Chicago spoken-word artist J. Ivy translates his message of healing and inspiration to the printed page with his new book, Dear Father.
South Side native J. Ivy loves the city and its people: “I feel like Chicagoans can go anywhere in the world and shine,” he says.
South Side native J. Ivy got an early taste of fame—and snagged his first Grammy—10 years ago with his contribution to Kanye West’s debut album, The College Dropout. Since then, the poet has toured or performed with everyone from Stevie Wonder to Bob Dylan and The Roots, and done voice-over work for Nissan, Verizon, and Monday Night Football. Preparing for the January 27 release of his second book, Dear Father: Breaking the Cycle of Pain, and the accompanying Dear Father Letter Writing Campaign, the 38-year-old recently chatted with Michigan Avenue about the healing power of words and how Chicago has inspired him from day one.
Your message is one of positivity. What drives that?
I’ve always wanted to inspire people and lift people up because people did that for me, whether it was with music or conversation or a movie—you see or hear something and it lifts your spirit. My father was a radio DJ back in the day, and my mother is a retired nurse—so I always felt like it was on me to use my voice to heal people.
What inspired the book?
It sprouted from a poem I wrote when I was in a lot of pain. My father was there when I was younger, but then drugs and alcohol became a factor. My folks divorced, and I didn’t hear from him for 10 years. We reconnected, but a year and a half later he passed away. I was 23, 24 at the time, and I was hurt. One day I got fed up with feeling that way and I decided to write this poem, a letter to my dad. I found a lot of healing from it, and as I started to perform it, I noticed that other people were finding healing in it as well. So we decided to dive deeper and tell the story of what led to me writing this poem.
How has Chicago inspired you?
Man, it’s been everything—from the dialect to the style of clothes, how we walk, the jokes we crack, the values you get from your folks. It’s shaped me in every way. I feel like Chicagoans can go anywhere in the world and shine.
Where in Chicago do you go to be inspired?
Promontory Point on the lake is actually my favorite spot in the city to just chill and relax and let the tension go.
What other performers have given you inspiration?
Common is my all-time favorite MC. The way he writes, the way he structures his stories, his wordplay—I’ve always just connected with it. And then Gil Scott-Heron was a huge influence when I started writing poetry. He just dove so deep; he allowed me to free my mind.
What advice would you give to young poets coming up?
Write. Practice. Be fearless—fear kills creativity. You can’t have boundaries when you’re creating. I would tell people to never stop; get out to as many people as you can, as many cities as you can. Don’t get stuck on your block. Go out and seek out those other experiences because that will expand your story.