Sunday Sitdown: Writer-performer J. Ivy comes to grips with his absent father

SHARE Sunday Sitdown: Writer-performer J. Ivy comes to grips with his absent father

J. Ivy, the Chicago-born and raised poet, author and performance artist with Grammy and Peabody awards to his credit, built a name for himself by bridging hip-hop and poetry.

He has collaborated on hit songs by Jay-Z, Kanye West, Bob Dylan, The Roots, The Black Crowes and, of course, John Legend. (He also gave Legend that stage name.)

The 38-year-old longtime fixture of HBO’s “Def Poetry Jam” struggled for years with emotional issues after growing up in a home without a father. In a new book, “Dear Father: Breaking the Cycle of Pain,” Ivy writes about finally coming to grips with his father’s having left his family. And he’s touring the country with a “Dear Father Book Concert” that provocatively melds poetry, life testimony, music and inspiration.

Set to return to Chicago for a reading April 4 at Woodson Regional Library, he has taken on a mission: “1 million letters written, 1 million hearts healed,” as he puts it. It’s his campaign to get others burdened with father issues — urban youth in particular — to write letters of forgiveness and healing to their missing fathers and post them online at

“I was raised on 87th and Winchester. When I was 14, we moved to Matteson, where I attended Rich Central. I have two brothers. My mother was a nurse, my father  a DJ, so he bounced around a lot. I used to listen to him on the radio. He was in my life until age 12 or 13. Alcohol became a factor. Drugs became a factor. Fights began to break out. My  folks ended up getting divorced.

“I got the performance bug in high school. An English teacher had us write a poem and made everyone read them. Afterward, she pulled me to the side and said, ‘You have a nice speaking voice. I want to put you in a show.’ My first time ever on stage, I got a standing ovation. As nervous and terrified as I was, standing in front of a room full of strangers and seeing them clapping, I fell in love. Didn’t know with what, I just knew I loved that feeling.

“At Illinois State, I did every talent show on campus and started traveling to other colleges to perform. It was tough crowds. They let me know it, but they showed love, too, and kept pushing me forward. I left school sophomore year. I just wasn’t focused. I found myself getting depressed a lot and starting to deal with some of my father issues. I found myself very angry, feeling worthless.

“At 19, I started hitting the Chicago scene. I’d go up to clubs and say, ‘Look, I don’t drink. I just want to come in, do a poem and leave.’ They’d let me. Then, I found myself doing stuff for WGCI and started hosting a weekly poetry event at a club, Rituals. I started to travel — to Philly, New York, Atlanta, Carolina, out to L.A. — wherever I could get work. My day job was telemarketing and driving a promotions truck for Coca-Cola.

Chicago-born and raised / Grammy and Peabody award-winning poet, author, and performance artist J. Ivy launched his current tour at the DuSable Museum on Jan. 25. Maudlyne Ihejirika / Sun-Times

“Me and my girl — now my wife, we’ve been together 16 years — finally moved out to Nashville, and I landed a spot on ‘Def Poetry.’ Producer Stan Lathan saw me perform and had me audition. A lot of doors started to open, and I moved out to New York, started hooking up with different artists, and recorded with Kanye on his first album, ‘College Dropout,’ which also featured Jay-Z and John Legend.

“Things were going good. I’m hanging out with this person, that person, excited about my career. But, at home, I’m hurting. I hadn’t seen or heard from my father in over 10 years. There was just a lot of pain I was feeling. Finally, my cousin told me, ‘You’re going to have to learn how to forgive if you want to get past that.’ So I go to a youth revival at church, and I just broke down. I prayed and said, ‘God, I forgive my father. I’m not mad anymore. I just want to see him. I just want to tell him I love him.’

“Two weeks later, he called out of the blue. I knew it was all God. We became reconnected. We got to do things like sit down and watch the Bears game together. But we weren’t in the habit of a relationship, so we didn’t talk too much, and a year and a half later, he passed away. That pain returned. I talked to my mom about it. She said, ‘Let your father rest in peace.’ I realized she was right.

“The next day, I wrote my ‘Dear Father’ letter. Immediately, I could feel the weight just lift. It brought the house down on ‘Def Poetry,’ and every time I performed it, I felt lighter and lighter. The book is that journey. I want it to inspire others. That’s why the goal of 1 million letters.

“No matter the relationship with a father, good, bad or ugly; no matter what race, age or gender, so many people have had to deal with this issue. We want people to write a letter to their father, start the healing process. For my people, the pain is generational, you know? Our fathers have been snatched from us for a long time, dating back to slavery. But it’s time to break that cycle. We’ve been in pain long enough.”

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