Interview with Chi-Town Poet J. Ivy: Hip-Hop’s Rare Gem


As an introduction to some but an exciting re-encounter for others, Urban Cusp is proud to close out our self-themed “Artivist August” by featuring the one-and-only Grammy Award-winning Hip-Hop Poet J. Ivy through this special interview. Known to some as “Hip-Hop’s Favorite Poet,” J. Ivy was the first African-American poet to represent Chicago on HBO’s Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry, as well as the artist along side of Kanye West and Jay-Z in the hit song “Never Let Me Down.”

His latest album “Here I Am” is a positive, uplifting LP of poetry and music with collaborations with The Last Poets, among others. His forthcoming book “Here I Am: Then & Now” is set to release on October 15, 2011, and his upcoming album “Life After Life” will drop March 2012. Be sure to check out J. Ivy on the launch of his new intro for Sunday Night Football with Faith Hill on September 11, 2011.

At a time in Hip-Hop history in which there is a heavy emphasis on individualism and materialism, J. Ivy remains committed to truth-telling and elevating the consciousness of the masses. He’s not afraid to talk openly about how his faith grounds his work nor does he seek to conform to societal misconceptions about what “urban artists” should be. J. Ivy is a trailblazer who lives day-to-day life on the cusp of greatness. Be inspired. Be informed.

Urban Cusp: It takes a certain degree of courage and tremendous inspiration to be the type of artist that you are. What grounds your courage and what inspires you?

J. Ivy: What inspires me is the fact that God blessed me with amazing gifts. I was chosen. I love what I do. I’m able to make a living by using what comes natural to me. It’s a blessing. Back in the 90s, when I first started, some said it was crazy for me to travel state to state, for no money, just to recite a few poems.
Myself, I looked at it as confidence. Because of the amazing support I had, I was confident that my gifts were real. I was confident that people would love what I had to say.

I was confident that God would provide me with a great path of opportunity. I knew it would happen. I feel fortunate to know that it’s still happening. There’s so much to look forward to. One of my favorite recent quotes is by the now Hall of Famer Deion Sanders, who said, “If your dreams aren’t bigger than you, than there is something wrong with your dream.” I’m inspired by my people!

UC: What or who are your historical influences? What traditions have shaped your artistry?

JI: Historically, my main influences included Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the King of Pop Michael Jackson, The Last Poets, Gil Scott-Heron, James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, Prince, Stevie Wonder, Roy Ayers, Hip-Hop as a whole, Gangstarr, Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth, A Tribe Called West, Public Enemy, N.W.A, Slick Rick, Nas, Biggie, Tupac, Ice-T, Big Daddy Kane, Common (Sense), The Roots, Black Sheep, De La Soul, and on, and on, and on….

My traditions were similar to a lot of Black American families. Thanksgiving dinners, celebrating Christmas, making summer trips to Great America, Michigan, and Disney World. Getting beat up by my big brother, beating up my little brother. If my mother didn’t take us to church on Sunday, my grandmother would. I went to Foster Park, a Chicago public school and Emmanuel Christian School, a private School. In high school, I played football, ran track and performed at school shows. It’s these experiences that help shape me.

I grew up on the South Side of a very segregated Chicago before moving to the south suburbs of the city. In the city, Black people were all that I knew. Later, I found out in the burbs that there was a different world out there. But back home before my folks split up, my father was a DJ, who I would listen to on the radio in the mornings (WVON). He was a Mississippi man, who had the basement filled with records and a few Gold records on the wall with his name inscribed on them… Jim Richards.

My mother is a retired nurse who worked at Cook County Hospital and then a dialysis unit. She worked hard like her daddy. Tough lady! My dad’s brother, my uncle Isaac Richardson was the band director of the Mississippi Valley State University’s “Magnificent 100,” the first Black band to be invited to the White House to play for the President. On one hand, I inherited some deep musical roots, on the other hand, my grandfather worked in a factory for fifty something years and only called off twice when he had funerals to go to. In short, I come from good, loving, hard-working people.

UC: How does your sense of racial, cultural and class identity imprint your work?

JI: My sense of race, cultural, and class identity directly affects my work. My experience, my black experience, my life experience has shaped my soul, my creativity, my style, my passion, my mission, my pride and my opinions. Every stroke of my pen is connected to a long line of the most exquisite, inventive people to ever walk this earth. I’m here to carry on tradition while making some of my own. When I speak, I know it’s bigger than me. I know the same words that help my pain and get me through hard days are the same words that will help my people rise up.

UC: If it was ever said that you led a movement for your generation, what would you want that movement to be and look like?

JI: I want my movement to inspire the writers, the poets, and the storytellers. I want my movement to encourage others to use their gifts. We all have a story to tell; we all hold pieces of the puzzle. Pieces that will help heal the next man or woman. We forget that we were connected, but the more artist we have to relate to, the more we will help one another, the more we will live in love. The less we will be conquered by pain, hate and fear. We are all making history.

UC: What do our readers have to look forward to in your latest album and book?

JI: My latest album “Here I Am” and my forthcoming book “Here I Am: Then & Now” are in my opinion great works of art. I’m always looking forward to seeing what the next moments will sound, look, and read like and both projects feel complete. Conceptually, I wanted to speak to the people without preaching at them. I wanted to make sure that my poetry had something for you to ride to. I am a poet and one of the many sons of Hip-Hop. The album is a place where the two meet.

The book is an extension of that. In short, it’s a philosophical conversation of the times and how those times affected the lyrics. Of course, the lyrics are included; I shared those stories of me creating the album, and added an additional poetry section to the back. It’s a great read. The music is a great listen. I know you’ll be inspired.

UC: What are you trying to create/build through your music? What do you want your legacy to be?

I truly believe that my work will speak for itself. I’m curious to see what picture the people will paint once they hear it. 

Videos By J. Ivy

WARNING: The following video contains a violent, graphic scene and an expletive.

Rahiel Tesfamariam is a public theologian, social activist, writer and speaker. She is also a former columnist for The Washington Post and founder/ publisher of, a cutting-edge online lifestyle magazine highlighting progressive urban culture, faith, social change and global awareness. Visit and follow her on Twitter and Instagram @RahielT.

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