Photo by CTZN CHANCE/BURNCULTURE
When J. Ivy stepped up to receive the first-ever Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Poetry Album at last year’s ceremony, it was the culmination of a three-decade journey. Thirty years earlier to the month, he had performed at his Chicago high school for the first time, discovering a gift and a calling.
He describes that mission as “a combination of a storyteller with pastoring, street preacher vibes that wanted to put hope and love into my work. Hopefully that work would touch people in a way that would inspire them, uplift them and help heal any wounds that they may be dealing with.”
Since his teenage beginning, Ivy has carved out a niche as one of America’s foremost hip-hop poets, a celebrated “artist’s artist,” according to the Chicago Tribune, who “elucidates critical ideas about the world in a method that is authentic and real.”
The Grammy for The Poet Who Sat by the Door is just one of Ivy’s honors, which also include BET, Ebony and NAACP recognitions. Last November, Ivy was presented with the 2023 WayMaker Trailblazer Award for his contribution to the arts.
“It started with a gift I had no idea I had, discovering a new passion and wanting to do more with it,” Ivy says of his first appearance back at Rich Central High School. “That turned into my life’s work and took me around the world. It led me to my wife. It helped me navigate Chicago, then it helped me explore other cities in the nation, and eventually the world.”
From the South Side, his journey—including scene- stealing bars with Jay Z on Kanye West’s 2004 breakout The College Dropout and performing at the United Nations headquarters in New York City at an event marking the 30th anniversary of World Press Freedom Day—is an inspiring example of perseverance and success.
But talk to the artist born James Ivy Richardson II for long, and you’ll quickly learn his focus isn’t on the success; rather, it’s on the process and partnerships to get there. “Early on, I realized it was bigger than me. And I could easily see that by just looking around at all these other artists, poets and creatives that were putting out this wonderful work. I was moved and inspired and motivated by so many over the years. So, when I found myself in a position to help open the door for all of us, I said, ‘Shoot! Why not?’”
The title for Ivy’s latest album, last year’s The Light Inside, comes from his desire to help pave the way for others in the poetry community. “I’m at the door; the door is cracked,” he says. “The light is on. There’s this opportunity for the poets to have a seat at the table. Now the opportunities, the interviews, the performances, everything is kicked up.” The light means more than the external: “The art was always about searching for the light inside, about poetry helping you to be reminded of that love and healing. We’re all born with greatness that lives in us.”
As a WayMaker Trailblazer honoree, Ivy defines a waymaker as “somebody who has enough courage to believe in themselves, enough courage to listen to those thoughts and ideas that come to you and act on them.” That belief in self goes beyond simply recognizing your own gifts: “[It includes] a conviction to break down doors, to make history, to make a mark, to let the future hear your name. Even if the future doesn’t hear your name, they see your actions.”
Being a waymaker is also about being in service to others, he adds, noting some of the many waymakers who have helped him along his journey. “Of course, my mother and father, my amazing wife, [singer and songwriter] Tarrey Torae, and my English teacher, Miss [Paula] Argue, who was the first one who made me perform.” He also names Def Poetry Jam director Stan Lathan who came out to see him perform and put him on the groundbreaking television show.
With a wry smile, Ivy acknowledges his hometown as a character in his waymaker journey. Chicago is “a waymaker town,” he says. “It’s a town filled with go-getters, history makers, innovators. A town filled with the most amazing creatives the world has seen. To be surrounded by a village of folks blazing a way for themselves, you can’t help but feed off that energy and be reminded that you can do it too.”
Ivy’s list of waymakers includes historical figures as well as those he knows personally. He recounts how one of America’s greatest orators is his biggest inspiration: “When I first stepped into the role of delivering a monologue, or speech, I wanted to speak like Dr. Martin Luther King [Jr.]. I wanted to have that presence and that conviction, that power in his voice. I wanted to help command the room.”
Beyond King’s strength, Ivy strives to emulate the heart of the civil rights icon. “I was always moved by his mission and his drive, and the love that he led with, [all] combined,” he says. He references a line from a track on The Poet Who Sat by the Door that says, “Slick Rick the Ruler meets Martin Luther King, South Side Street preacher minus the bling.”
When facing doubt and insecurity, encouragement is “jet fuel,” says Ivy. His supportive village has been visionary, seeing things in him that he didn’t see in himself yet. “It really started with that first performance, my first time on stage. [I] was unaware of my ability to connect with an audience. I didn’t know I could write or perform. Their reaction was filled with love and excitement: ‘Oh my God! That was amazing!’ Later on, people told me, ‘You’re a leader and don’t even know it… keep going, keep going.’”
That love and positivity were a crucial counterbalance for the young artist. Ivy was an honor roll student until his parents divorced, which sent him into depression. “To be a kid who felt invisible, who felt unworthy at times, neglected, unseen, unheard… to go from that to this moment, standing on stage, with a room full of people giving me a standing ovation… I was like, ‘What’s going on?’”
The moment illuminated something within him. “It’s like a light, a spark that signals purpose. And then you’re able to see a little further down the road. Now you have something to aim at. I wanted to keep exploring and seeing where this role is taking me. Where can I take this art? And how far can I go?”
This unwavering faith is reflected in one of Ivy’s favorite songs, “Fire,” from The Poet Who Sat by the Door. Written with Sir the Baptist, the lyrics retell the Old Testament story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who were forced into a fiery furnace after refusing to worship false idols and whose faith brought them out unscathed. “This is a story I knew from growing up,” Ivy explains. “My uncle’s a pastor and my great-grandfather opened up a church in Chicago called Christ Temple back in his day. I’ve always been very spiritual and moved by the Word inspired by God. I know everything I do is a gift God has given me.”
One thing he has learned through the years is that exploration comes with a cost. “One of the lines I use is ‘Every champion takes hits.’ There’s not a champ alive that didn’t get hit,’” he says. “So, you take them, and then you figure out how not to get hit like that anymore. And you work on your defense, and you steadily move on offense at the same time.”
That kind of wisdom keeps him grounded when the hits come. “I’ve just learned to just keep going. My grandfather, who was another one of those waymakers in my life, would always say, ‘Take it one day at a time. Everything will be alright. And keep on keeping on.’”
Endurance is equally important, Ivy adds. “I’ve seen a lot of people give up because it does get hard. It is challenging. Life happens. Traumatic moments happen in life.”
You can expect more than just hits, Ivy warns. “Moments in the past have shown me that anything is possible. [But] with those possibilities come challenges. Growing pains. You develop stretch marks. You’re going further, but you know there may be some marks behind to show the challenge of stretching yourself beyond where you’ve been.”
Even when you’re operating in your gift, expect opposition, he cautions, but keeping that opposition in context is key. “Does it get hard? Yeah, of course it gets hard,” he says. “But in those moments, I remind myself of past challenges—remind myself that what was meant for you was meant for you, so don’t get caught up if things are moving in a different direction than you thought.”
Frustration is often measured by the distance between expectation and reality. “There ain’t no ‘supposed to be’ [in life],” Ivy notes. “It’s what it is. If things are moving this way, that is what is supposed to be.” He is keenly aware of the syncopation in life’s moments. “When things do happen, they usually happen with not a lot of resistance. It’s more rhythm than it is resistance. Boom, boom, boom! Boom! Boom! And then, next thing you know, another moment is complete, and it’s on to the next set of rhythms.”‘
Like a true lyricist, Ivy flows with the beat rather than against it. In doing so, he’s noticed how “nine times out of ten, things work out. If not ten out of ten, they usually work out how they are supposed to. Even when it’s some- thing that’s hard and challenging, you might not be able to see it in the moment. Some time will go by and [you see] ‘Ooh, that’s why that happened the way it did.’”
Part of the power and influence of poetry is that poets do more than simply make words rhyme, he says. “Poets have always been a part of movement, part of social change. [Poets are] part historian, part educator, part philosopher, part explorer of new ideas adding perspective.” He describes how griots—storytellers rooted in West African tradition—use poetry as a “mechanism to tell and document and record our verbal history and pass that on to the next [generation] in a way that would be digestible enough, creative enough, artistic enough for people to remember and reflect [on].
“It’s really all about conversation and connecting and tearing down walls and showing that we all are one. We all want the same things. We all want to take care of our families and live a beautiful, prosperous life. It’s not really that complicated. We all want peace and prosperity.”
Ivy wants young people who watch a recording of his Grammy moment to see hope. “I hope they are inspired to believe in themselves, to never give up.” His example is “a story of hope, of belief,” he says. “I have a quote: ‘Dreams don’t come true, they are true.’ If you have enough will in you to maintain the fight for your dream, it’s amazing to see the places that it will take you. The dream is real.”
But you have to find the courage to take the first step, he says. “If you look at a mountaintop, it’s hard to take the first step to climb up. But if you put your head down and take one step after the next, you’ll look up and say, ‘Oh man, I’m here! I was way down there, but I climbed and climbed, worked and worked, and never gave up.’”
All the best intentions, hopes and dreams mean little without the decision to move for- ward. To those considering following a dream, Ivy says there is no better time than right now to start. “You are the author of the book, the captain of the ship. You have the power to create and manifest your reality. A big part [of deciding to go] is knowing that this thing doesn’t last forever,” he laughs.
Despite having written many captivating pages in his story already, Ivy embraces the newness of adventures still to come. “I want to be better,” he says. “I always feel like I’m at the starting line even though I’ve been on this journey for a while. I don’t feel like I’m at the end of the road, exhausted. I feel like I’m at the beginning of the race.”
FINDING THE RIGHT WORDS
What defines J. Ivy?
Chicago / Family / Values / Pride / Hope / Passion / Creativity / Introvert / Extrovert / Having a good time / Want to grow / Love / Music
What are his musical influences?
Slick Rick The Ruler / LL Cool J / De La Soul / A Tribe Called Quest / NWA / Public Enemy / Big Daddy Kane / Rakim / Queen Latifah / MC Lyte / Salt-N-Pepa / Gang Starr
How does he prepare to write?
I quiet myself, and I listen. I tap into the Spirit, into creativity. I tap into what’s on my heart and what I’m hearing from around the world, friends and family. Sometimes, it’s a puzzle, a line here, a line there, and then I put it together. Then, I write and rewrite. Ideas come and go. If you don’t catch them, somebody else will. So, I catch what I can and share it.
What is the role of the poet?
I feel like our work as poets, thousands and millions of poets around the world, is to remind us of our humanity and remind us of our dignity. Remind us to be noble, remind us to lead with love. Remind us to pass on lessons so, hopefully, the next generations can be better than we were. My momma always said, “Leave it better than you found it.”
J. Marc and Kayla Jones are the married team behind the television and film production company JazzyPeach Media. He is a member of SAG-AFTRA and holds a Juris Doctorate from the University of Maryland. She is a regional Emmy award-winning producer with a Master of Arts Degree from Regent University.