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Spoken-word artist J. Ivy joins HBCU poetry tour to inspire, uplift others

Students can enter Allstate poetry contest to win up to $3,000

Before the awards, accolades, television appearances and international recognition, J. Ivy sat in Chicago’s Rich Central High School oblivious to the places that the power of poetry, and a little belief in himself, would one day take him.

Now, the Grammy Award-winning performance poet and author has teamed up with Allstate Insurance for the Pillars & Poetry Tour to help students at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) find strength in their own voices through spoken word.

The tour, which began Oct. 21 at Tuskegee University, stopped at Morehouse College and then Spelman College on Thursday. It will conclude at Florida A&M University on Nov. 9. Students who attend are invited to share their own spoken-word composition about a person who inspires them for a chance to win up to $3,000.

“My rule for everything is if you feel it, other people will feel it. You have to be able to step outside of yourself and be honest with yourself. Be courageous, be free.”

For J. Ivy, the ability to help others through the medium he loves is what means the most to him on this tour.

“I’ve done work with Allstate in the past, and I’ve always just admired their work in the community,” J. Ivy said. “They’re trendsetters when it comes to being involved. When they came to me about Pillars & Poetry, I loved the concept because we all have pillars of strength in our lives: people who are lifting us up, people who have been on the sidelines telling us we can do it when there was a world of people telling us we couldn’t. With poetry, that’s been my life.

“I’ve traveled the world. I make my living because of poetry. All of that combined is exciting. I have a deep affinity for historically black colleges and universities. To take poetry to these historically black colleges and give students a platform and give them a voice, I was completely on board and ready to go. I’m excited.”

The tour is also important to J. Ivy because of his own beginnings with poetry. Writing is something that came naturally to J. Ivy as a form of expression, but writing poetry wasn’t something that had completely crossed his mind.

“I was really good at writing notes to girls in high school,” he laughed. “I knew if there was something I needed to say, it was difficult for me to express it vocally, whereas if I put a pen to the page, I knew that I could express how I felt.”

It was his English teacher, Ms. Argue, who first took note of his skills. J. Ivy’s class had been asked to write poems of their own, but J. Ivy wasn’t aware that he’d be reading it in front of the entire class.

“It was called It Once Was A Cloud,” J. Ivy recalled. “I’m like, ‘Now I have to read this stupid poem about these clouds and all my boys are going to clown me.’ I never had a lot of confidence, and I was super shy. So I read this poem, and after class, [Ms. Argue] pulled me to the side and gave me an A. I wasn’t getting any A’s or B’s at the time, but she gives me an A on this poem.”

In addition to a high grade, the teacher asked J. Ivy if he’d participate in an upcoming show. He hesitated. It would be J. Ivy’s first show, and he was nervous. He passed on the opportunity the first time, but another one arose shortly afterward. This time, it was one he wouldn’t be able to worm his way out of.

“What I learned is to not argue with somebody named Ms. Argue,” J. Ivy said. “She had another show come up and she said, ‘The last time, you faked me out. This time, when I ask you to do the show, you have to.’ My first time onstage, I was nervous and scared as I don’t know what. At the end of that performance, I got a standing ovation. Immediately, my life changed. It was a revelation. I do have a voice; people will listen. Since that moment, I’ve been performing and sharing and loving the art of poetry.”

Since then, J. Ivy has been featured on Def Poetry Jam, shared stages with icons such as Prince, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, Mos Def, Common and Lauryn Hill, and voiced openers for Sunday Night Football, the NBA draft and the US Open. Through all of his greatest accomplishments, J. Ivy offers one simple rule that still keeps him grounded.

“My rule for everything is if you feel it, other people will feel it,” J. Ivy said. “You have to be able to step outside of yourself and be honest with yourself. Be courageous, be free. Don’t overthink the moment, and be fearless. Fear kills dreams. Fear and creativity can’t coincide. You have a story, and people want to hear it.”

On this tour, J. Ivy is hoping to inspire as well as become inspired by hearing the work of others, especially anticipating the experiences and responses from an electric HBCU crowd.

“My hope is that people will use this moment to find inspiration and write more,” J. Ivy said. “To me, writing is very therapeutic. When you don’t have anyone else in the world to talk to, you can put that pen to that page and have a conversation. My hope is that people use the gift and the art of poetry, of spoken word, to engage with their spirit and their soul so they can find the healing that they need, the inspiration they need, the insight they need, and find those tools that will help them for the rest of their lives.”

FAMU students interested in signing up for the contest must do so by Nov. 4.

Maya Jones is an associate editor at The Undefeated. She is a native New Orleanian who enjoys long walks down Frenchmen Street and romantic dates to Saints games.