“I’ve always known that I was supposed to make history,” says poet-author J. Ivy. His natural ability to convey myriad emotions through written and spoken word is why the Chicago native continues to captivate audiences after 30 years. Known to many as a pioneer of hip-hop poetry, he has shared the stage with icons such as Prince and Lauryn Hill and performed at special events for Michael Jordan and Deepak Chopra.
But perhaps Ivy’s biggest milestone occurred just two months ago at the 65th annual Grammy Awards. That’s when his sixth album, The Poet Who Sat by the Door, won the inaugural gramophone for best spoken word poetry album. Prior to that, poets and spoken word artists were grouped in the same category with audiobooks, storytelling and narration — including Dr. Maya Angelou, who had been the only Grammy-winning poet. However, thanks to Ivy’s lead and a petition supported by 100+ poets, the Recording Academy announced the addition of the best spoken word poetry album category last June.
“To stand in the footsteps of the great Dr. Maya Angelou is something that I’m still processing,” Ivy shares — as April, National Poetry Month, gets underway. “I would say I’ve dropped an ocean of tears. I have the opportunity and the responsibility to represent. To stand in this space and be able to make history … I understand what it is.”
The title of Ivy’s Grammy-winning album was inspired both by his role in establishing the new category and by the 1969 novel/1973 film The Spook Who Sat by the Door. The novel revolves around the exploits of fictional character Dan Freeman, the first Black CIA officer. “I was gathering information and giving it back to the poetry community,” Ivy recalls of creating and recording the album. “I kept cracking this joke, ‘I’m like the poet who sat by the door.’”
Produced primarily by R&B/hip-hop artist Sir the Baptist, Ivy’s latest opus features cogent lyrics about defiance, endurance, love, passion, oppression, faith, healing and redemption. Ivy called on “an amazing cast of creatives” to perform, including John Legend, Ledisi, PJ Morton, BJ The Chicago Kid and Ivy’s singer-songwriter wife Tarry Torae. As the first Black poet from Chicago to appear on Russell Simmons Presents HBO Def Poetry, Ivy remains true to showcasing the value of his craft.
“A lot of times poetry is the butt of the joke — and we’ve never been a joke,” he explains. “Poetry is the seed of every song ever written. Also every movie, every script, every commercial, every literature comes from poetry. It educates, documents history, entertains, changes and shifts lives in a positive way.”
Born James Ivy Richardson II, the artist credits his high school English teacher Paula Argue for pushing him to perform his poetry at the school’s Black History Month talent show. “What I learned is you’re not gon’ argue with somebody named Ms. Argue,” he says. After a surprise standing ovation, his destiny was set.
Ivy also shouts out Beyoncé for another early career milestone. “A very credible source,” he recalls, “told me that she was the one who told Kanye [West] to keep me on ‘Never Let Me Down.’” Ivy was featured along with Jay-Z on the track from 2004’s The College Dropout.
“The same night I recorded ‘Never …’ is the same night I met John Stephens,” Ivy continues. “His music sounded like music my folks used to listen to back in the day. So I was like, ‘You sound like one of the legends.’ Everybody else [in the studio] is shouting him out like ‘John Stephens in the house.’ I was like, ‘John Legend.’ Everybody looked at me and back at him. Then Kanye said, ‘Man, you John Legend from now on.’”
In addition to his Grammy win, Ivy performed on and executive produced The Urban Hymnal by the Tennessee State University marching band. Also known as the Aristocrat of Bands, the group also made Grammy history this year as the first marching band to win the award for best gospel roots album.
“I’m just super grateful to be doing what I love,” says Ivy — who was also the lead writer, voice director and cast member on the 2022 Netflix docuseries, jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy. “It’s opened up a lot of doors.”
Having recently celebrated J. Ivy Day in Chicago on March 3, his 47th birthday, Ivy has also been tapped as the new spokesperson for Bulleit Bourbon. Future plans include expanding beyond previous roles as writer and narrator of short films and documentaries to full-fledged movie actor. Between acting classes, Ivy will soon release the short film/music video for “Running.” It’s the first single from The Poet Who Sat by the Door and features Legend, Slick Rick and Verse. The video is directed by Ivy’s longtime friends and collaborators Coodie and Chike of jeen-yuhs fame.
“It’s probably the only record in history with Slick Rick doing a poem,” notes Ivy.
Right now, the busy Ivy is on the road with his City Winery tour, named after the album and in celebration of the Grammy win. The multi-city tour kicked off in New York City on March 24. Upcoming dates include Boston (April 11) and Atlanta (4/23), with more to come. Performing poetry from his current album as well as popular pieces from past works, he’s accompanied by his band and Tarrey Torae on vocals.
“People are going to see me just pouring out all my gratitude,” declares Ivy. “I want to give the world an experience that they haven’t quite had with poetry. Poetry has saved my life; it’s carried me through the years. I just want to give all that back onstage.”