As It Happens

This Harvard grad submitted a rap album for his thesis — and totally aced it

Obasi Shaw just became the first student ever to submit a rap album as a senior thesis in Harvard's English department.
Obasi Shaw, an English major who graduates from Harvard next week, is the university's first student to submit his final thesis in the form of a rap album. (Charles Krupa/Associated Press)

Read Story Transcript

Obasi Shaw just became the first student ever to submit a rap album as a senior thesis in Harvard's English department.

"I was definitely very shocked that they accepted it," the 20-year-old from the Atlanta suburb of Stone Mountain, Ga., told As It Happens host Carol Off. "I expected that I would not get it and I would write a normal thesis and life would go on."

Not only did Shaw find an adviser who was on board with his idea, but the album — called Liminal Minds — has earned him the equivalent of an A-minus grade, guaranteeing he will graduate with honours this week.

If I want to honour the black community that I'm writing about, I want to use their medium — our medium.- Obasi Shaw

Each of the 10 tracks on Liminal Minds explores a different facet of what it's like to be black in America, touching on topics like racism within the criminal justice system. 

"Liminal is a word that means in between two states. I heard a quote that black people in America are caught between freedom and slavery. Although we're no longer enslaved, there's still the effects of slavery in society and on our consciousness," Shaw said.

"And so Liminal Minds just came to mind as kind of almost a contrast to criminal minds, where people, I think, a lot of times envision black people as criminals, when in reality there's just this liminality that we're dealing with."

The complete album and its lyrics are available for free online. 

Harvard undergraduates aren't obligated to submit senior theses, but most departments require it to graduate with honours. Often it takes the form of a research paper, but students can apply to turn in an artistic work as a creative thesis.

Some submit screenplays, novels or poetry collections. But for Shaw, who started writing and performing his lyrics on campus in 2015, rap made the most sense. 

"If I want to honour the black community that I'm writing about, I want to use their medium — our medium. I want to use the medium that is born of the people, so that I'm not talking about them, but I'm talking with them," Shaw said.

"I'm expressing myself as part of a larger culture of expression, instead of entering from the outside and passing judgment and that sort of thing ... I'm trying to get as much as I can into the culture and speak lovingly with, for and about what it means to be black."

Obasi Shaw's album, Liminal Minds, has earned the equivalent of an A- grade, ensuring he will graduate with honours from Harvard. (Charles Krupa/Associated Press)

Each song is told from a different character's perspective — an idea inspired by Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, in which pilgrims spin yarns as they walk.

"The fact that it was these ordinary people telling their own stories just really appealed to me," Shaw said of the 14th-century classic.

"It was kind of an overarching idea that was in my mind as I wrote the album that it would be these ordinary people, ordinary black people, telling their own stories of what blackness means to them. So it's them all kind of on the pilgrimage of their experience of being black in America."

It took Shaw more than a year to write the songs and record them at a studio on Harvard's campus. His friends supplied many of the beats, while he taught himself how to mix the tracks into a polished product.

Shaw's thesis adviser, Harvard English lecturer Josh Bell, said Shaw is a "serious artist and he's an amazing guy."

"He 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," Bell said.

Rap and hip-hop have drawn growing interest from academia in recent years. Harvard established a fellowship for scholars of hip-hop in 2013, and other schools, including the University of Arizona, have started to offer minors in hip-hop studies.

Clemson University announced in February that a doctoral student submitted a 34-track rap album as his dissertation, a first for the South Carolina university.

Shaw hopes Liminal Minds will open doors to the music industry for him — but in the meantime, he's headed to Seattle to work as a software engineer at Google.

With files from Associated Press