It’s only a matter of time before Harvard’s own Obasi Shaw gets picked up for a record deal. Instead of your typical typed-up essay, Shaw decided to submit a rap album for his English thesis. He tackles topical and historical social issues involving race flawlessly that is honest and moving, and not at all preachy.
Shaw made history, becoming the first person in the existence of Harvard University to submit a rap album as his senior thesis in the English Department. His 10-track record entitled “Liminal Minds” had earned this 20-year-old student an A-, which will allow him to graduate with honors next week.
The young English student was very surprised when he heard the good news about his thesis.
“I never thought it would be accepted by Harvard,” said Shaw, a resident of Stone Mountain, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta. “I didn’t think they would respect rap as an art form enough for me to do it.”
What is his music about? Shaw calls his songs “dark and moody” while illuminating what it means to be black in America. Every track is rapped by a different character in the same vein of Geoffrey Chaucer’s 14th-century classic “The Canterbury Tales.” Those medieval lyrics spoke to the young Shaw and allowed him to use the tales of Canterbury as a timeless source of inspiration.
Shaw’s thesis advisor, Harvard English lecturer Josh Bell, commended Shaw as a “serious artist and he’s an amazing guy…(who) was able to turn around an album that people in the English Department would like very much but also that people who like rap music might like.”
You gotta admire a person who takes risks and succeeds. That’s what life is all about. That’s the type of stuff that keeps me going. Being afraid of risk means you’re afraid of failure. You need to break out of that rut and when you’re in a slump pull an idea out of left field and hit a home run.
Harvard students don’t even have to submit thesis papers, but if you want to graduate with honors than it’s practically a must (for most departments at least). Most eager overachievers would dive right into a research paper. But there is also a creative option, which can take the form of a screenplay, a novel, a collection of poems, and now a rap album.
How Did Obasi Shaw come up with the rap album idea?
Shaw was back home for Winter break 2015. All the while, he was racking his brain for ideas for his senior thesis. He was having a hard time coming up with the right idea, so his mother Michelle Shaw intervened on his behalf. He told her of the creative thesis option and Michelle came up with an idea. She made note of his fondness for rap and performing his lyrics during open-mic nights on campus. So, why not make his English thesis a rap album?
Obasi’s album was a smashing success. And he wants to continue getting better and better at his craft. He’s not satisfied until he’s reached his height of fluid creativity that can reach out and communicate with so many diverse communities of thought and culture. That means he’s going to keep going and never stop improving his work, which is the type of attitude that will leave an artist with an enduring body of work to leave behind for generations.
Shaw said, “I’m still not satisfied with the quality of the production just yet, but I’m constantly learning and growing.”
The song “Born Browner” by Obasi Shaw is a dark glimpse into an unsettling truth, that black history is either conveyed as overtly tragic as “in chains” or through demeaning pandering as in with “fluff.” He also linked the War on Drugs to the mass incarceration situation in the United States, which shows us the true limits on liberty that many chose to ignore and marginalize from discussion.