By the time Stockton poet Brandon Leake blew the “America’s Got Talent” judges and audience away on Sept. 1 with “Pookie”—about his mother’s fear every time he left their home—he had performed the poem many times over several years.
“…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…”
“The poem changes as the years go on. The names in that poem change as the years go on, unfortunately,” the 27-year-old Leake said over a video call on Friday, four days before he’d have to go on and compete on “AGT” again. “It’s an ever-evolving poem, and I get the chance to continue to come back to it, and revisit and edit and change, and in my opinion, improve it.”
Many heaped praise on Leake for using his platform on the hit TV show for making a statement that was relevant to the Black Lives Matter movement: a political statement. And it was important to him to come out and use his voice, but not for the reasons that have been thrown around.
“When I wrote the poem, it was very much the least political Black poem I’d ever written,” he said. “The purpose of ‘Pookie’ was an empathetic understanding of my mother’s struggle every time I leave her home, was the fact that she had these concerns. If you consider Black struggle political, then sure, it’s political by all means.”
Since graduating from Simpson University in 2014, Brandon Leake has become not just a poet and performer, but an educator, civil rights activist, to some degree a faith leader and a CEO of a Stockton organization that ties all those things together.
But as a young kid, growing up in south Stockton with a single mother (he didn’t meet his father until 2017), he first wanted to be a basketball player. The poorer part of the city, where a majority of the residents are people of color, is over-policed, sees much of the gang activity, with both Black and Latino gangs.
“Luckily, that’s diminished a great deal,” Leake said.
Because of zoning, and lower tax brackets, the schools are underfunded and have much fewer resources compared to others in north Stockton. Grocery stores are still nonexistent (the only name-brand store is a Food-4-Less), so being able to buy health fruits, vegetables and meats was a difficult process.
“The closest grocery store was eight miles away, and many of the people I grew up next to had no means of transportation outside of public transit,” he said. “We had access to tons of junk food, liquor, things of that nature. Whatever you get at your local corner store.”
But what the area lacked it made up for in community, Leake said. All of the neighborhood kids—no matter their race, gender or religion—would play basketball at the park or throw a football or baseball around in the street.
“We played baseball until we busted out someone’s window, and everybody had to run home. We would ride bikes through the neighborhoods to the corner stores and around the block,” he said. “It was a truly beautiful place that was just plagued by a lot of systemic issues.”
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Story Time – So some have asked me about the motivation for my poem “Pookie”. I used to live is a small city called Redding, Ca. I went to college there and got my degree from @simpsonuniversity . I frequently go back there to speak or lead workshops or just visit. So I had gone back after there to run an open mic night and on my way back to Stockton, CA I stopped at a gas station to get gas and food. I go inside pay for my gas and order my food. They say the food will take a few min to make so I go outside and I pump my gas. I come back in grab my food and there is a massive truck behind my car and a guy who steps out and proceeds to scream at me, “I CANT F#%KING BELIEVE IT! YOU F#%KING N*^%ER!” He then goes into his car, and grabs a gun, stares at me, and says, “YOUR NOT EVEN WORTH THE F#%KING AMMUNITION!” He then hops in his car and drives off. Me standing there with no one else in the parking lot contemplating all the ways I could have just died on the side of the free way with absolutely no one to witness, with no help… I got in the car and I called my mom and told her what happened, and her first words were, “Pookie… I didn’t even know you made it to Simpson…” and that broke me in more ways than that mans threats ever could. And that is the story behind Pookie, and that is the reality the Black Mother’s face every single day. I love you mom, and I know… I still need to get better at texting back. I will, I promise 😬 #CTM #CalledToMove #Poetry #SpokenWord #SpokenWordPoetry #SpokenWordArtist #SpokenWordPoet #AmericasGotTalent #AGT #AGTGoldenBuzzer #AGTLiveShows #SAVEPOOKIE
Leake decided that martial arts weren’t for him and turned his attention to basketball after seeing a friend knock out a kid and break his nose in a karate competition. He would go on to play competitively at Simpson, a Christian school. Eventually, he realized that he wasn’t getting as much out of the sport as the effort he was putting in, and so he walked away.
“At that point, I picked up a pen, and I started writing again. I always wrote in high school and middle school,” he said.
In 2012, while still at Simpson, he started student poetry group he named Called To Move and started performing at open mic nights on campus. The first time the group performed, about 10 to 15 people showed up to watch. By the time he graduated in 2014, about 300 were coming to see the group perform.
“They even gave us our own chapel service where we got to run what worship looked like, what the message looked like, what the whole service ended up looking like,” he said.
But after graduating, he lost his job and was forced to move back in with his mom in Stockton. For most of a year, he didn’t do anything with poetry.
“I was just sleeping in a bedroom with my little brother. That’s not how 22-year-old Brandon imagined life would be after getting a college degree,” he said.
In 2015, he ended up joining a slam poetry team in Sacramento; first as an alternate and then a full member. The team competed that summer in the National Poetry Slam and didn’t fare well, but Leake realized his calling. He booked a performance tour for himself the following year, performing 40 shows in 12 states. He met his wife at a show in Stockton after she came with a mutual friend. They were married in 2017, and he decided he would quit performing so that he could focus on their relationship.
He got his first teaching job at Able Charter Schools in Stockton. His students there are seniors now.
Also in 2017, he tried out for “America’s Got Talent” for the first time and was flatly rejected by the show’s screeners, who didn’t get the artform. That rejection is also what inspired him, eventually, to try and make his art his profession again the following year. This time, he booked 150 shows throughout the U.S., Canada and as far away as New Zealand. He recorded an album, Deficiencies: A Tale from My Dark Side, and a book of poetry called “B-Sides.”
The performances were tied together with Called To Move, which by that time was a combination of advocacy group, education organization, faith-based organization and artist co-op. Called To Move has run poetry workshops in Stockton with the Lincoln Unified School District by teaching students how to use their words in a powerful way so they can express themselves at an after-school program.
CTM has also published students through Amazon Publishing.
“At the end of an eight-week workshop, they get their own book with their own poems in it, representing their school,” Leake said. “And we’re creating this anthology series for them, so that by the time they hit eighth grade, they can have been a published author eight times if they were in the program the whole time.”
CTM also stages open mic performances from Modesto in central California to Redding in northern California. The organization wants to partner with other artists’ groups in various mediums.
“And it’s a religious organization of sorts. I’ve never deemed myself a Christian poet. I’m a Christian who does poetry,” Leake said.
Through his role at the organization, Leake has a working relationship with the Stockton Police Department, to whom he advocates for reform. He’s involved in a campaign to get the city’s police to restrict its use-of-force policies linked to the prevalence of violent interactions between minorities and police. He’s also participated in several protests and town hall discussions in the discourse about justice and civil rights.
Touring and Called To Move, including the workshops and CTM merchandise sales, were enough to support Leake and his wife, who was an after-school worker, during this time.
“I lived off my art for a full year and a half, which was one of the most gratifying things that I’ve ever had,” he said.
During this time, he’s also taught English at Edison High School, his alma mater, and is also an academic advisor at Delta College in Stockton, where he guides students in their planning for the future and connects them to campus resources.
“[It’s] another beautiful opportunity for me to be able to have a relationship with young adults, to be able to pour into them to see their future and know that they have something they can invest in,” he said.
At the end of last year, Leake’s wife became pregnant, and he again made a commitment to stop performing to concentrate on his family—until he saw the call for “AGT” auditions and felt the urge to try again.
His daughter was two weeks old when he auditioned for “America’s Got Talent” with a poem about his younger sister, who passed away as a baby. He won the night’s “Golden Buzzer,” immediately sending him further in the competition. He was the first spoken-word poet to perform on the show.
Spoken-word poetry isn’t a mainstream performance art, but Leake looks up to contemporaries like California spoken-word group Fiveology and Mo Brown. Then there’s icons like Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, Martin Luther King, Jr., Black Panthers co-founder Huey P. Newton, and for Leake, his mother.
In terms of hip-hop, he looks for inspiration from the likes of Kendrick Lamar and J.Cole—for their ability to craft narratives.
Winning “America’s Got Talent” is extremely important to Brandon Leake. The show in Las Vegas is cool, he said, but even more important is the check that would help his growing family find financial freedom and grow generational wealth, give spoken-word poetry a larger platform and open up a world of opportunities.
Leake wants to write, direct and act in movies and TV and creatively partner with the likes of the NBA, NFL and the host of “AGT,” NBC.
“Winning this show would catapult me into a stratosphere where I think that could all happen,” he said.
But to win, he’ll have to survive the semifinals tonight. Four days earlier, he was still trying to decide between going with a previous poem or one he’d just finished. He also wasn’t sure if he’d choose to make another blistering take on the state of the country, or return with a personal story. He’s been successful with both so far.
“I’m praying it over, trying to figure out what I think feels best for me right now, ‘cause the last thing I want to do is go on stage and do something that’s inauthentic,” he said. “I want to go up there and be myself.”
Follow editor Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter.