Poetry finally has its own Grammy category – mostly thanks to J. Ivy, nomineeNPR
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For decades, the Grammys’ spoken-word awards have gone to audio books, narrated by people like Barack and Michelle Obama, Carrie Fisher, Stephen Colbert and others – “Best Audio Book, Narration & Storytelling Recording” is the official title for the statue. But this year, poets will have their own: Best Spoken Word Poetry Album.
The Chicago-born poet J. Ivy helped create the new category and is one of five contenders for the award, though he didn’t nominate himself. As a national trustee for the Recording Academy, Ivy says he pushed for the Grammys to honor the form.
“A poet will be bringing home a Grammy,” he tells NPR, “and it’ll be the first poet since Maya Angelou.”
Ivy’s album is a collection of his poems, which he performs over beats and interpolates with singing by Sir The Baptist, Slick Rick, PJ Morton and Tarrey Torae (Ivy’s wife), among others.
“I’ve seen the superpower that is poetry. I’ve seen it shift people’s lives, I’ve seen it save lives,” says Ivy. “I have a quote that says, ‘Poetry is the seed of every song ever written.’ Whether it’s somebody rapping or singing or it being spoken, it’s a poem there.”
Ivy says his poems are often about his life as a Black man in America: “My job or responsibility as a poet is to capture that as quickly as possible, as the ancestors are speaking to me, as God is talking to me, I’m working as the angels are talking to me.” He says that work begins by listening, to his heart and his community – “Listen” is the title of one piece from the album.
Another features Abiodun Oyewole, a co-founder of 1960s poetry collective The Last Poets, which had a significant influence on the development of rap. “J.Ivy’s work is to be heard. It’s not to be whispered. It’s to be said loud in your face,” Oyewole tells NPR.
He was born James Ivy Richardson II on Chicago’s South Side in 1976, growing up to spit rhymes as a teen and, in college, confront his own history through writing. He says his dad’s drug and alcohol abuse meant they didn’t see each other for a decade. Not long after they reconnected, his father died. He put that pain into a poem. It begins:
These words are being spoken and written because my heart and soul feel broken. I laugh to keep from crying but I still haven’t healed after all of my years of my goofiness and joking. You got me open and hoping this ill feeling will pass, won’t last. I wear a mask so my piece won’t ask for the truth, truthfully speaking the truth hurts but I’m beyond hurting, I’m in pain, and when I was a shorty I thought you left because I wouldn’t behave. Later on in life I found out that it was the pain as well as other things and with all the scars it was hard but I learned to forgive and forgave…
Ivy performed “Dear Father” onstage for HBO Def Poetryin 2005. By then, he’d already worked his way around open mics, eventally hosting the hottest poetry nights in Chicago. When he performed at the Apollo Theater for Russell Simmon’s Def Poetry jam, he got a standing ovation.
“That was my first big break,” Ivy says. “I always describe it as like a sprinter making it to the Olympics.”
On Def Poetry he also performed another poem, “Never Let Me Down.” Kanye West and Jay-Z were so impressed by the performance they flew Ivy to LA shortly after, to record the poem for an album they were putting together called The College Dropout.
“Kanye was like, ‘Man, that was that was great,’ ” Ivy recalls. “People [were] coming into the studio getting chills, tears in they eyes. I’m like, ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe this moment’s actually happening.’ ” (West would also later feature Ivy playing the part of Jesus in a music video for a 2019 album, Jesus is King.)
It was at The College Dropout recording sessions that Ivy met singer John Stephens, whose music he admired.
“I was like ‘What’s up, man? Your music is amazing. It sounds like that music my folks used to listen to back in the day,’ ” Ivy recalls. “”Man, you sound like one of the legends. Matter of fact, that’s what I’m call you from now: a legend. John the legend. John Legend.’ “
John Legend, as he’s been known ever since, would go on to sing for one of the tracks from Ivy’s now-Grammy-nominated album.
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
The Grammys have a new category this year – best spoken word poetry album. Poet J. Ivy helped create the category and is in the running, though he didn’t nominate himself. NPR’s Mandalit del Barco reports.
MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: As a national trustee for the Recording Academy, J. Ivy wanted to honor his literary genre.
J IVY: A poet will be bringing home a Grammy. And it’ll be the first poet since Maya Angelou.
DEL BARCO: Ivy was nominated for his sixth album, “The Poet Who Sat By The Door.”
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “LISTEN”)
IVY: Back in high school, I had a teacher named Mizargie (ph). What I learned is, you’re not going to argue with somebody named Mizargie. Daily, she wanted to challenge our young minds, so she searched for ways to make us look in the mirror and ask, who are you? One day she gave the class some homework, and that was to write a poem when we got home. Reluctant to expose my soul, I had no idea that writing poetry could have my mind so far gone.
DEL BARCO: Writing and performing poetry, often with music, is J. Ivy’s passion.
IVY: I’ve seen the superpower that is poetry. I’ve seen it shift people’s lives. I’ve seen it save lives. We have a quote that says, poetry is the seed of every song ever written, whether it’s somebody rapping or somebody singing or it being spoken. It’s a poem there.
DEL BARCO: He says his poems are often about his life as a Black man in America, and they begin by listening to his heart and his community. In fact, “Listen” is the title of one track on his album, which includes singers like Sir the Baptist.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “LISTEN”)
IVY: (Singing) Are you listening to the world you see?
DEL BARCO: Ivy was born James Ivy Richardson II on the South Side of Chicago in 1976. J. Ivy spat rhymes as a teen, and in college, he wrote about his family. Ivy says his dad’s drug and alcohol abuse meant they didn’t see each other for a decade. Not long after they reconnected, his father died. Ivy put that pain into a poem.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, “DEF POETRY JAM”)
IVY: Dear Dad, these words are being written and spoken because my heart and soul feel broken. I laugh to keep from crying, but I still haven’t healed after all of my years of my goofiness and joking. You got me open and hoping this ill feeling will pass, won’t last. I wear a mask so my piece won’t ask for the truth, truthfully speaking, the truth hurts, but I’m beyond hurting…
DEL BARCO: That’s Ivy performing for HBO “Def Poetry Jam” in 2005. By then, he’d worked his way around open mics and hosted the hottest poetry nights in Chicago. When he performed at the Apollo Theater for Russell Simmons’ “Def Poetry,” he got a standing ovation.
IVY: That was, like, my first big break. I always describe it as, like, a sprinter making it to the Olympics.
DEL BARCO: On “Def Poetry,” he also performed another of his poems, “Never Let Me Down.”
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, “DEF POETRY JAM”)
IVY: Vibrations is what I’m into. Yeah, I need my loot by rent day. But that ain’t what gives me the heart of Kunta Kinte.
DEL BARCO: Hip-hop artists Kanye West and Jay-Z were so impressed by that performance, they flew Ivy to LA to record his poem on a track for the album they were putting together, “The College Dropout.”
(SOUNDBITE OF POEM, “NEVER LET ME DOWN”)
IVY: I, too, dream in color, and in rhyme. So I guess I’m one of a kind in a full house ’cause whenever I open my heart, my soul, or my mouth, a touch of God rains out.
Kanye was, like, man, that was great. People coming in the studio getting chills, tears in they eyes – I’m like, oh, my God, I can’t believe this moment is actually happening.
DEL BARCO: It was at that recording session that Ivy met singer John Stephens, whose music he admired.
IVY: So I’m, like, oh, man. What’s up, man? That sound like that music my folks just listened to back in the day. I was, like, man, you sound like one of the legends. I was, like, you a legend. You a legend. Matter of fact, that’s what I’m going to call you from now. I’m going to call you the legend.
DEL BARCO: John Legend, as he’s been known ever since, is on Ivy’s Grammy-nominated album.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “RUNNING”)
JOHN LEGEND: (Singing) I keep on running, but my feet don’t get tired.
DEL BARCO: The album also features collaborations with musician Slick Rick, PJ Morton, his wife, singer Tarrey Torae, and Abiodun Oyewole, a member of The Last Poets.
ABIODUN OYEWOLE: J. Ivy is probably one of the most honest people I know. His work is very genuine.
DEL BARCO: Oyewole says Ivy is continuing the mission of his 1960s Black nationalist poetry collective.
OYEWOLE: J. Ivy’s work is to be heard. It’s not to be whispered. It’s to be said loud in your face. And he has a certain kind of finesse.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
IVY: Do your actions mirror the things that your spirit already knows?
DEL BARCO: That’s poet J. Ivy. And I’m Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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