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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 is nominated for his sixth album, The Poet Who Sat by the Door, a nod to Sam Greenlee’s 1969 novel The Spook Who Sat by the Door, a classic in the Black Power movement that was also made into a film in 1973.
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.”
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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 Poetry in 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.