(ANTIMEDIA) One remarkable undergraduate student has made history at Harvard University after submitting a rap album as his senior thesis in the English department. Twenty-year-old Obasi Shaw will be graduating from the Ivy League school with honors after his creative work was awarded a grade of summa cum laude minus, the second highest in the department.
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Shaw was featured in a profile by the Harvard Gazette as one of “Harvard’s stellar graduates” for his accomplishments at the university, where he was managing editor of the Harvard Ichthus, a Christian journal produced by undergrads. He was also a member of the Christian group Harvard Faith and Action.
The idea to submit a rap thesis actually came from Shaw’s mother, who made the suggestion when she saw her son struggling for an idea as the deadline to submit a proposal for his thesis was rapidly approaching. Shaw began rapping at a bible camp in Tennessee but didn’t take it very seriously until his mother made him aware of his own potential.
Listen to the entire album below:
Shaw grew up listening to Christian rap music in Alabama, where he was home-schooled by his parents, both of whom are also Harvard graduates. He credits his Christian upbringing with giving him his moral compass and says he always preferred “songs of faith and salvation with positive messages and clean lyrics.” Although he studied mainstream rap for his thesis, Shaw disliked the violence and misogyny often presented through explicit lyrics. Two mainstream rappers stood out to Shaw, however, who says he admires Kendrick Lamar and Chance the Rapper for their eloquence and the way they confront “questions of race, religion, and black identity.”
“Some people don’t consider rap a high art form,” Shaw told the Gazette. “But poetry and rap are very similar. Rhyming poems were very common in old English poetry.”
So Shaw combined his affinity for writing with his background in Old English Literature to create a 10-track rap album. Using beats collected online and from friends, he recorded the album over the course of a year at Quad Sound Studios. The finished product was an evocative journey through the “history of African-Americans’ quest for equality… from slavery to police brutality, from segregation to the Black Lives Matter movement, from mass incarceration to Barack Obama.”
“Obasi’s album is very interesting because it uses Geoffrey Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’ as an intellectual overlay,” said Shaw’s thesis adviser and Briggs-Copeland lecturer in English, Josh Bell. He observed that Shaw “is telling stories in each song from different points of view, and it’s critical of American society and racial politics. But above all that, it’s a fun and interesting album.”
The album is titled “Liminal Minds,” both as a play on the phrase “criminal minds” and an allusion to the state of blackness in America today, said Shaw. “Black people in America are kind of caught between freedom and slavery,” he said. “They’re free, but the effects of slavery still exist in society and in people’s subconscious. Each song is an exploration of black liminality, that state between slavery and freedom.”
The album opens with a track titled “Declaration of Independence,” which combines gritty lyrics with an ominous beat to highlight the rampant police brutality faced by the black community. However, Shaw closes on a more positive note with “Open Your Eyes,” which puts a spotlight on “progress gained by African-Americans with resilience, courage, and hope in their struggle for rights.”
While rap will always be important to him, the Harvard grad has different plans for his future. Shaw plans to move to Seattle after graduation for a one-year internship in software engineering.