In 1966, author and poet Sam Greenlee penned one of the most influential pieces of literature to impact Black culture—The Spook Who Sat By the Door. Published in 1969 and adapted into a film in 1973, the novel's plot follows the odyssey of a fictional Black CIA agent who maneuvers the inner workings of the government agency and, in turn, uses the agency's tactics against it. With three decades of trailblazing across the entertainment industry and a mighty assemblage of lived experience, EBONY 2022 Power 100 Artist in Residence awardee J. Ivy is indeed the manifestation of Greenlee's pen.

A community servant, a voice for the culture, and a prolific spoken word artist, Ivy has encapsulated all that he has learned into the progression of his craft while always aiming to assist the next generation of creatives. EBONY spoke with the lyrical mastermind about the release of his 6th studio album The Poet Who Sat By the Door, working on Netflix's Kanye West docuseries Jeen-Yuhs, and what it means to be a poet in this age.

EBONY: Congratulations on being named to EBONY's 2022 Power 100! How does it feel?

J. Ivy: I am extremely overwhelmed—with joy, of course! When I first saw the email, I called EBONY's editor-in-chief Marielle Bobo and said "What is this? Am I reading this right?" She said, "You've been doing tremendous work over the years and we want you to know that we see you." Those words made me feel like crying right where I was. That kind of emotion is hard to put into words because it took me back to coming up in Chicago and feeling like the kid that was unseen and unheard. This honor is such a healing moment for the little boy in me. I'm super grateful.

You are an immaculate storyteller. Can you share the creative journey in crafting this project and choosing the name for the project?

Funnily enough, it started as a joke. I was doing a lot of work with the Recording Academy and in the poetry community—I became a liaison. There was so much information between the two realms and as somebody who's been doing this for almost 30 years, it dawned on me that I didn't know about the Grammy process. As I'm learning, I'm thinking about all of the other poets who may not know this information either. I started relaying the information to the poetry community, rallying the troops and making sure that they were getting albums out, submitting their projects, and giving them the information they would need to submit. Doing this reminded me of The Spook Who Sat By the Door and I started cracking this joke where I'm like, "Man, I actually am the poet who sat by the door. I need to use that for a movie or album or something." In the spring of 2020, we were able to get a new category passed for the Best Spoken Word Poetry album. So for the first time, poets will be nominated and can bring Grammys home. Previously, we were clumped together with audiobooks, storytelling and narration, but now we have our own category. Once that happened, it motivated me to want to get an album done so I could throw my name in the hat. Then I started going back and forth about what title to use. Since I always called myself "The Poet That Sat By the Door," I let that be the north star.

Not only was it a play on the film and book, it emphasized the theme of there being strength in numbers, especially during the journey of getting the category passed. As I started working on the project, I recalled a concept I always tell people: I feel our superpower is the ability to listen. This is especially true for creatives. I strive to listen to my heart, soul, ancestors, God, and what's going on in the world; and I do my best to translate that poetically. That was where the inception of the idea came from and I'm happy we went with it because it turned out to be something I'm super proud of.

On your track Listen, the responsibility of a poet and how it respectively lives inside each of us is highlighted.  Can you speak on how you’ve personally interpreted and fundamentally understood that role while co-existing in society?

I feel like our most prominent role as poets and creatives is to heal. We can always look at it from the aspect of entertainment because you want to give people something easy to absorb. Therefore, you want your art to be fun or thought-provoking and spark something in people's spirits. For me, the ultimate goal of my art has always been to heal. I inherited that from my parents as my father was a DJ, and my mother was a registered nurse.

Later in life, as I began understanding my purpose, I realized that my gift is to use my voice to help heal people. I've seen that from my work and through so many poets, singers, artists, MCs, comedians, and others who have healed me with their words, music, and storytelling. So, for me, that's the greatest role.

You were the lead writer for the Emmy-nominated Netflix documentary Jeen-Yuhs: A Kanye West Trilogy. Can you talk about the experience working on that project and the reception it garnered?

It was incredible! A big, big shout out to my brothers Coodie and Chike. Twenty years ago, Coodie was the one who called me about Never Let Me Down. He said, "Kanye has a song with Jay Z on it, and he wanted to put a spoken word on it. I told him he needed to put J. Ivy on it. I'm like, "Man, stop playing." I wrote something, and I ended up on the record. Since that time, we've worked on many projects together. But then he called me and said, "J., we are finally about to do Jeen-Yuhs, and I want you to be the lead writer." He could have contacted anybody in the world for that job. The fact that he called me, trusted me, and believed in my artistry—I can't thank Coodie and Chike enough. It's incredible to be a part of such a historic moment. 

Once we dove into the project, the world shut down. In March 2020, the editors started cutting and loading over 500 hours of footage. When they started loading footage, I started writing and immersed myself in writing from June to December that year. Day to day on this project was such a joy. There were so many amazing conversations, reminiscing, researching, watching the footage, and seeing new things happening in Kanye's world and his life. It was of the utmost importance to us to ensure that we were telling a story true to hip hop, the culture, Chicago, and Coodie and Ye's journey together. We want to ensure that his voice is authentic in the storytelling, mainly as he narrates. Not only was I the lead writer, but I also was the voice director. I sat in the booth with him while recording the whole time, ensuring all the inflections and cadences hit the right way.  

I had a unique position being that I was around for the whole story. The Chicago renaissance happened in the mid-90s and I was a part of that scene. I'd go and do Def Poetry, and Coodie just happened to be there when I would go to tape. We were cool in Chicago and always showed loved when we saw each other; however, we didn't hang out unless I was going to one of his parties that he was throwing. 

After we got better acquainted, he encouraged me to move to New York. When I landed in New York, I was in the midst of all of Jeen-Yuhs happening in real-time. I moved there maybe three weeks after Kanye signed his record deal. Being around all those moments—like the making of College Dropout and being a part of it— lent a unique perspective as a writer on the project. Going back down that road and showing people the stories we've been telling for the past 20 years was closure. It was also a powerful reminder not to give up and to have faith. Above all, this project was about lifting our brother up. We want to be honest and truthful but, at that same time, do so with love. It's been an incredible process.

J. Ivy's album The Poet Who Sat By the Door is now available on Spotify and Apple Music.