Production Diary: Flavor Flav and Elisa New talk rhyme at Harvard and ASU

From left to right: talent manager Rhiannon Rae Ellis, songwriter Sam Hollander, rapper Flavor Flav, and professor Elisa New at Harvard Extension School.
From left to right: talent manager Rhiannon Rae Ellis, songwriter Sam Hollander, rapper Flavor Flav, and professor Elisa New at Harvard Extension School. 

On Tuesday, April 4th, 2023, Poetry in America was thrilled to bring hiphop legend Flavor Flav to Harvard University. 

The multi-platinum Public Enemy rapper and reality TV star reached out to Poetry in America in 2022, through Moves Management’s Rhiannon Rae Ellis—looking for an opportunity to connect with students of poetry. 

Professor Elisa New, Instructional Designer Hogan Seidel, Instructor Jesse Raber, and other members of the course staff of “Poetry in America: Whitman and Dickinson” worked with the HELIX team at Harvard’s Division of Continuing Education to organize a HELIX Forum event between Flav and students around the world. 

In a quote for The Harvard Gazette, Elisa New said of the live session:“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. What’s the most fun is seeing people who are not known as experts on poetry really dig in and get engaged.”

The discussion centered on reputation, rhyme, and Emily Dickinson, and featured songwriter Sam Hollander as a special guest. Professor New and guests led the class through three Dickinson poems, including Publication is the auction,” I’m nobody! Who Are you and A clock stopped – a poem which Flav related to his own famous timepieces. 

Flavor Flav shakes hand with fellow Poetry in America guest Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Flavor Flav joined fellow Poetry in America guest Henry Louis Gates, Jr., to donate one of his signature clocks to the Harvard Hiphop Archive.

Later that afternoon, Flav donated a signature orange clock to the Harvard Hiphop Archive in a star-studded ceremony, attended by Alphonse Fletcher University Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and his students; Caldwell Titcomb Professor of African and African American Studies and Philosophy Tommie Shelby; rapper and​ MLK Visiting Professor at MIT Lupe Fiasco; songwriter Sam Hollander; Hutchins Center for African & African American Research Executive Director Abby Wolf, Nasir Jones Hiphop Fellow Dee-1; Professor Elisa New; and Khaliah Ali, daughter of the late boxer Muhammad Ali.  

Flav donates an orange clock to the Harvard Hiphop Archive.

Feet from the assembled crowd, Producer Cathleen O’Connell and television crew Steven Allardi, Nikki Bramley, Ben Avishai, and Daryl Brown finished staging and lighting the Hiphop Archive space, ready to film interviews between Elisa New and a few of the assembled guests. 

These conversations all included close reading of a poem from American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, a 2018 collection by National Book Award-winning poet Terrance Hayes. The poem begins “I’m not sure how to hold my face when I dance…” and name-checks Black music legends from Jimi Hendrix to Miles Davis.

A behind-the-scenes of the interview session with Professor Elisa New and Songwriter Sam Hollander

For Sam Hollander, the poem revived awkward memories of school dances—memories which might be stirred up (for millennials, at least) by Hollander’s own discography: from We the Kings’s “Check Yes Juliet” to Boys Like Girls’s “Love Drunk.”

In contrast, New Orleans rapper Dee-1 found, in Hayes’s sonnet, a vision of what dancing might be like for us all if we could leave self-consciousness behind.    

The footage we captured with Hollander and Dee-1 will be edited, together with interviews we’ve filmed with Terrance Hayes and Flavor Flav, into a Season 5 episode of Poetry in America—which you’ll have to wait a few years to see. 

That interview with Flav, which kicked off Poetry in America’s creative relationship with the rapper, was captured in February at Arizona State University, as stars, including Flav, flew into Phoenix for Super Bowl Sunday. During that conversation, Flav, New, and students and faculty from Creighton University also discussed Flav’s own work, as well as a number of poems and texts addressed to themes of public health. That content will be featured in several educational projects in development with Arizona State University, where New directs the Center for Public Humanities.

We’re grateful to the partners who made this filming possible, including Harvard Division of Continuing Education, the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research at Harvard, Arizona State University, and the Sidney Poitier New American Film School at ASU. Follow Poetry in America on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook for more production updates in the year ahead!