, but, due to COVID-19, there wasn’t a large crowd—just the millions watching him at home.
After the show wrapped and Brandon was crowned champion, he returned home. He’s constantly dodging questions about when he’ll move to Hollywood. Brandon’s answer? He’s not. “I’d rather bring Hollywood here to a degree and open up lanes and opportunities for people,” he says. “I’m not special. I’m just another vessel that allows himself to be used for something good.”
His most immediate plans involve falling back into a sense of normalcy with his family and getting back to his work in the community, hosting workshops for young people to realize the viability of storytelling. As restrictions lift, he’ll take his act on the road, but one thing is for sure: Stockton will always be home.