Stockton’s “America’s Got Talent” winner Brandon Leake is still waiting for the opportunity to receive his full prize of winning the show in September and performing in Las Vegas. But that hasn’t stopped Leake from starting a fall tour and staying busy with his career goals. The poet—the first such contestant to even make the TV show—continues working on writing new poetry and improving existing work. He’s wanted to partner with professional sports leagues and has already made some headway there. While he dreams of acting, the pandemic has prevented him from auditioning for parts so far. But Leake has also conceptualized eight TV shows, three of which he’s ready to pitch to networks right now.
“My television shows that I’ve been writing are all social commentaries on different issues that we find ourselves facing in the world today, whether it be racism, gun violence, capitalism, technology—things that I see blatantly interacting with our social conscience today,” says Leake, sitting in his favorite teacher’s classroom at Stockton’s Edison High School, which he not only attended but himself taught until a year ago.
It’s the first time Brandon Leake has visited the school, in south Stockton—the city’s most disadvantaged neighborhood—since winning “America’s Got Talent.” As he walks through campus, former coworkers, or his former teachers, walk up to give him a hug or a hi-five and congratulate him on reaching success. Walking across the outdoor basketball courts, the former college basketball player talks about how he used to play hoops at lunch and then get too sweaty for fifth period. He remembers how uncomfortable he felt when he was bumped from his P.E. class to the JROTC program, due to overcrowding. The school has undergone a transformation since he was a student, with new state-of-the-art education and athletics facilities. All students get Chromebooks. The library is all-digital.
The growth of the school has far-outpaced the rest of the neighborhood, which is still largely poor, with gang activity, and is a food desert. Leake says there’s just one true grocery store within 9 miles of Edison. Yet the school is a major draw; it has three basketball gyms and a football field that draws thousands to events. The south Stockton YMCA is based at the school, and draws youths from the entire part of the city after school. Leake says that he’s chosen to meet here rather than his childhood home because his grandmother no longer owns it, and rather than his childhood neighborhood because it’s not very safe. So he chose the school, where his mother also graduated from in 1990.
“This is Southside’s beacon,” he says of Edison.
Leake left his teaching job at Edison about a year ago, right before he tried out for “AGT.” But it wasn’t the show but his soon-to-be born daughter that helped him make the decision. To be a good teacher, you’ve got to care enough about your students and take your work home with you. He wanted to focus on his family. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t love teaching or his own former teachers. He’s not slowing down the educational work of his nonprofit, Called to Move, and even dreams of using his newfound fame for expanding it. He talks while sitting in the room of his favorite high school teacher, Mrs. Kristi Lee, who’s an assistant principal now.
Leake would go to Lee, who became his teacher in the school’s AVID program, a student education accelerator, and mentor the last two years of high school, for advice. She pushed him in a loving, caring fashion and challenged him to be better. She says she also got to know his mother and younger brother, AJ. He was already an expressive person then, she says. She trained him to be a tutor to younger students. His personality—he was concerned about others’ feelings—was a perfect match.
“He was always a favorite of the younger students,” she recalls. “As a senior, he was given free reign to choose topics and deliver lessons through a Socratic-style discussion with the whole class of sophomores on Fridays. He would ask thought-provoking questions that would prompt deep discussions about relevant social issues. I saw tremendous potential in him to impact people.”
Even after graduating in 2010, he returned to speak in front of parents about AVID at Lee’s request.
“I am one of his biggest fans. To say that I am proud of him is an understatement,” Lee says.
Brandon Leake won “America’s Got Talent” in a most unusual time. The COVID-19 pandemic paused production of the show for several weeks, and the show eventually resumed without an audience. A wave of police brutality rocked the country. Leake’s first performance was a heart-wrenching ode to his late sister. His second performance was “Pookie,” about his mother’s fear, every time he left the house, that he would be in the wrong place at the wrong time and become a hashtag like so many other Black men.
That poem seemed to catch the consciousness of the country, yet Leake says it’s his least political Black Lives Matter piece. The most political? That would be a poem called “Black Mental Health,” a critique of how unprepared police departments are to deal with people suffering from mental health crises, especially Black people. He talks about Jontell Reedom, Darell Richards, and Saheed Vassell—all unarmed Black men, two of which were from California’s Central Valley, who were killed by police.
“The idea behind the poem is, these peace officers aren’t coming in with the ability to be able to discern how to respond to these scenarios,” he says.
That’s why Leake supports the concept of removing those duties from the responsibilities of police departments, commonly known as “defunding the police.” He has experience working in a group home for 13- to 21-year-old violent offenders where he learned how de-escalation techniques work.
“The Stockton police budget was 55 percent of our entire city budget for the year,” he says. “That’s massively overpriced on their end. I say we take 10 percent of that, apply it to mental health services on which we have social workers that go out into the field with police officers for de-escalation purposes … and you would see a severe downtick in negative interactions with police and citizens. … That poem is just a critique on the fact that police training in the majority of states is less training than you need to be a barber.”
For his final performance on “AGT,” he performed a poem for his daughter. While it undoubtedly connected with parents, that wasn’t the goal at all. In fact, he had no intention of performing for anyone else. He calls the performance “completely selfish.”
“I didn’t care what the world thought. I knew that my final poem would be to my daughter, no matter what happened,” he says. “I wanted her to know that as she gets older she has this that she can consistently come back to and say, ‘That’s my dad, and my dad loved me that much.’”
His wife, Anna Leake, says in a call a couple of weeks later that having a child allowed him to share his best qualities, such as patience and perseverance, with someone other than herself. Other than the two days when he left to try out for “America’s Got Talent,” she didn’t have to change diapers for an entire month.
He hasn’t changed at all since appearing on TV and winning the show, she says.
“This is gonna sound boring,” she says. “He’s a very consistent person. Who you saw on TV is who he is in real life. It didn’t change him at all, which is a really attractive quality that … people were drawn to. It was genuine.”
Winning the show has broadened the horizons for the Leakes, whose families live in Vallejo and Stockton. It’s also given them more time together as a family.
“We’re able to thrive off of his poetry and art, and not just live paycheck to paycheck from it,” Anna Leake says.
Leake has no ill feelings about winning during a year where he can’t take full advantage of his celebrity. He made an appearance on “Ellen,” a trip that his entire family got to make, but has otherwise been home to plot his next moves. It’s meant that he’s been home with his wife and daughter rather than hitting the road right away. He looks at it as “divine timing.”
“There’s no rain clouds over the win,” he says.
Since the show, he’s attended meeting after meeting. Winning isn’t the end of a journey but the beginning for everything he wants to accomplish. His dreams haven’t yet come true. Winning just opened the door. One of his other goals is to partner with athletes for educational workshops on issues of social justice and change within communities. He already partnered with the Sacramento Kings, Milwaukee Bucks and others on Team Up For Change, a social justice summit. But he sees many more opportunities.
“A majority of those basketball players come from communities just like the one we’re in right now—low-income housing, lower-opportunity schools with not as much funding going into them, but they were able to turn an empty fridge into a full plate. The beauty of my scenario is it’s the same thing, just with words instead of a ball,” he says.
He’s also several shows in to a physical-attendance national tour. He played his first show at Tommy T’s, a comedy club in Pleasanton in the East Bay. All 170 tickets (decreased attendance due to physical distancing) sold out days before the show. The club provided masks for anyone who needed one, increased sanitization and ensured everyone was following the rules. Leake is mindful of performing during the pandemic and is appreciative of those who came to his first performance in front of an audience since February.
“To get the reciprocation of energy was a beautiful thing,” he says.
He’s got his multi-month-long tour itinerary nearly memorized, even though he’s no longer the one doing all the behind-the-scenes work himself. He’s got management now, and a tour of clubs and theaters from Nashville to Dallas, Miami, Philadelphia and more. He vetted his manager for more than a month, because he was nervous. It was work he was used to doing himself, after all, and it’s crucial to his success.
The tour is generally a step up, but he refuses to be picky. Before he’s performed from large theaters to school classrooms and public libraries with an audience of two or three people. Instead of traditional elbow grease of booking a tour, he lets his manager know what he’d like to do.
All the shows are physically distanced, mask-required and follow COVID safety guidelines. He understands people who are rebelling against mask-wearing while caring for other people rather than just himself.
“I don’t want to have to do social distancing. I don’t want to have to keep away from everyone,” he says. “I do this for the sake of loving my neighbor. … I do this for my daughter so that way we can get back to a world where she can understand the normalcy of what I grew up with.”
Brandon Leake also accepts that the country will likely remain divided. He said he hopes that the country becomes more gracious in its disagreements following the election—that even people who are flawed with bigotry or hate are allowed to return to society once they find “a better version of themselves than they were before.”
“You can say that’s the Jesus in me. Whatever; I don’t care,” he says.
“I’ll talk about what impacts me directly: racism,” he continues. “I know a lot of racists— whether or not they know themselves to be that—from the way that they act. … For a lot of them, I’m the exception to the rule in terms of their racist ideologies. I would say a good number of my friends who carry racist ideologies, I’ve been able to love them into a healthier version of themselves. That only comes from the grace given to a person to carry those and then learn from it. I want the world to be a more gracious place after this whole thing because our flaws aren’t what solely define us.”
Leake and his family live in more-affluent west Stockton now, but his heart is still with his childhood neighborhood. He has a long-term vision for helping southside Stockton, which includes purchasing a vacant K-Mart and turning it into the city’s first Black-owned grocery store. There’s an abandoned gas station and coin-op laundry he’d reopen in the process. On the same property he wants to open a coffee shop and smoothie spot. He wants to franchise a gym as well, but the grocery store, the only one in the area, would be at the heart of the project.
“I want to turn a huge plot of grass that they have into a community garden run by my nonprofit where people can come and take cooking classes with the food that we grow,” he says. “And when you leave the class, we give you a basket of food, and it’s enough to feed a family of six for the night. It’s the same food we just cooked in the class.”
He’s done some math and talked to real estate agents. His plan would cost around $30 million—much more than the winnings from “AGT.” It’s his way of ending the community’s food desert and fighting gentrification at the same time.
“I want to make southside Stockton a healthy place to live,” he says.
If Brandon Leake had to guess, he’ll finally get to perform in Las Vegas next spring. NBC executives haven’t told him much about the possibilities. The network usually airs an all-star edition of “AGT” around wintertime, but it’s been canceled in 2020. Leake says even if it wasn’t and he was invited, he’d turn it down because he has other priorities for now.
“The building of the legacy I long to have after my time is now. I got a lot to do,” he says.