Writing Black

The genius behind Jeen-yuhs, Kanye collaborator J. Ivy

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TheGrio Black Podcast Network presents Writing Black with Maiysha Kai, with special guest J. Ivy, the Grammy-nominated poet, songwriter, and writer of the hit Netflix Kanye West documentary Jeen-yuhs.

You are now listening to theGrio’s Black Podcast Network, Black Culture Amplified. 

Maiysha Kai [00:00:05] Hello, I’m Maiysha Kai, host of theGrio’s Writing Black podcast. In West African tradition, to be a griot is to be a storyteller, one who carries and communicates the experiences and legacies of a people. As theGrio’s lifestyle editor, I’ve always been fascinated by how we tell our stories. That’s why we launched Writing Black, to explore the myriad ways Black writers craft stories and communicate our experiences. Thank you for joining us. Here’s an excerpt from this week’s guest. 

jeen-yuhs [00:00:39] Hey Kanye, how would you describe your album? I feel like it’s a breath of fresh air. Then we got my man Kanye, track-smith, man. Hold on. When I first, put the camera on this up-and-coming producer back in 98, Chi-Town made it down here. Boy, I knew he was destined for greatness. This [is] Coodie right here, he shot all the footage. The goal was to see how far his dreams would take him, but I had no idea where life would take us next. 

Maiysha Kai [00:01:17] J. Ivy, thank you for joining us for this first episode of Writing Black

J. Ivy [00:01:23] Thank you for having me. I’m blessed. So good to be here. Feeling fantastic, you know? 

Maiysha Kai [00:01:30] You know him as a poet, You know, you might know him from Def Poetry Jam. You might know him from The College Dropout. You might know him from all over. You might know him as the Chicago chapter president of the Recording Academy. There’s so many reasons to admire you, J. So thank you for joining us on Writing Black. I couldn’t think of a better guest, and I was so tickled because you and I have a lot in common. So, you know, obviously, we’re both from Chicago. Both Chicagoans still, right? And we’re both Grammy-nominated, although you’ve outpaced me. You’ve got like you’ve got an NAACP award. You’ve got a CLIO Award. You are now part of the Emmy-nominated crew of Jeen-yuhs. So congratulations on that. You know, it’s a tremendous achievement. And, yeah, you know, we crafted this podcast, really, because I’m always fascinated as somebody who writes across genres myself, I’m always fascinated about the intersection of identity and craft because we know that like for us, the way that we write, the things that we write about, the ways that we use language are very specific and they’re informed very differently than other people. So, you know, I, I, you know, we’re going to start from the beginning. Like how what was the genesis for you, of wanting to work in the realm of words? 

J. Ivy [00:02:56] So the genesis for me was I was really good at writing notes to girls in high school. For real though. I was like, I couldn’t I couldn’t talk to a girl, but I could write a note. I can write her a note. But I didn’t. I didn’t think that was a gift. You know, I didn’t look at it as a gift. And my junior year high school, I went to Rich Central High School in the south suburbs of Chicago. 

Maiysha Kai [00:03:29] I went to H.F. I know. 

J. Ivy [00:03:31] Okay. Come on, now. You know, yeah. I used to write notes to y’all all the time, you know. Those H.F. girls, good lord.  

Maiysha Kai [00:03:40] We were cute. Yeah. 

J. Ivy [00:03:43] Oh, absolutely. So, I—my junior year had an English teacher named Ms. Argue. And what I learned is you’re not gonna argue with somebody whose name is Argue. So she had us write a poem for homework, and I really I wasn’t into poetry. I’m a hip-hop baby. I grew up listening to all the great emcees and I was always inspired by them, but I never looked at myself as being a storyteller and says, So I go home, you know, just go and do my homework. I really want to get outside so I can go hoop. So I’m like let me write this poem so I’m going to go kick it with the guys and wrote what I thought was a silly little poem called “It Once Was a Cloud.” You know, the game we all played [with} the clouds changing forms. And so, I wrote this poem.

The next day, I go to class expecting to turn it in, and Ms. Argue makes everybody read their poem in front of the class. So I was a very shy kid. I was a broken kid, I lacked confidence. So speaking in front of a room full of people was the last thing I wanted to do. But I read through the poem; rushed through it. Then, after class, Ms. Argue pulls me to the side, she gives me an A on the poem—and I wasn’t getting A’s and B’s, you know, some C’s, you know, so she gives me A and then she said, you have a nice speaking voice. I have a show coming up and I want you to do this show. 

J. Ivy [00:05:08] So I’m like, ‘Nah, Ms. Argue, nah.’ So I didn’t do the show; a few weeks go by, she approaches me again. She says, ‘You know what? Last time, I asked you do a show, you faked me out. I have another show coming up. This time, I’m not asking you to do it. You have to do it.’ So she makes me do this show. And my first time on stage, just nervous and terrified and scared as I was, I received a standing ovation and instantly my life changed on that stage. And I’m like, ‘Ms. Argue when is the next show? When’s the next show?’ So, I fell in love with the idea of feeling unseen, unheard, to all of a sudden, you know, people see me and they hear me and that energy I just couldn’t deny that feeling, that energy. So it really, although it started with the poetry, it was the stage that really, really, I guess that they were hand in hand. It was the poem, it was that assignment was also getting on a stage and seeing I instantly getting that reaction of the power what is. 

Maiysha Kai [00:06:14] That validation. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. I know that feeling well. So yeah. And there really isn’t anything like that kind of that reciprocity, right? Like that you get in front of an audience. But you know, it’s so interesting that, you know, you saying that you didn’t really consider yourself a poet. You were hip hop because, you know, we do know that hip hop is poetry, right? Yeah. And, you know, you came to, I guess, massive national attention. I mean, you know, you were known obviously you and I are around the same age from the same place. So you were known. Yeah, but, you know, obviously College Dropout, you know, change changed things for everybody, right? Change things for you and change things for Kanye. And what was that like? Feeling like that, being able to merge those two worlds for yourself, I guess. I mean, I wouldn’t guess that that was the first time, but on that scale of being able to really see where your poetry fit into this other genre that you love so much. 

J. Ivy [00:07:18] I mean, it was amazing, like you said, like for for the two to merge, you know, from my love of poetry, my love of hip hop for poetry, being the foundation of hip hop, The Last Poets are the godfathers of hip hop. Gil Scott-Heron. Those are the four fathers of this art form that the world loves that we call hip hop, [it] started with poets. You know, I have a quote. It says, Poetry is the seed [of] every song written, you know. So poetry is either spoken; poetry is song; poetry is rap—but it’s all poetry, when you take the delivery away. And to have that moment I was fresh off of doing def poetry had just done first season of def poetry and so I was the first Black cat out of Chicago to be on the show. I was already excited. And it was just this brand new season and moment in my life. And I was I was I was looking forward to seeing where can I take my art next? You know, what can I do next? And after doing Def Poetry, I had this young gentleman, my brother, by the name of Coodie, who just happened to be at poetry when I filmed. 

J. Ivy [00:08:33] And Coodie, after doing the show, he was like ‘Man you should move to New York, you should move to New York.’ So I moved to New York and I landed right in the middle of the genius—I don’t want to call it a storm, but it was just this tidal wave, this movement that was happening. And Coodie was documenting this journey. So when I landed in New York, I land right in the middle of that. I think when I got there, maybe three weeks after I got there is when Kanye signed his deal. So this is you know, if you saw Jeen-yuhs, this is the time when he’s running around, knocking on doors, going to offices, trying to get any and everybody listen to him rap. He rapped for me a bunch of times, too. But I loved his rap; I thought he was cold, you know, like ‘this dude is cold,’ you know? 

Maiysha Kai [00:09:34] Everybody didn’t catch on right away. 

J. Ivy [00:09:35] Which I didn’t understand, I’m like y’all don’t hear this dude? This dude is incredible, y’all not hearing his music. You know, the first time I met him in Chicago, but in New York was the first time I got a chance, like really hang out with him. And it’s actually in the film. The part of where you see me and Tare Rae come in and that night, man, he rapped for, it was like maybe seven or eight of us there, he rapped like it was 70, 80,000 people in his apartment. And my first time like really hearing his music and I mean I heard the Go Getters, you know, in Chicago because I’d done shows with them but I’m really hearing a Kanye West record and he rapping he did “Two Words” for us, he rapped “All Falls Down,” he rapped “Hey Mama,” “Jesus Walks.” I’m like this dude, like this dude is incredible. So a few months after me being in New York, this is after Kanye gets in an accident and Coodie goes to LA; Coodie’s calling me every day like, ‘Man, man, J., you need to get to L.A. We out here kicking it.’ Then he called me the next day. ‘Man, J you need to get to L.A. We were just at Jamie Foxx’s crib. And and him and Kanye did a song called ‘Slow Jams,’ and I got it all on tape. Man, you need to get out here.’

J. Ivy [00:10:52] So then, So then the next day roll around and I’m still new to New York, so I’m still in “let me go out whenever I can” mode. But I didn’t have $2 to get on the train to go out. It was a Saturday night and I was in between shows, but I was feeling good that I was in a great place. So I was like, You know what? I got some food in the crib. I’ma, I’ma just chill out and I’m gonna write. And that’s what I did. So I’m writing, it is a Saturday night, I’m writing and then Coodie calls me like 11:00 that night like ‘Man, J., you need to get to L.A. right now.’ He’s like, ‘Kanye got a song with him and Jay-Z on it, and he wants to put a poet on it. And I told him he need to put J. Ivy on it.’ I’m like, ‘Man stop playing,’ you know, because Coodie a funny dude. He did comedy and all that. I’m like, ‘Come on, stop.’ I’m like, ‘That ain’t funny, man.’ He is like, ‘Nah for real, you need to get out of here tomorrow if you can.’ I was like, ‘Oh, you for real?’ So he plays the song for me over the phone. I really couldn’t hear the words, so he’s telling me what Jay-Z saying in his verse. He’s telling me what Kanye is saying in his verse, and then he was like, ‘Man, J…you get out here tomorrow,’ I said, ‘I’ma find a way.’ 

J. Ivy [00:12:03] So I hung up the phone. My first thought was, ‘you need to write something right now.’ So I turn to a blank page. I wrote the date down, wrote the title, “Never Let Me Down,” and I wrote the first thing came to my mind, ‘We are here for a reason, a particular path. You don’t need a curriculum to know that you’re part of the math.’ And then my mind went completely blank. I’m like, Oh no, this ain’t the time for writer’s block. So I start banging on the page. I was like, ‘God, I need a piece right now.’ I was like, ‘Please give me one right now.’ When I put my hand back to the page, my hand start moving, moving; writing and writing. I wrote a full page; I stopped. I read over it. I read it over like four or five times. I was like ‘Man this is kind of hot, you know?’ So I call Coodie back in 10 minutes, like, ‘Listen to this.’ 

J. Ivy [00:12:44] ‘I get up, I get down. We all here for a reason on a particular path. You don’t need a curriculum to know that you are part of the math. Cats think I’m delirious but I’m so damn serious. That’s why I expose my soul to the world, the globe. I’m trying to make it better people for these little boys and girls.’ 

J. Ivy [00:13:02] So I spit the poem for him from over to phone. He like, ‘Oh, man, oh man, that’s crazy, that’s crazy.’ So then he, he’s like, ‘Hold on J. So he goes in another room, music’s loud, people talking—so then, everything goes quiet. He’s like ‘J., I put you on speakerphone, spit the poem again.’ So I did it like I’ve done it a million times already. You know, ‘I’m on the highest cliff, on the highest riff. You slipped off the side and clinched on your life, in my grip. I will never, ever let you down.’ I’m going and going and going. When I finish, the room erupted; everybody like ‘Oh man, oh man.’ I’m in Brooklyn, broke by myself. Like what’s good, what’s happening? So then I hear Kanye. Kanye like man J spit it again. Did it again. Spit again. Did it again. Spit it again. I did the joint for like a half hour, the piece a minute long. And then Coodie finally got back on the phone is like J. I guess what? I’m like what? He’s like Kanye flying you out here tomorrow. I was like, I found my way, you know. So now here I am in this moment. And I go to L.A., call my momma like mom send me 100 bucks so I don’t go to L.A. broke, you know. 

J. Ivy [00:14:01] So I get out there and I’m here. And now I’m hearing the song. You know, when I finally get to the studio and I’m in the booth and I’m hearing a song, hearing Jay-Z. I’m like, this is Jay-Z. This is one of the greatest of all time. Oh, now I’m hearing the choir, the hook. Oh, no, now I’m hearing Kanye West. I’m like, this is incredible. And then there’s a space for me. There’s a space for poetry. And it was just the most surreal feeling ever. The whole the whole moment. It felt like I was in a movie. Like it literally felt like that to me. 

Maiysha Kai [00:14:40] That whole story just gave me goosebumps just sitting there. And I’ve seen Jeen-yuhs. And, you know, that was, I have to bring that up as well because you are you know, one of the writers on it, it is you and Coodie are the writers on Jeen-yuhs as far as I understand. And you know, that’s a like what a full-circle moment. Like how amazing to have been there at the beginning of that arc and then be there to tell the story. There is a line and Jeen-yuhs, Coodie says, ‘Home is where I learned the power of capturing timeless moments.’ 

J. Ivy [00:15:11] Mm-hmm. 

Maiysha Kai [00:15:12] And, you know, looking at Jeen-yuhs like that is such a love letter to Chicago as much as anything else, as much as a biography of kind to me. I was like, oh, this is about home; like this is, you know, this is why I came back. You know, having lived in New York, like, you know, like it felt like a very major, major love letter to this city that is steeped in so much history and music and poetry and Black art. And. And, you know, also, you know, it is very complicated as we know it can get complicated. How would you say that? Chicago has and continues to feed you creatively. 

J. Ivy [00:16:03] I mean, Chicago’s the root of it all. It’s my first love is Chicago. Chicago taught me how to, how to walk, how to talk, how to move through life. When it comes to my creativity, it always pushed me to be, to be great by—to be the best you possibly can. Because I always tell people, like Chicago is the hardest place to perform. You know, they don’t, you know, just give you a, they don’t just hand it to you. You got to earn it. You really, really have to earn it. So if you want to earn it, you got to dig deep. And then after you dig deep, you got to dig deeper and find ways to so to move the crowd. Because you know Chicago is a very blue-collar town,  it’s not an easy place. It’s a lot of love. But that love is often interrupted by, you know, just by the tragedies that exist there. So it just teaches you, it molds you want to strike a chord in someone’s life. You have an opportunity to speak in front of people. In front of people. You have an opportunity to capture someone’s attention and possibly shift perspective or inspire, motivate, or just put a smile on somebody’s face, let people know they’re not alone, like, Yo, I’m going through this, too. And here’s my poetic take on it. When you have that opportunity. It’s a responsibility that I take on, it’s a responsibility that I cherish, that I appreciate. And I will always champion those moments for Chicago, because of Chicago. It’s just every day. 

J. Ivy [00:17:57] My grandfather would always say, ‘If you can make it in Chicago, you can make it anywhere.’ And I’m a strong believer in that. I’ve seen so many people from Chicago go other places, and they shine. Like they go to New York, L.A., Atlanta, Miami, wherever. They go and they thrive and they shine because Chicago just, it just brings the best out of you, you know? And I got to shout out Coodie because that’s where we met, in Chicago. You know, he was doing comedy and I would go to the comedy clubs and do poetry. Not only did Coodie call me about “Never Let Me Down,” but 20 years later, I mean, of course, we still kick it and talk every day, but almost 20 years later, he called me and he was like, ‘Man, J,’ he’s like, ‘We finally about to do Jeen-yuhs.’ And he like, ‘I want you to be the lead writer.’ I was like, ‘Wow.’ I’m like, ‘Man, thank you. Let’s go. Thank you. Let’s go. ‘

Maiysha Kai [00:18:52] Well, I can’t wait to hear more. Stay tuned for more from the Writing Black podcast. 

Real Star Stories [00:19:00] The Real Star Stories with Touré coming soon on theGrio’s Black Podcast Network. 

Maiysha Kai [00:19:12] Welcome back to the Writing Black podcast. jeen-yuhs wasn’t your first documentary because you were also on Muhammad Ali: The People’s Champ, right? Another Chicago-based hero. You know, he was based here largely. But what was that like making that? Was that a transition for you? Was a challenge when you kind of started getting tapped to do stuff like that? 

J. Ivy [00:19:39] No, it wasn’t like I’ve always like I feel as creators, as writers, as poets. I feel like our superpower is the ability to listen. You know, so when I write, whether it’s poetry or a script or I’ve written for commercials, of course, I wrote the narration and perform the narration for Muhammad Ali: The Peoples Champ. We also did Martin: The Legacy of a King. I wrote and narrated a piece with ESPN. So whenever I’m tapped or tagged or asked to write something or my own things. I’m listening. I’m listening and I’m listening to my heart. I’m listening to the ancestors, my angels. I’m listening to what’s happening in the world. I’m listening to the thoughts and ideas that come to mind and my job is just [to] write it down, well to catch as much of it as possible. Now, stylistically, even with Jeen-yuhs, you know, I’m like, Yo, I want this poetic or no?  And like, nah, we need to be more straightforward, this need to be in Coodie’s voice. And that was one of my main things; like this needs to sound—one, it has to be a conversation. I was like Coodie, like we have to be authentic to your voice, you know. So if it’s some Chicago lingo in there. if it’s whatever, whatever it is that that will come across that it is you. Like you just sitting down telling somebody like you talking to one person and you just telling them this story. So we wanted to make sure that it was authentic to Coodie’s voice, authentic to Chicago, authentic to the history, and making sure that that truth was there, that love was there, that faith was there. 

J. Ivy [00:21:38] So when it, to your question, like it’s not hard. It’s not hard. For me, it’s just a matter of listening. And that comes with collaboration too. So like when you’re collaborating, okay, I’m listening. I’m listening to your ideas, your perspective. Coodie, like okay, well, this was, you know a lot of especially with Jeen-yuhs a lot of it was a lot of conversations. I mean, we talked a lot—and mind you, we were working on this for almost two years. So the editors, they started in March of 2020. Right when things shut down, that’s when editors start loading in, this 500 hours of footage that Coodie shot. So it was a year and a half that I was working on it. Over the course of that time, there were a lot of conversations; a lot of reminiscing. I did have the privilege of being there for this moment because, you know, in the nineties I always tell people like, you know, the late nineties there was a Chicago renaissance happening. All these artists that were like, you know, we were told go to school, get a good job, and all of us was like, Damn that I got to dream. 

Maiysha Kai [00:22:48] Like all, every single one of those was like “And?” 

J. Ivy [00:22:52] Yeah. 

Maiysha Kai [00:22:54] ‘I’ll get that good job later. But yeah, I’ve got to chase this thing right now while this moment is hot, so I can say that I did that, right?’

J. Ivy [00:23:01] Yeah. 

Maiysha Kai [00:23:02] I hear that. Yeah, I hear that. You know, it’s so funny because I think what people think about Chicago, they think about poetry, they automatically go to that era because of Love Jones, right? 

J. Ivy [00:23:10] Oh, Love Jones. Love Jones is a classic. 

Maiysha Kai [00:23:14] It opened it all up for us over here. 

J. Ivy [00:23:16] It really did. 

Maiysha Kai [00:23:18] What it means to be Black and sexy in Chicago, you know, and good with your words. 

J. Ivy [00:23:21] And really that that movie that movie was huge for the culture is huge for poetry. I always tell people why there may not have been a Def Poetry without Love Jones. Like, Love Jones really helped knock the door down. And between Love Jones and Slam, shout out to Saul Williams. It really like knocked the doors down to say, okay, there this is this movement happening with poetry. Let’s, let’s do this show. And we saw the success of that. But yeah, but with Jeen-yuhs, you know, I had the privilege of being around for that era of time. Then I had the privilege of being around for the making of The College Dropout. I’m in those sessions. I’m watching this, this moment being created right in front of me. I’m a part of it, you know, so. And then me and Coodie again, you know that’s my brother, Chike is my brother. We just had this, this energy. So again, it was a lot of conversations, reminiscing and figuring out, okay, where we going?

J. Ivy [00:24:16]And my, my whole thing is like when I write, I’m like, where are we going? Like, what’s the destination? I look at it like a road trip or not even a road trip. Just a trip like, okay, I’m going to miss Chicago, i’m going to Miami. So once I decide that I’m going to Miami, how am I getting there? When am I going? Who am I going with? What am I taking? You know, then you start coloring in, coloring in the, you know, the lines and start painting and saying, okay, I have my destination, now I can create or mold this journey of getting there. And then once I get there now. Now, what happens? Now that I’m in Miami what is the feeling? You know, the I can get in all, all of the detail of it all. But once I know where we going, then it’s easier to get there. So with Jeen-yuhs, it was like, okay, I was like is so important where we land, like, where, like we have to land this thing. This is a huge story. And like you said. 

Maiysha Kai [00:25:26] And It’s still going I mean, it’s an ongoing thing.

J. Ivy [00:25:28] It’s still going, It still going. It was changed while we were working on it. It was, we had like probably five different endings because it was always something new. Oh, now he running for president. Oh, my God. Like oh, we thought it was done. Here we go, Here we go. You know every time we thought it was over something else happened. And it was just it was like, okay, we got to just stop it now. Like, it got to the point, like, okay, we can’t add no more. This is, this is the end. But then like, what’s the messaging? And once we figure that out—and again, faith and the fact that that we all have a genius inside of us once we realized, okay, this is the point that we want to get across. It’s not, we’re not saying Kanye is a genius. Well, no, we are saying he’s a genius, but Coodie’s a genius. Chike is a genius. J. Ivy is a genius. All, you know, everybody is a genius. Maiysha is a genius. Like we all have that genius inside of us and it’s just a matter of what we decide to tap into it and go after it that we discover it. 

Maiysha Kai [00:26:34] You better give that masterclass. You better. Come on, J. Ivy. 

J. Ivy [00:26:37] Oh, c’mon now. 

Maiysha Kai [00:26:40] You know, it’s so wild. Like, one of my favorite anecdotes about you is that you were the person who gave John Stephens the name John Legend. And I’m like, you should have kept that for yourself. 

J. Ivy [00:26:48] Oh, man. 

Maiysha Kai [00:26:49] Because really, this is the this is that king of legend talk here, my friend, that we are here for. And, you know, you just said something about what Love Jones had done for poetry and the culture. And, you know, I cannot also you know, I definitely can’t in this conversation without talking about the fact that you have been driving, you’ve been continuing to drive that movement of making sure that poetry has a lane, spoken word has a lane. You know, the work that you’re doing with the Grammys. I may be wrong in this, but I heard that you were the person who made this first spoken word category happen. Am I wrong about this? 

J. Ivy [00:27:26] No, you’re not wrong about that. You’re quite right. 

Maiysha Kai [00:27:33] I did not think I was. 

J. Ivy [00:27:33] You’re quite right. I mean, I’m still blown away that it happened. Well, real quick, that that the John Legend story that happened the same night as Never Let Me Down. By the way, I just want to let you know, that was the same night. 

Maiysha Kai [00:27:52] I saw him in that footage and I did wonder that. 

J. Ivy [00:27:55] That was that night, that was the night. Same night I recorded is the night that gave John Stephens the name John Legend. 

Maiysha Kai [00:28:01] It was a legendary night. Yes. 

J. Ivy [00:28:02] Yeah. It was a legendary night. It was. It was. But with the category. So I’ve been working on this for the past six years. And this year I was nominated for a Grammy. 

Maiysha Kai [00:28:20] Congratulations, again. Yes. 

J. Ivy [00:28:22] Thank you so much. I was nominated in the Best Spoken Word category and the spoken word category includes poetry, audio, books and storytelling. So I was nominated alongside LeVar Burton, Don Cheadle, Dave Chappelle, Amir Sulaiman, Barack Obama and myself. And that was an amazing, amazing, amazing accomplishment. Something I still I’m still tripping at it that that happened. I still can’t believe it happened. But I can believe it. But it’s still like like, damn, you know, there’s still that. You still feel like ‘wow.’ 

Maiysha Kai [00:29:00] And I, you know, I’m here to tell you firsthand. You, we are forever. You are Grammy-nominated forever. Forever-ever. 

J. Ivy [00:29:05] Yeah. Yeah. Somebody said the other day, they were like, Grammy nominee. Like, ‘Oh, yeah, that did happen, huh?’ They were like ‘yeah that happened. You that forever. ‘Yeah. Like, yeah. So so I’m nominated in this category, but again, I had the only, like full poetry album, but I’m up against these books and Dave Chappelle’s him and Amir Sulaiman.  Amir is another incredible poet. Phenomenal poet. That’s my brother. So he was a part of Dave’s project. And but, but that was like a storytelling type of project with the poetry intertwined. So pretty much we in this category is like, you know, we comparing apples and oranges. So, like this year, Don Cheadle won last year, Rachel Maddow, one year before that, Michelle Obama’s book Becoming won. And that’s been the trend. Like, for the past couple of decades, audiobooks have been dominating the spoken word categories. I’ve been at the Grammys, at the Recording Academy, like, listen y’all, like it’s amazing y’all want to award these audiobooks. But that is not the art form of spoken word. We got to change this. You know, we got to get this right because the poets, we don’t have those big machines. We don’t have those big publishing companies and record labels behind us. We’re independent artists doing our thing. And but we keep getting swallowed up or overlooked because you have big names coming in, you know, like, so this year was the first year in the history of the Academy that you had two poets nominated at the same time. 

J. Ivy [00:30:42] So it’s very rare that a poet is nominated. And Maya Angelou—in the history, Maya Angelou is the only poet to ever win in that category. So I went to them, so for the past six years, I’ve been campaigning with not only with The Recording Academy, but also with the poetry community building relationships. Because now I am on the board, now I’m president. But then after becoming president, I became trustee. I’m no longer president. It was a two-year term. So now I’m a national trustee. So this is so now when I did become president, I was the first poet in the history of the Recording Academy to hold a president seat. There’s 12 chapters and I was the first to ever hold the president seat. And then when I became trustee, I was the first poet in the history of the academy to ever hold a trustee seat. So what that did was put a voice from our community in the room. So we in a room and we, you know, people come with different proposals and how we can better and change the music community. They work, we working on this and working on that, we working on this. I’m like, That’s great, Ok I’m with that. Yeah, but what about this spoken word category? You know, we need to get this right because these audiobooks, they, they dominated us. And then this year I wrote a proposal, wrote the definition for the category, submitted it, and we voted on it and it actually passed. So now, for the first time in the history of the Recording Academy poets, we have our own category. It’s called The Best Spoken Word Poetry Album category. 

Maiysha Kai [00:32:22] It’s so dope. 

J. Ivy [00:32:22] I, it’s incredible. I, I’m still, I, I, I, it’s a, it’s such a game changer and it’s like it really it pushes culture forward because, you know, I tell people all the time, it’s not about validation, but what it does is, is, you know, because poets, the work that we do, we’re going to do regardless. We’re going to write, we’re going to perform, we’re going to heal, we’re going to add perspective, we’re going to change lives, save lives. We’re going to do the work regardless. But then you have this incredible platform that will put more eyes and ears on the work that we do. So more healing, more healing will be made, more love will be spread, I feel, because of that. So I’m excited. So this year, yeah, five poets will be nominated. A poet will be bringing home a Grammy and from here going forward. So I really proud of that one. 

Maiysha Kai [00:33:16] I love that legacy that you’re building there and I got to ask you, you know, obviously, you’re prolific. You are constantly, you know, writing and creating and advocating. Who do you listen to? Who do you read? Who do you who would know, what’s your recommended reading list? 

J. Ivy [00:33:37] My recommended reading list, I kind of. 

Maiysha Kai [00:33:39] Like if you had to give me like 3 to 5 folks that you just love. 

J. Ivy [00:33:44] Oh. Man. Oh, that’s tough stuff. I just really like a bunch of whatever. Like, somebody may suggest something like, you know, Ta-Nehisi Coates. You know, I absolutely was just enthralled by the way he writes. You know, it’s just incredible. But then there’s books like like The Celestine Prophecy that I absolutely love and that by James Redfield and that book, it just really just changed my… 

Maiysha Kai [00:34:12] I mean, it could be people you listen to, too, you know, this could be this could, it could be hip-hop. 

J. Ivy [00:34:17] I mean I love, I’m a, you know, Common is my all-time favorite emcee. Him and Slick Rick. 

Maiysha Kai [00:34:22] Our hometown. 

J. Ivy [00:34:26] Yeah. Yeah. You know, I may be a little biased. I don’t know. 

Maiysha Kai [00:34:30] I think you’re a little biased. 

J. Ivy [00:34:34] A little biased. Oh. I love Kendrick Lamar. 

Maiysha Kai [00:34:38] Yeah. 

J. Ivy [00:34:40] You know, the poets like Sonny Patterson and Jessica Caremore, Amir Sulaiman, Black Ice. Like I’m a big fan of my, you know, my fellow poets. There’s a lot of folks that are doing amazing, amazing work. That was Ursula Rucker. Just, you know, I just sit back and I listen. I’m like, man, how did you write that? You know, I’m always amazed. Like, how did your mind even go there and put that puzzle together, like it was just incredible. So so, yeah, I’m a fan of, of those who inspire a big fan of those who shift and push the culture forward. 

Maiysha Kai [00:35:20] Well, thank you for pushing culture forward, and thank you for this conversation because I mean, A. I could talk to you all day, B. You know, it just like warmed my heart, the whole thing—like, you know, you took me from goosebumps to just warm like so. Thank you, so much. J. Ivy. This is what we’re here for. This is what it’s supposed to do. We appreciate you so much. And hopefully, this won’t be the last time we talk to you. 

J. Ivy [00:35:48] Oh, yeah, we got to build, because you know I got. We have to, I got a new album that I would love to speak with you about. So so my current album, the one is nominated, it’s called Catching Dreams, so I’m working on the follow-up and I can’t wait for you to hear it and talk about that. Right. 

Maiysha Kai [00:36:08] Well, again, Jay, I cannot thank you enough for coming in. First of all, this is just so much wisdom that you just dropped on us, like craft and storytelling and this legend, it’s like I mean, the story behind the story is I feel like I just taped a whole, like, behind the music episode. Thank you so much. I cannot think of a better way to kick off this podcast, and I’m so excited to see what you do next. You know, your album coming up and all the good things you’re doing with the Recording Academy. So we hope to be hearing more from you. And thank you again for being our very first guest on Writing Black

J. Ivy [00:36:43] Thank you so much as an honor to be here. Thank you for doing the work that you do and keep shining bright. And like you said, we all keep writing Black. We’ll keep Writing Black. Yeah. 

Maiysha Kai [00:36:54] That’s right. 

J. Ivy [00:36:54] Chi-Town 

Maiysha Kai [00:36:57] Now, as much as I love interviewing folks, this is kind of my favorite part of the show because I get to share with you some of Mai Favorite Things. Listen, when it comes to poetry, I’m a big fan of a lot of people, you know, Claudia Rankine, Alice Walker, any number of folks. Maya Angelou, like all the classics. Nikki Giovanni. But I have a special place in my heart for Hanif Abdurraqib, who I think is doing some of the most exciting, sensitive, intuitive work out there right now. And while he’s published several books of poetry that I highly recommend, I actually fell in love with this book, which is kind of a cross between essay, poetry, etc. This is A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance. As a Black performer myself, guess this is a sweet spot with me, but I highly recommend for a dose of history and just sheer brilliance. So get this, it’s my favorite. Thank you so much for joining us for another episode of Writing Black. As always, you can find us on theGrio app or wherever you find your podcast. 

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