Hip-hop poet and Chicago Grammy chapter president J. Ivy talks new album Chasing Dreams, what music is moving him right now and why he preaches the message of positivity.
If J. Ivy’s voice sounds familiar, it should be no surprise—the award-winning Chicago poet, writer and voiceover artist’s expressive vocals and impactful lyrics have appeared on everything from Russell Simmons Presents HBO Def Poetry to Kanye West and Jay-Z’s “Never Let Me Down” to openings for Sunday Night Football, the US Open and a slew of other corporate gigs. Equally impressive? The South Side native is the first poet in the history of the Recording Academy to hold the role of chapter president. As Ivy looks ahead to the Grammy Awards Jan. 31, we talk new album Catching Dreams, where he’s finding inspiration and the power of positivity.
How is Catching Dreams different from your previous work? Creativity is infectious, and I have a profound appreciation for all of my past work—but creating Catching Dreams was a beautiful experience of being more mature in my craft and very intentional with showing the marriage of poetry, spoken word, music and the deep appreciation for the experiences I've had over the years. It was also the first project I didn't overthink. I didn't drag myself through the mud. I was completely free and open to the music and thoughts that I was drawn to. I wanted to make something that would make the poets proud—something that would serve as a great example of the power of poetry and music. Those traits are found in all my work, but showing the journey from Chicago to Brooklyn to Kigali, Rwanda, and all points in between, was really important to me during this process. I wanted to show the world how far the power of words can take you. I wanted to show people the power that can be obtained when you push past your fears. I wanted to show young folks and young writers that your dreams can take you as far as you let them. When I write, my biggest gift is the ability to listen and capture what I hear. I want to capture what the ancestors, the angels, what my spirit and the times are saying. I feel that I was able to catch those dreams with this album. And everyone involved with creating it provided the perfect vibe for folks to digest it, ride to it and breathe.
Your work acknowledges injustice but stays positive. How are you able to maintain that note of positivity? I get it from my mama. She has always encouraged me to look at the glass as half-full and to always encourage people to stand on the right side of history. I'm highly influenced by that positive energy. I'm highly influenced by the greats, like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who fought for equality. Because of the groundwork done by so many, I find it is a must to inspire others to strive for a better future. Even in the most dire times, in the most heartbreaking times, I have this deep hope that life will be better for all. I know equality is in our future. It has to be. So many people have fought, suffered and sacrificed their livelihood, as well as their lives so it can be. I can't give up on that fight. I can't give into believing that love won't prevail. After years of seeing injustices in our communities, after years of seeing my people struggle from the block to the boardroom, I know racism and other inequalities will eventually give into the good that most of us wish for. No storm lasts forever, and pain is a temporary inconvenience. This pain that we have been inflicted by, this pain that all of us have witnessed over and over again will end. And my desire for this peaceful reality is reflected in every poem and in every song I write. Negativity, hate, envy and anger eat away at our souls, and my job is to promote love, honesty, integrity and purpose, so we can truly make the world better—so we can grow and elevate as a people.
How has Chicago continued to influence your work? Chicago is my everything. It's my foundation and my heart. It's my anchor and my measuring stick. Chicago has shown me how to walk, talk and write. It's shown me how to tell a story, how to capture someone's attention, how to dig deep when you feel like you have nothing left and how to move in the world. It's taught me about integrity and work ethic. It's added perspective, given me confidence, a sense of humor, charisma and swag. All of those elements and all of the love Chicago has given me influences my work. It moves my soul. My grandfather would always say, 'If you can make it in Chicago, you can make it anywhere.' Chicago gives you all the tools you need to build something special. In my song 'Off in Chicago,' the second verse starts by saying, 'Man Joe, this Chicago. They try and call it the Second City, but it's my first love.' Chicago truly is my first love, and I take that love with me everywhere I go and infuse it in everything I do, both consciously and unconsciously. I find myself saying certain things in a poem and I can't help but laugh because it's 'so Chicago.' We're special because the energy here is special, and universally, I want the world to feel our uniqueness and our love in every poem written and every word uttered.
What does it mean to be the first poet in the history of the Recording Academy to hold a chapter president seat? It is truly an honor to hold that title. When I became the president of the Chicago Chapter—which covers the entire Midwest region with the exception of St. Louis—I was in complete shock to find out that in the history of the Recording Academy, I was the first poet, the first spoken-word artist to hold a president seat of any of the Recording Academy's 12 chapters. I believe that everything happens for a reason, and my hope is that I can inspire other poets and spoken-word artists to continue to knock down those doors. I have a quote that says, 'You can get in where you fit in, or you can make room.' My wish is that I can serve as a conduit to raise awareness so the poetry community knows that their work, their albums, their music can be a part of the Grammy process. And at the same time, I want to continue to bridge our brilliance in the music community. So many great artists come out of the Midwest, but most times we don't know the people in our neighborhood. This is a unique and precious opportunity to use the platform to bring us closer together. The more of the community we know, the more we can do together and the more opportunities we can generate. Again, it means a lot to me. I don't take it lightly or for granted, and I thank everyone at the Academy for believing in me and putting me in this position.
What do you enjoy most about your work? I enjoy the freedom. When I'm creating, I truly feel free. With ease, it allows me to breathe deep. It shows me time and time again that I'm living in my purpose. I remember those times of battling low self-esteem and lacking confidence. I remember feeling that I didn't have a voice. When I found the stage, when I found the pen and the pad, I found myself. I would have never imagined feeling at home on a stage, standing in front of a room full of strangers. It feels like magic to see those same strangers turn into friends. Being able to connect with others is a tremendous feeling. Seeing those connections develop into friendships and beautiful interactions makes me feel that producing my art is a big part of why I was put here on this earth. I was put here to connect, to communicate the stories in my heart, to reflect the times and help to remind myself and others of the greatness we all possess. Through my work I feel unconditional, nonjudgmental love, and having the opportunity to participate in that exchange of that energy is the best feeling in the world. It's in this space in time when I feel that I am vibrating on the highest levels of self. I thank God for my gifts. Because of them, I've been blessed with tools that allow me to see the world through some beautiful lenses.
What are you listening to these days? Catching Dreams, of course. [Laughs.] I'm just serious! But I've also been deeply involved with co-writing and co-creating singer-songwriter Tarrey Torae's new album, Catching Feelings. Yes, she's my wife, but I promise you I'm not being biased when I say her music is absolutely beautiful and healing and so soulful. It feels like the deep breath we all need, and it's been a real honor working with her on this project. I can’t wait for you to hear this magic! Besides being in the studio with Tarrey, I've been back on my hip-hop, bumping Nas, Big Sean and Tobe Nwigwe's new albums. I've been digging in the crates listening to Slick Rick the Ruler and Rakim. I'm always vibing with Thundercat and Flying Lotus, Anderson .Paak, and Maurice Brown when I need some dope music to write to. I've been listening to amazing music from my friends around the Recording Academy, like Ben Williams' I Am A Man, Falu's album Someday, Jennifer Hanson's Here's to Hoping and Kokayi's Hubri$. I've been catching gems on Instagram Live when D-Nice and Deon Cole spin their sets, and there's always some amazing music on Soulection Radio. For me it's all about the vibe.
Where else are you finding inspiration? I have the honor of serving as the poet laureate for the Ernie Barnes Foundation. Ernie Barnes was one of the most influential visual artists of the 20th century, and before his passing in 2009, he became a friend and mentor. One of the things that he told me was that these times are the best times to be an artist because there is so much inspiration to pull from. I couldn't agree more. From our own lives to all that's happening in the world, for me, there's so much to write about, there's so much perspective to explore, which in turn lends itself to new ways to create. It may be a conversation with family or friends, it may be the latest headline on the news, it may come from a bike ride, or the pure curiosity of wanting to see what I can create next, but inspiration is all around us. It's abundant and never-ending. When I was first coming up in my art, I had this naive thought that one day the words would run out, but now I feel it's impossible. There's always something new to write about. Whether it's a book I've read, a great film that pulls on the heartstrings or through collaboration with other phenomenal artists and musicians, I'm constantly searching for, discovering or being hit upside the head with new inspiration. I was talking with a group of students at an After School Matters program and while I was talking to them, I told them not to beat themselves up when they make mistakes. I followed that up by instinctively saying, 'If you fall, don't trip.' Everyone laughed, clapped, complimented the sentiment, and I instantly said, 'That's a song.' And it did turn into a song called, 'Fall, Don't Trip.' It's actually a lot of people's favorite on Catching Dreams. Because I was open in that moment, I caught a dream and later bottled it up and shipped it out to an ocean of listeners. It's moments like these that fill me up and remind me of how big a blessing and honor it is to be able to translate some of the feelings that our spirits move us toward. None of us are here forever, and while I'm here, I want to use the inspiration I find to inspire our humanity, with the hope that the art will gravitate us to the good that leads us all to a beautiful change and a truly loving existence.
Photography by: From top: Salim Green; A'Jay Guidry