Incredibly, in all of its 15 seasons, America’s Got Talent has never had a spoken-word contestant. But when 27-year-old Stockton poet, educator, and new father Brandon Leake performed in the final slot of this week’s AGT episode, he made up for that. His tear-jerking tale of family tragedy not only earned judge Howie Mandel’s Golden Buzzer, but host Terry Crews told him, “You’re about to put spoken word on the map like it’s never been before.”
Brandon, whose daughter was born just 14 days before his AGT audition, explained that he had turned to poetry years ago as a means of coping with his teen angst: “I let all that frustration out. Creative writing most certainly was an escape.” Judge Simon Cowell was skeptical at first, telling Brandon, “I don't really understand poetry,” but Brandon assured him, “I'm a great intro for you. I bring more about life-experience things that everyday people go through.” And once Simon heard Brandon speak, he understood where Brandon’s childhood anger was coming from — and, like Howie, he was totally convinced.
“Tonight's poem is actually an ode to my sister,” Brandon explained. “Are you close to your sister?” asked Howie. “Very much — she's here with me now,” Brandon answered. When Howie asked if Brandon’s sister, Danielle (a girl with a “smile as wide as the universe” and eyes that “glimmer like the stars”), was backstage, Brandon just vaguely answered, “Kind of.”
Danielle’s presence was definitely felt. As Brandon began to recite his piece, he told the gut-punching story of his sister, who was four years younger than him, dying at just 8 months old. “I've been ground-bound because she left Earth to go back home, amongst the stars right next to God. But I was left here to manufacture wings out of tears and broken dreams,” Brandon rapped.
“I'm still haunted by these nightmares because I have a really creative mind. And sometimes it designs these alternate realities where she is still here, still alive, and all the things I wish we could have done are played again and again and again,” Brandon continued, as his voice began to quaver. “And I'm tired of playing God, because I’ve got to come to terms with the fact that my sister ain't never coming back. That's the cost of love: caring for someone's so much that you can't imagine living life without them, staring at a grave. Like, ‘How about I trade my six feet for yours?’ But that's not real.”
Brandon’s vulnerable words resonated throughout the empty venue — in an AGT first, no live audience was present, due to coronavirus concerns. But while other auditioners of the episode, notably the magicians and comedians, suffered from not being able to play to a roaring crowd, the intimacy of this unique situation actually made Brandon’s performance all the more intense and impactful. That being said, if an audience had been present during this taping, it’s likely that all spectators would have been rendered stunned and pindrop-silent by Brandon’s words.
“What an amazing tribute. There's something very, very special about you. This is a very difficult thing to me to judge. I shouldn't be judging it. I just want to compliment you on what you just did, because it was extraordinary,” said a quieted Simon.
Judge Sofia Vergara, whose older brother Rafael was murdered the same year that Danielle passed away, was in tears, telling Brandon, “I can feel your pain. I know what this is. I know what it is to have somebody taken from you without you knowing. But it was very beautiful for me.”
However, it was Howie who hit that Golden Buzzer — the final Golden Buzzer of the season still left in play — which automatically advanced Brandon to the live shows. “It's amazing to me that on Season 15, it’s the first time that we're hearing somebody of spoken word. There was something more raw, in the way that it's like singing and talking and just being a human, a cappella — no music, no nothing, just a raw heart beating in front of us,” Howie marveled. “We feel your pain. We feel your love.”
Brandon’s audition wasn’t Tuesday’s only emotional moment. Tears also flowed for singer Shevon Nieto, a two-time Olympic runner who quit training for her third Summer Games after her boyfriend Jamie, also an Olympic athlete, was paralyzed from the chest down in a 2016 high-jumping accident. After Shevon belted an original ballad that she wrote for Jamie, “Through the Good and Bad,” and received unanimous yeses, she and Jamie (who is now her husband) elatedly revealed to Terry backstage that they will soon be new parents themselves.
Tune in next week, when the America’s Got Talent auditions — once again, without a live audience — conclude.