The first time that 27-year-old poet and new father Brandon Leake — the only spoken-word contestant in America’s Got Talent’s 15-season history — appeared on the show, his monologue about his baby sister, who died at 8 months old, moved characteristically crabby judge Howie Mandel so deeply that Howie hit the Golden Buzzer, thus fast-tracking Brandon to the live shows. “To be honest with you, it was a moment of surprise; it was a moment of wow,” Howie explained on Tuesday, when Brandon returned for the quarterfinals. However, when Brandon dedicated this latest performance to another beloved relative, his mother, the result was even more tear-jerking.
“In this time more than ever, words seem to move people, and myself, more than anything,” Howie proclaimed as AGT host Terry Crews introduced Brandon’s act. “America, just sit quietly, listen, take it in.”
Stop scrolling. Watch this now.— Howie Mandel (@howiemandel) September 2, 2020
Brandon’s performance is unlike anything I’ve seen or heard. This is the conversation America needs to have. I am so proud of you @Called_To_Move #AGT pic.twitter.com/bY8h9SwlEB
Standing on the barren stage in a red hoodie emblazoned with his own baby photo, Brandon began: “When I’m up here onstage, they call me Brandon. When I’m with my homies, they call me B. And when I’m with the ladies, let’s just say they call me ‘taken,’ because I’m already happily spoken for. But when I’m back at home, my mama, she calls me Pookie.” He then cracked a couple of jokes about his overprotective mother and said with a shrug, “I don’t understand why my mom’s so concerned with my safety, praying for me as I leave the house on the daily” — before his poem took a topical and completely heartbreaking turn.
“I never really understood the issue. And then I went on Facebook, and I realized that my mama loved me the same way every mother loved their son. Fearfully. ’Cause normally death don’t really bother me. I mean, I’m from Southside Stockton; I’m all too familiar with how some family reunions only ever take place on graveyard grass and how a hole can be a safe haven for a soul in this mortal game of hide-and-go-seek,” Brandon stated. “But... 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. ...
“And in that moment, I better understood my Black mother’s greatest fear was that every time I leave her home, on the other side of my phone will no longer be her son. It will be America’s Next Most Popular Hashtag, accompanied by a video of her young star being gunned down by gravity,” Brandon continued, his voice straining with emotion. “So yes, my mother’s greatest fear is that I won’t return home breathing, blood pulsing through these veins, enough to still be her Pookie. And my mama warned me, ‘Son, don’t you dare get caught at the wrong place at the wrong time with that wrong-colored skin, because those three strikes, they lead to pine-box convictions. And I need you to return home, my Pookie, again!’
“So dear Mom, I promise you this: I will do everything in my power to make it back home to you. But if I don’t, just know you was the very last thing on my mind. And I will always, always be your Pookie.”
Brandon was accustomed to having his words resonate in a mostly AGT empty venue — at his first audition, the one that had floored Howie, no live audience had been present due to coronavirus concerns. So for this week’s semi-quarantined quarterfinals, he played mostly to the judges, to a wall of virtual Zoom spectators and, during his dramatic final words, directly to the camera lens (and to his mother, presumably watching at home) as he dropped to his knees. As was the case with his previous performance, the intimacy and almost uncomfortable silence of this unique situation rendered Brandon’s poem all the more intense and gut-punching. The amazed judges gave him a standing ovation and declared him the standout of the night.
A lot of acts have lost their impact on AGT this season with taped performances or overproduction or whatever but Brandon Leake is not one of those. On stage solo, no production at all, just him, and had more impact than the rest of the show combined. Damn. Check him out.— Eric Majeski (@LGP_netwolf) September 2, 2020
“That was very, very, very, very powerful, and I’m happy that you chose this platform to talk about what you just did. I think it’s so important — your honest, true, necessary words,” said judge Heidi Klum.
“I’ve got to say, this is above and beyond anything I’ve seen, anything I’ve ever heard, especially at this time. It was so perfect. You took an older white guy and put myself into the body of an African-American mother, just hoping her son survives life,” said Howie. “This is the conversation we’re having now. This is the conversation — I’m not getting political, but this is the conversation America needs to have. There’s no better, more entertaining, more woke, more educational way. I’m so proud to be here. I’m so proud I pushed the Golden Buzzer. In my heart, you just won the whole night. You really did.”
Judging from the reaction on social media, Brandon definitely made an impact with the audience at home. With Black Lives Matter protests continuing across the country following the recent shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis., viewers praised the poet for using his time on this usually lighthearted and gimmick-heavy show to share such a profound message.
I just heard the most powerful spoken word poem from Brandon Leake @Called_To_Move on @AGT. Thank you for sharing with us the fears and vulnerabilities that you, your mom, and every African American have faced through an art form that is so rarely represented in media.— Katherine Shei (@KatherineShei) September 2, 2020
If you don’t watch Americas Got Talent... please take some time to watch Brandon Leake’s performance from tonight. It’s less than 5 minutes of your 24 hour day & will truly open your eyes to the injustice and struggles that black men, women & children face daily.— hana (@hana__cole) September 2, 2020
#AGT15 The final act tonight brought the power of the spoken word to AGT, Howie's Golden Buzzer, Brandon Leake. A cross btwn coffee shop poetry & a Ted Talks, he talks abt his mother's fear for his life, the Black person's fear of death, of finally going viral after being killed.— Morty's TV (@mortystv) September 2, 2020
What Brandon Leake just did on #AGT.. nothing is even gonna come CLOSE.— Jamie Lynn Vest 🍭 (@_CallMeJamie) September 2, 2020
Good job, Pookie. Your mom is NOTHING short of proud.
While the AGT audience tends to be conservative and/or largely composed of viewers craving escapism and novelty, I do believe that Brandon’s serious message will connect with enough voters to advance him to the semifinals. At least I hope it does. Five of this week’s 11 quarterfinalists will make it through on Wednesday’s results show, and I predict that the other four will be country duo Broken Roots (a last-minute fill-in, after teen singer Thomas Day dropped out to focus on his high school football career), gospel trio Resound, tomboy pop/soul singer Celina and hilarious insult comic Alex Hooper (who went over a whole lot better than last week’s polarizing, Heidi-insulting comedian, Usama Siddiquee). But regardless of how far Brandon makes it this AGT season, he’s clearly already a true champion.
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