Chicago poet J. Ivy’s efforts to push art form further into mainstream pay off with new Grammy category

Ivy was just named Time magazine’s editor-at-large for poetry.

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J. Ivy is photographed in the Cinema Room at SoHo House Chicago. The poet is nominated in a new Grammy category this year, best spoken word poetry album.

J. Ivy is photographed in the Cinema Room at SoHo House Chicago. The Chicago poet is nominated in a new Grammy category this year, best spoken word poetry album.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

At Sunday night’s Grammy Awards, the first-ever winner of the best spoken word poetry album will be announced. It’s a new category that the Recording Academy introduced this year — all because of the efforts and petitions of Chicago wordsmith J. Ivy.

“ [The new category] is important because the Recording Academy’s mission is to honor the best in music. It’s important because poetry is, in fact, a big part of music,” Ivy explained in an interview on Grammy.com. “It’s important because spoken word poets and spoken word artists have been pushing the culture forward with their words, their ideas and their performances since the beginning of time.”

Ivy’s been a driving force in taking the art form even more into the mainstream in recent years.

Like the time a few weekends back when Ivy was standing center court in Madison Square Garden (wearing a Derrick Rose jersey, of course) reciting the verses he contributed to the Kanye West song “Never Let Me Down.” Or how he was just named Time magazine’s editor-at-large for poetry. Or even his placement in a new Bulleit Bourbon commercial, adding an extra air of cool.

Ivy has shared stages with Prince, Lauryn Hill and Dave Chapelle; Deepak Chopra refers to him as a “healer.” He was the first African American poet to represent Chicago on “Russell Simmons Presents HBO Def Poetry.”

“The album and the music is all centered around hope and love and fighting for betterment of our people. It’s definitely my best work and I’m super proud of it,” says the Grammy-nominated J. Ivy, about his 2022 release “The Poet Who Sat By The Door.”

“The album and the music is all centered around hope and love and fighting for betterment of our people. It’s definitely my best work, and I’m super proud of it,” says the Grammy-nominated J. Ivy, about his 2022 release, “The Poet Who Sat By The Door.”

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Oh, and Ivy was the person to give John Legend his stage name (more on that below).

“I keep asking myself, ‘What dream is this?’” Ivy shared during a phone call ahead of his trip to Los Angeles for the Grammy Week celebrations. He’s nominated for his fourth album, 2022’s “The Poet Who Sat By The Door.” It’s a spoken word-musical opus that features contributions from Legend as well as Slick Rick, PJ Morton, Sir the Baptist, BJ the Chicago Kid and a number of other talents.

The title is inspired by Sam Greenlee’s 1969 book “The Spook Who Sat By The Door,” about the first Black CIA agent who was getting information from the government and sharing it with the people.

“The album and the music is all centered around hope and love and fighting for betterment of our people,” said Ivy. “It’s definitely my best work, and I’m super proud of it.”

While Ivy’s resume is practically paved in gold, it never would have happened without his high school English teacher, Paula Argue.

“I was really good at writing notes to girls, but other than that, I didn’t think I had a gift,” Ivy joked. But upon entering Argue’s class at Rich Central High School in Olympia Fields his junior year, one of his first pieces of homework was to write a poem. He alsoread it aloud to the whole class.

“I was a very shy kid with low self-esteem and no confidence, so to read anything or speak in front of anyone was terrifying for me,” Ivy recalled. He not only got an “A” on the assignment, but Argue encouraged him to enter a talent show she was organizing.

“You’re not going to argue with someone named Miss Argue,” he joked (he also shares some of the foundational story on his new track, “Listen”).

“We pray for him,” says Ivy, of Kanye West, adding, “We all have family we don’t always agree with and you question what’s going on and why they’re doing things to hurt people.” 

“We pray for him,” says Ivy, of Kanye West, adding, “We all have family we don’t always agree with, and you question what’s going on and why they’re doing things to hurt people.”

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Ivy received a standing ovation that first time on the stage and was hooked.

“Immediately, my whole life shifted and changed in front of me. I went from feeling unseen and unheard to ‘wow, they actually do see me. They hear me.’ And I kept wanting to chase that feeling,” he said.

One of Ivy’s first big breaks was repeated bookings on “HBO Def Poetry.” It was around this same time that Ivy’s old friend Coodie Simmons — founder of Chicago’s former underground hip-hop show “Channel Zero” — was starting to work with a new artist by the name of Kanye West. Simmons called Ivy saying West wanted a poet to appear on his debut album, “The College Dropout,” and Simmons had recommended him. Ivy penned something in 10 minutes and almost immediately was booked on a flight to Record Plant Studios in Hollywood.

In the studio, in addition to Jay-Z, one of the people hanging around was an up-and-coming R&B singer by the name of John Stephens.

“He was soulful and reminded me of Marvin Gaye or Smokey Robinson,” recalled Ivy of his first impressions of the future John Legend.

“I told him, ‘You sound like one of the legends, as a matter of fact that’s what I’m going to call you from now on.” The two have remained close for 20 years.

Much of that time period is the crux of the Netflix docuseries “jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy,” which was directed by Simmons and his creative partner Chike (the same duo who worked on many of West’s early music videos). Ivy was the lead writer and voice director as well as a cast member in the series, following a good working chemistry the trio found on the 2015 BET documentary “Muhammad Ali: The People’s Champ.” They also have an upcoming documentary in the works on artist Ernie Barnes.

Of “jeen-yuhs,” Ivy calls it an “origin story” that pulls back the curtain on fame and gives a look into the West that he knew from early days on the scene, a very different version of the Chicago rapper currently embroiled in hate rhetoric and other controversial headline-making antics.

“We pray for him,” says Ivy, adding, “We all have family we don’t always agree with, and you question what’s going on and why they’re doing things to hurt people.”

But what Ivy loves about working on that film is that it was “made for the dreamers … and a huge reminder to not give up on your divine purpose.” That philosophy aligns with Ivy’s personal motto, “Dreams Don’t Come True, They Are True.”

After pushing the Recording Academy for six years to break out poetry into its own category outside of the general spoken word album award (often usurped by celebrity audiobooks), Ivy, in his ever-humble nature, is hopeful he might have a shot at winning for “The Poet Who Sat By The Door” and be known — as he has so many times before — as the first to break down the doors.

“I hope it has a chance to bring home the hardware,” he said. “But regardless, it’s something that I will forever be proud of … and I’ll keep continuing to fight for more ways to create.”

Find out more about Ivy at j-ivy.com and follow his socials @j_ivy. The Grammy Awards telecast airs at 7 p.m. Sunday on CBS.

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