One Ivy League student will graduate with high praise after submitting a rap album as his final thesis — a first at Harvard University.
Obasi Shaw, originally from Stone Mountain, Georgia, wrote the album — “Liminal Minds” — in one year, and it earned the second highest grade a student can earn: summa cum laude minus, The Independent reported.
And on Thursday, he will graduate with honors, one of the university’s highest accolades. Undergraduates are not required to submit a final-year thesis. For those, however, who wish to graduate with honors, it is required.
While Shaw’s fellow classmates followed a more traditional route, writing novels, poems, and short stories, the 20-year-old student submitted a 10-track album inspired by 14th century writer Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales.”
Shaw talked about his decision to write the album in an interview with the Harvard Gazette, the university’s student-run newspaper.
“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.”
In the album’s opening track, “Declaration of Independence,” Shaw targets police over clashes between law enforcement and the black community. He wrote:
Composing like Beethoven, to the deaf, or just the hard of hearing —
Complacent faces, vacant breasts, bereft of all the feeling.
A nation due for inspection, this is the audit, herein
Lies the fear in the eyes of our departed dearly —
Cold bodies facing .22, man in blue.
Shaw, whose parents are both Harvard graduates, credits his mother with the idea to present a rap album as his final-year thesis. The Georgia native grew up listening to Christian rap and, during his years at Harvard, was a member of the Christian group Harvard Faith and Action and served as the managing editor of the Harvard Ichthus, a journal of Christian faith produced by undergraduates.
He started exploring secular artists like Chance the Rapper and Kendrick Lamar only a couple years ago and was inspired by the artists’ approach to race, religion, and black identity.
“Some people don’t consider rap a high art form,” Shaw said. “But poetry and rap are very similar. Rhyming poems were very common in old English poetry.”
Josh Bell, a Harvard English lecturer and Shaw’s thesis adviser, was very impressed with the album, a project he called both “fun and interesting.”
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,” Bell told the Gazette.
However, despite his successful foray into rap, Shaw has no plans to enter the music industry. In fact, he’s heading to Seattle to work as a software engineer for Google.