Chicago’s own spoken word legend James Ivy Richardson Jr., better known as J.Ivy, initially caught wide-reaching attention as a standout fixture on Kanye West and Jay-Z’s iconic collab “Never Let Me Down,” from 2003’s The College Dropout.

Since then, he’s quietly become one of the most important spoken word champions in the music industry. He’s spent the past six years pushing the Recording Academy to create a new category strictly for poets.

“My goal was meant to help shift the perspective of how people look at poetry because it’s a huge art form, it’s a part of everything, but it tends to get overlooked and it’s not looked at as you’d have a real career doing it. What I wanted was to create a blueprint of possibilities. We all have our own styles and perspective,” J.Ivy told The TRiiBE.

The previous Best Spoken Word Album category lumped poetry, audiobooks, storytelling and narrations into one. In 2022, J.Ivy’s Catching Dreams: Live At Fort Knox Chicago was forced to compete with works by Dave Chapelle, Barack Obama, LeVar Burton and Don Cheadle; the latter winning for his narration on the audiobook for Carry On: Reflections For A New Generation From John Lewis

For 2023, the Best Spoken Word Poetry Album category was finally created after J.Ivy launched a petition that garnered more than 100 signatures from a litany of his peers and will be the first of its kind to exclusively nominate poets. On Feb. 5, J.Ivy will make his return to the Grammy stage as a nominee in the category for his latest and highly compelling studio album, The Poet Who Sat By The Door. 

He also earned a nod in the Best Roots Gospel Album category for his contribution to Tennessee State University (TSU) marching band’s debut album, The Urban Hymnal, collaborating with Sir the Baptist and Professor Larry Jenkins. But what made him the happiest is seeing TSU students earn such a rare and hard-earned accomplishment at a young age.

“With Sir the Baptist and Professor Larry Jenkins’ leadership and production, those young men and women worked extremely hard and, as a result, they created a masterpiece. The joy these college students feel is immense, but to see them not only complete a beautiful work of art but to be nominated is incredible,” he said.

Prior to performing in Ghana for Chance The Rapper’s inaugural Black Star Festival in January, The TRiiBE caught up with J.Ivy to talk about The Poet Who Sat By The Door, the impact of his Grammy nominations, the legacy of Chicago drill and his take on Kanye West calling out corporations for heavily promoting violent rap music.

This interview is edited for length and clarity.

The TRiiBE: How did you develop the powerful delivery that you’re known for?

J. Ivy: I think the delivery just came naturally. My pops, he used to be a DJ. So, I used to listen to him on [WVON-AM] before I walked to school in the morning. It was always in the blood, I guess. And then I always loved Martin Luther King [Jr’s], delivery because that's how I wanted to reach the crowd, reach the people. The way he projected his voice, using those inflections with his voice, it always sparks something in you. And then hip-hop, because I’m a hip-hop baby.

How do you feel about the impact that your voice makes on people?

For me, the music was so important, as important as the words. So really, most times I was following the lead of the music. It's a groove and it's smooth. So let me dance with that. It pulls something out of me and makes me want to find that electricity. It was fun figuring it out because when we first started it was like, I got a million-piece puzzle set, [so] let me figure out how to put this together and structure this in a way that'd be dope, that'd be fly, memorable, impact people, lift people up, but at the same time, you can ride down Lake Shore Drive and just cruise.

Could you elaborate on the message you were trying to convey on “Not Of This World?”

It's like we've been through so much, man. We've been through so much in this country. And when I say we, I mean folks of African descent. We've been through a lot and it's exhausting. And it also just don't make sense how people can't see – in my mind, [that] we’re all connected. And then we put these divisions up based on race or identity or whatever. And it's like, after going through so much, after our ancestors going through so much for so long like, we can't be from here. We must be from somewhere else, you know, because this world is so consumed with hate, violence, tearing each other down, greed, and all these things, it's like, this ain’t what life is supposed to be about. 

When it comes to oppression, racism, and all these different things that people choose to do to keep people down, you tried to keep us down and you can’t. But it is still interesting that you will continue to try after all these years. So “Not of This World” became an affirmation. We’re just going to keep fighting to make sure that we have the qualities that are needed for our people to rise and grow.

What you were alluding to reminds me of what’s been happening in drill music. What’s your take on the growth and evolution of the sub-genre across the country and how it has impacted hip-hop over the past 12 years?

I think a big part of the rise is tribal if you really break it down and look at the music. It really has that African rhythm embedded in it. And I think we all resonate with that. We all can't help but feel that heartbeat. I love seeing the art form expand and be expressed in different ways. At the same time, we're not a monolith when it comes to people who know creativity. Drill music is a dope style. I know people are reflecting, as far as storytelling, on what they're going through. 

What I would like to encourage, especially to young people: maybe not to project so much negativity. Street music ain’t always got to be based on death and negativity and violence. I'm tired of seeing people dying in the streets, lives lost for no reason. That don't make sense to me. 

I know that street life is real, there's no denying it and I know people are telling their stories. But I also feel like we can shift the narrative too, and we can make our environment safer for everybody and a more loving place.


What about how it’s thriving amid this wave of gun violence that has taken away so many rappers?

It's almost like it's a commercial for it. I know a lot of that music is pushed in that direction. To almost advertise this kind of behavior. [Are] you gon’ keep playing this music because you want us to be inspired to shoot and kill people? It's a wicked game and my wish is that people would wake up to it and just choose differently. You don't want to be in front or behind that trigger. This is just a very sick cycle that we’ve [been] caught up in long enough and I just want to keep promoting peace and love. I know that sounds cliche. We need that cliche. Some may say [that] sounds lame, but we need it. I want to see my people grow old.

Among the many things that Kanye West has said recently, he spoke on how the highest charting music on Apple Music is “promoting Black serial killing.” What are your thoughts on that?

Just being here for a while now, I've seen the music that's promoted. We've seen it change over the years. Back in the day, it was all about R&B and love music. And then we did get into hip-hop. It was always about telling our stories, which have many perspectives. And as time went on, you didn't hear the balance. 

Early on you had NWA, but you had Public Enemy. There was a balance to the music. Nowadays, you turn on the radio and that ain't the case. I don't know if it's an agenda. I don't know if it's a strategy. Some people say that it is. But you can't help but just observe and be like, man, where’s the positive music at? I know it’s out there. There are a lot of incredible artists out here making beautiful music that's uplifting, even in Chicago. You just can’t help but wonder why it is this way. What can we do to change it?

What do you think about Tennessee State University’s marching band being known as the first HBCU to be nominated for a Grammy with their debut album, The Urban Hymnal?

It's beyond exciting to see the Tennessee State Marching Band's album, The Urban Hymnal, be nominated for a Grammy. It's historic! Literally, this is the first time in the history of the Grammys for an HBCU band to be nominated. And I have the honor of being a part of it as a featured artist and executive producer. I can only imagine being 18, 19, 20 years old with a Grammy nomination! A historic one at that. It's simply amazing and it serves as a blueprint of possibilities for everyone else that follows.

How do you plan on celebrating when you win?

(Laughs). In my dream, we’ll party like some rock stars. We'll pop some bottles. I gotta call my English teacher who made me perform for the first time. I got to give a lot of love to God, and my ancestors. We all celebrate because this is huge for poetry, culture, and huge for music. Poets, we all have our own styles and perspectives and gifts and skill sets, but I wanted the album to show what we can do with this art form. I would love to walk on that stage and represent for the poets and all those people who supported over the years and showed love and encouraged me to keep going.

is a freelance writer for The TRiiBE.