Brandon Leake made America's Got Talent history on Tuesday with just his words. The 27-year-old college counselor hit the stage as the show's first-ever spoken word poet, and his deeply emotional performance earned him Howie Mandel's Golden Buzzer.
Before hitting the stage, Leake opened up in a pretaped segment about his childhood, growing up in Stockton, California.
"I grew up in a neighborhood where drugs and gang violence were rampant. My mom worked 15 different jobs to make sure I was provided for," Leake said, before mentioning how he became a big brother at age 4 when his parents welcomed his baby sister.
"My family very much insulated me into this very loving household, and then when I became a teenager, there came this anger. And I let all this frustration out through creativity," Leake explained. "Writing was most certainly an escape."
As he stood backstage waiting to go on, Leake also shared with host Terry Crews that he was the father of a 14-day-old daughter, and said, "I want to be able to do what I love, to be able to create my own schedule and to be able to give her the best experience of having a father around that I possibly can."
This week's episode, due to coronavirus precautions, was taped without an audience -- another first for the show -- so Leake performed for a nearly empty theater, save for the judges. And there were even fewer judges than usual, as Heidi Klum was still out sick.
After introducing himself and explaining that he planned on performing an original poem, Simon Cowell seemed a little dubious.
"I don't really understand poetry, I'm gonna be honest with you," Cowell said.
"I'm a great intro for you," Leake replied, going on to explain that he came on AGT because he has "a huge aspiration for being able to put on my own, large-production one-man show."
"Tonight's poem is an ode to my sister," Leake explained. When asked if he's close to his sister, Leake replied, "Very much. She's here with me now."
"Oh, she's backstage?" Mandel asked.
"Kind of," Leake replied, cryptically, before getting into his performance.
As Leake performed his poem, he spoke of his beautiful little sister, whose "smile is as wide as the universe" and whose eyes "glimmer like the stars." Through beautiful verse, Leake explained how, when he was just 4 years old, she taught him how to "love selflessly."
As the poem continued, Leake revealed that his beloved sister "left earth to go back home amongst the stars, right next to God," when she was just 9 months old. He lyrically explains the pain and loss that her death caused and how it shaped who he's become today.
The performance left the judges stunned and brought Sofia Vergara to tears.
"My brother passed away the same year that your sister passed away," Vergara said. "I can feel your pain, I know what this is, I know what it is to have someone taken from you without you knowing. But it was very beautiful for me."
"What an amazing tribute," Cowell said. "There's something very, very special about you. This is a very difficult thing to judge, and I shouldn't be judging it. I just want to compliment you on what you just did, because it was extraordinary."
"It's amazing to me that, on season 15, it's the first time that we're hearing someone [perform] spoken word," Mandel shared. "There was something more raw in it. 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."
"We feel your pain, we feel your love, and you moved me to do this," Mandel added, before slamming the Golden Buzzer and bringing Leake to tears.