J. Ivy is an award-winning Hip-Hop poet, a Peabody recipient, and a performer who isn’t afraid to divulge some of the most intimate parts of his life on stage.
The Grammy-nominated artist skyrocketed to fame after he appeared on the award-winning HBO show Def Poetry. J. Ivy captivated fans with his critically acclaimed piece “Dear Father”—a poem where he processes the difficult relationship he had with his late father. He later turned the emotional piece into a book.
“Dear Father was so therapeutic to write and create,” Ivy told HipHopWired during a lengthy chat over Zoom. “One of the quotes in the book says if you don’t deal with your emotions, one day, your emotions will deal with you. Going through trauma, pain, and what I felt was abandonment hit me like an anvil. The weight of it all.”
His father’s alcohol and drug addiction forged a wedge in their relationship for over a decade. They lost contact for years, but shortly after they reconnected, J. Ivy’s father suddenly passed away.
“This poem really freed me from all the pain, hurt, and anger that I was feeling,” the star continued. “There were tears on the page while I was writing it. All of the heaviness I had been carrying, it felt like it had just lifted off of me.”
Despite their complicated relationship, the revered artist gained much of his passion for storytelling and poetry through his father, who was a prominent DJ on Chicago’s WVON throughout the late ’70s and early ’80s.
“I would listen to him on the radio before I walked to school in the morning. He was my hero,” Ivy recalled of his dad’s disc jockey days. “He had thousands and thousands of records in the basement, I remember seeing gold plaques with his name on them. My mom would always say they nicknamed him preacher because he was able to command a conversation. He was just a great storyteller.”
J. Ivy’s inherent gift for poetry is God-given, it’s the only way to describe his unique ability to transform poetry into riveting performance art. Mending elements of Hip-Hop, spoken word, and singing, Ivy uses poetry as a unique canvas to tell stories about his lived experiences and the world around him.
You can hear his divine talent all over Kanye West’s classic hit “Never Let Me Down,” a song that he teamed up with the Chicago MC and Jay-Z to make for 2004’s The College Drop Out.
“I prayed for that poem and for God to use me in that moment,” the NAACP Image award recipient reflected about the career-shifting song. “It was a very huge opportunity to have a song with Kanye, who we all know was about to blow up at the time, and Jay Z, who is arguably one of the greatest MCs ever.”
While working on the track, Ivy said he felt as though he was a conduit, allowing God to channel his creative energy.
“When I pray the floodgates just open up and I’ve noticed that in a lot of my writing. I become that vessel and an instrument. I feel like my superpower is the ability to listen. My job as a poet is to capture as much as I can and poetically translate what I’m hearing.”
J. Ivy hasn’t let his foot off the gas since. In September, he released his sixth studio album The Poet Who Sat By The Door, a nod to Sam Greenlee’s critically acclaimed book The Spook Who Sat By the Door. It’s a masterpiece filled with motivational anthems and powerful messages about faith, perseverance, and the importance of unity.
On the opening track “Listen,” Ivy cautions listeners to be careful what they speak, a statement that seems fitting given the rise of cancel culture in today’s society.
“Words are very powerful. They carry energy. So, me as an artist, as somebody who knows the masses are listening, I personally feel that I have a responsibility to make sure that I’m putting out things into the world that will uplift people and bring people together,” the poet said.
“I want to create things that people will be able to look back on and say ‘okay, that’s how the world was then and this is one aspect of it.’ I don’t know if everyone honors that. Based on things that are said and things that are done. You don’t always feel the most positive things coming from people. That’s sad because I think when you do have a voice when you do have a microphone, there’s some power attached to that.”
There are also some strong features scattered throughout the album. Look no further than “Running,” where listeners may be surprised to hear the iconic Slick Rick break out into full-on spoken word.
Ivy, who is still shocked by the collab said, “He’s someone I grew up listening to. That’s who I aspired to write like when I was coming up. So just the fact that we have a relationship, that alone is incredible to me. To have the opportunity to collaborate with him was beyond a dream.”
The album’s fourth track titled “Lay Down” features Power star Omari Hardwick, who Ivy revealed was a well-known poet in LA’s spoken word scene prior to garnering TV and film stardom. On the track, Ivy teams up with the actor and premiere spoken word poet Ursula Rucker to deliver a powerful message about reparations, something that Black Americans have been demanding for decades.
“We’ve been tormented by this country,” Ivy said. “We’ve been done wrong in so many different ways. We build this country and they never made it right. They never said okay, we know that you put in all this work. Now, here is back pay for all the work that your enslaved ancestors did that you never received. It almost feels like a joke that somebody would do somebody wrong for that long and feel like they’re not entitled to pay, when other communities of people have received reparations or have received payment for the misfortunate deeds that were done to them. It’s just time for America to say we deeply apologize and here’s a check for you and your families and your people. And hopefully, this will help balance out some of the trauma that has been put on our people.”
J. Ivy continues to use his platform to support, uplift, and empower other rising poets through his trustee role with the Recording Academy’s Chicago Chapter. He made history when he became the first spoken word artist to hold the coveted seat. This year, the Hip-Hop star was able to successfully create The Best Spoken Word Poetry Album category for the Grammys, a proposal he had been working on for over six years to greenlight.
“It was important to me that the category was split because it was dominated with audiobooks by big-name celebrities and politicians,” said the star. “I was nominated for a Grammy under the Best Spoken Word category last year, but I had the only full poetry album.”
Historically, the academy has used the category to house any recording that did not contain music, but now, thanks to Ivy, spoken word artists will have their very own category. This year, five poets will be nominated under the Best Spoken Word Poetry Album category, J. Ivy is one of them. The star received a nod for The Poet Who Sat By The Door.
Looking ahead to the future, Ivy hopes to change the landscape of poetry with his Recording Academy role in order to show other artists that the field is ripe with opportunity.
“It’s so hard for people to fathom that you can have a career doing poetry. It hasn’t been common, although it should be. Poets were the advisors to world leaders. Poets were the historians, poets were the teachers and philosophers. It only makes sense for poets to be held in high regard.”
As for who is up next in the industry, J. Ivy said he has his eyes peeled on a few poets bubbling out of his hometown of Chicago. The star gave a nod to Verse, who was also featured on “Running.”
“He’s an incredible artist to look out for,” J. Ivy said with excitement. “There’s also Brittney Carter, oh my god. She’s an incredible young MC. She reminds me of Lauryn Hill and Bahamadia. She is ridiculous.”
The Hip-Hop titan also gave a big shoutout to his wife Tarrey Torae.
“She’s always reinventing and creating new, incredible sounds that represent Chicago with R&B and Soul music. I’ll probably think about 20 people after we get off here,” the poet chuckled.