Elisa New and Flavor Flav.

Public Enemy’s Flavor Flav makes a guest appearance on “Poetry in America,” the PBS companion to an Extension School course led by Elisa New (left).

Photos by Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

Arts & Culture

Legend of rap hears kinship with Dickinson

3 min read

Public Enemy’s Flavor Flav connects with 19th-century poet and donates a clock during Harvard visit

Time and rhyme united a 1980s hip-hop star and the 19th-century poet Emily Dickinson on Tuesday as William Jonathan Drayton Jr., better known as Public Enemy’s Flavor Flav, visited Harvard to make an appearance on “Poetry in America,” the PBS companion to an Extension School course where students discuss American literature with the occasional celebrity guest.

Flav, known not just for his rapping but also for the clock he wears around his neck, joined the class alongside the songwriter Sam Hollander and Professor Elisa New to discuss Dickinson’s work. The three read “A Clock Stopped — Not The Mantel’s,” “Publication — is the Auction,” and “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” The nearly 90-minute conversation featured insights on Dickinson’s dark humor and rhyme scheme, and reflections on time and the idea of “selling out.”

Elisa New, Flavor Flav, and Sam Hollander sit in studio facing screens showing students attending session virtually.
Joining New and Flav in the studio was songwriter Sam Hollander.

“I have found, as we find in any good seminar, that the intellectual excitement really only happens when a group of people are working together to understand something,” said New, professor emerita in the Department of English. “What’s the most fun is seeing people who are not known as experts on poetry really dig in and get engaged.”

The class resonated with Flav, whose decades-long work with Public Enemy has confronted serious issues facing young Black Americans. Responding to Dickinson’s poetry, the rapper described his own attempts at symbolism and how time plays into his writing.

“The reason why I wear this clock is because every single second that the minute hand goes around — we have to use each second to the best value,” Flav said. “Once we stop, it still keeps going anyway.”

Harvard alumna Rhiannon Rae Ellis is the rapper’s manager and an Extension School graduate student who took New’s class. She was the one who approached the professor with the idea of inviting Flavor Flav to discuss Dickinson. “Flav’s so intelligent,” Ellis said. “Most people don’t get to see that side of him, they see the persona he is on TV … He’s so happy and upbeat. It makes you want to be the best version of yourself.”

Hollander, who recently published the memoir “21-Hit Wonder: Flopping My Way to the Top,” said that he hoped that the class might prove meaningful to viewers seeking to broaden their creative horizons. “It [was] such an honor to be here and just to be with intellects at this level — to be able to just converse and share, and hopefully something I said lands and maybe inspires somebody else.”

Flav, who also donated one of his iconic clocks to Harvard’s Hiphop Archive this week, said he was grateful to spend time with fans old and new. “It was pretty cool … Being here at Harvard is big. And for me to be able to come and donate one of my clocks to the University, I’m honored.”