Chicago has always been a multi-dimensional city when it comes to talent. Between music, visual artists, political activism, and the spoken word community—the city has nurtured some of the world’s greatest masters at their craft.
J Ivy is a Chicago-based poet, author, and songwriter who won the Best-Spoken Word Album category at the 65th Annual Grammy Awards for his album “The Poet Who Sat by the Door.” This was a newly introduced category at the Grammys, which was lobbied for by J Ivy, and it allows spoken word artists to have their own standalone category. The album featured collaborations with several artists, including Sir the Baptist, the Tennessee State University Marching Band, PJ Morton, Slick Rick, and Tarrey Torae.
J Ivy’s achievement at the Grammys was significant as he is the first poet to win the Best-Spoken Word Album category and has been working for over three decades in the spoken word community as an author, writer, and voiceover artist.
“It was amazing that building relationships can create great art. There’s been a lot of joy. I’m happy that other people are happy. The best part is that everybody else is happy—as a poet, to be able to stand on that stage. It takes me back to every moment from the first moment on stage–rocking from Rich Central to Illinois State University, the Chicago scene–flashing back to all the moments shared. It’s an honor to wear that badge ‘poet’,” he says.
In 2019, Ivy became the Midwest Chapter President of The National Academy Recording of Arts and Science (NARAS)—the first poet to hold the role. His new position brought fresh leadership for the chapter and excitement for the regional music industry until the pandemic hit the nation in March 2020.
With two years to serve as chapter President, Ivy knew he had to find a creative way to do outreach and educate creators about The Recording Academy and how to raise interest in membership. The biggest concern for his peers was not having a dedicated category to recognize spoken word artists.
Discovering a New Love
Nearly 40 years ago, the young kid from Englewood, a predominately Black community on the Southside of Chicago was getting good grades and on the honor. Like, many urban cities across the country, the crack epidemic tore a gashing hole in African American communities, forcing families to relocate to the suburbs seeking better-quality schools and safer neighborhoods. Ivy’s mother, a registered nurse uprooted her three sons with the commitment to give them the best resources possible.
Relocating to Matteson, Illinois a suburb south of Chicago—Ivy would attend Rich Central High School where he would discover something deep inside of himself.
“Education was important to be in a school where you could breathe and flourish. I ended up with a teacher, Ms. Paula Argue, who saw something in me and encouraged me to move forward with this gift that she saw. I was completely blind to it; I knew I was good at writing notes to girls,” he laughs. “I thought anybody could do that but at the time, it was preached to us, ‘go to school, get a good job.’ My grades had fallen off because of the divorce, these feelings I was wrestling with, my confidence dropped, had low self-esteem and I didn’t care anymore,” says Ivy.
His parents had divorced, and it had been years since he heard from his father. He says the void had gradually left him with a big void in his life. “I wasn’t focused. I was dealing with depression, anger, and feeling abandoned. I was a young man, and I hadn’t seen my father.”
But he found when he picked up the pen, instead of writing his lesson plans—he immersed himself in words.
“The poetry was the joy I needed. It was the non-judgmental therapist, and friend that I could talk to. In my thoughts and ideas, I could put them on the page and be me. I’m super grateful for every experience–the friends I met at Rich Central High School, and Illinois State University because everyone encouraged me,” he says. “At college, I would sit down and start writing in my English classes, and it would turn into a poem.”
Building a Name On the Scene
While attending Illinois State University, Ivy flunked out of school—his focus was not on acquiring a degree, he felt something was off. Moving back home, he knew the financial burden and sacrifice his mom made for him to further his education would lay on his conscious. So, he decided, poetry would be his focus—his driving force to make his mom proud.
He would perform his first show in the city at an open-mic night called Full Moon Poetry where the likes of Malik Yusef and Kwesi would regularly grace the stage.
“That first show was a huge glimpse of the reality I wanted to live. I went from that young man to that teenager—unseen and unheard, terrified while performing, and I received a standing ovation. At that moment, my life changed. I couldn’t believe they saw me; they were standing up clapping for me?”
There was no stopping Ivy, he was on a mission to build his craft and work with as many talent creators along the way. His travels would take him from a short stint in Winston Salem, North Carolina to spending some time in Nashville and building a solid following.
“The poetry helped me get these feelings off of my chest. I didn’t hear from my father in 10 years. A year and a half after we reconnected, he transitioned. It was so devastating. This was November 15, 1999. After this happened, things started taking off for me. March 3, 2002, I became a full-time artist after leaving my full-time job at Dell Computers. A lot of doors started opening. In these angelic moments, I would hear his voice and reveal he was around me.”
In Nashville, he would meet music manager, Emmett Martin who was fascinated by Ivy and his wife, Tarrey’s talent—he personally would help them by connecting them with performances around town. This would lead to his first major network appearance on Russell Simmons’ HBO Def Poetry show.
A Chicago Renaissance
Throughout his career, Ivy has made amazing strides with his eloquent gift of words and wordplay—working with Chicago friends Kanye West, and Coodie Simmons who encouraged him to relocate to New York in 2002. Working with Kanye on his first album, College Dropout, and being a part of a close-knit group of Chicago natives—was refreshing. Ivy knew magic was happening.
“I found myself in this historic era. We were determined to make our dreams come true. At the time, Chicago had folks like Deon Cole, Lil Rel, Coodie, Don C., Kanye, and Mary Datcher—many more including Terry Hunter, Del Ray Davis, John Monop, and No I.D. We dominated, whether it was fashion, promotions, education, healthcare, or politics—we were driven,” Ivy says.
Ivy has become one of the leading spoken word artists and writers in the industry. As a voiceover artist, his work has included narrating the documentary Muhammad Ali: The People’s Champ and recently the Netflix series Jeen-yuhs—both produced by award-winning filmmakers, Coodie and Chike. Major brands such as AARP, Brand Jordan, BET, McDonalds, Microsoft, NBA, Nissan, and Benjamin Moore have also benefitted from having Ivy’s voice and writing skills on their projects.
Releasing the Pain
One of his most profound works, Dear Father: Breaking the Cycle of Pain would be his entry as a book author. Published by Beyond Words, the book is an open letter to the father as he came to terms with his final years on earth. It was a therapeutic journey for him.
“I would wear this mask of depression. When I was around everyone, I would appear energetic, and I would go home and fall into this deep funk. One evening, mom called me to ask me what was going on. It was the first time I opened up to her and revealed how to hurt I was about my father not being physically here,” he paused. “I was young and learning that the spirit doesn’t die. She said, ‘your father was a good man; let him rest in peace.’ Then it struck me that if anybody had the right to speak ill of him, it would be her. Even in his passing, here she was, protecting him and loving him.”
He said he penned Dear Father with tears on the page.
Ivy’s recent Grammy win was significant because he not only sat at the door but his persistence and determination to fight a new Spoken Word Album category—broke down the door. A door that is now open for other artists coming out of the poetry community.
He admits, a great part of his success has been his music partner and wife; singer and songwriter, Tarrey Torrae.
“She is the engine, the driving force, the jet fuel in my engine. She’s my guiding light and she helps keep me straight on course. Without Tarrey, The Poet Who Sat By The Door would have not happened in the short two months we had to produce this album. ” This win is not just my but our’ win,” says Ivy.
Love the title – a reference to Chicago author Sam Greenlee’s “The Spook Who Sat By the Door,” a novel about a Black man who worked for corporate America, but fought for our liberation. Congrats!