Nigerian-American Obasi Shaw was until his graduation in May, an English Major at Harvard University. He graduated with a summa cum laude minus, after he boldly delivered a 10-track rap album titled Liminal Minds as his senior thesis.
Senior English concentrators at Harvard often submit screenplays, memoirs, novels, a collection of poems or short stories for their creative writing thesis, but Obasi decided to be different.
He was one of the graduating students profiled by the institution’s publication showcasing some of its stellar graduates.
“I had no other ideas, so I had only one shot. I put together an application, submitted it and expected nothing, but here we are,” Shaw said.
According to Lauren Bimmler, the undergraduate program administrator, in the English Department, it is the first rap album ever submitted as a senior thesis.
To Obasi, the honors the thesis got meant that rap is being accepted as an art form.
“Some people don’t consider rap a high art form. But poetry and rap are very similar. Rhyming poems were very common in old English poetry,” Obasi toldHarvard Gazette.
Obasi said the title – Liminal Minds – is a wordplay on the phrase Criminal Minds, which refers to the in-between state of blacks in America.
It focuses on questions of race, religion, and black identity.
“Black people in America are kind of caught between freedom and slavery. 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,” Obasi said.
The 20-year-old who started rapping at a summer Bible camp in Tennessee said his mother suggested that he wrote a rap thesis as the deadline for submission was drawing near and he had no idea on what to write.
Obasi said he had to listen to mainstream rap to prepare his thesis, adding that he didn’t like much of which it because of its explicit lyrics, violence, and misogyny, and read about rap’s history.
However, he said he “needed to learn what rap has meant to people for decades.”
To Obasi, “Rap is a genre in which (he) can say everything (he) wants to say.”
“I’ve been writing in different capacities, but I never felt that I found my art form until I started rapping,” he added.
During his time at Harvard, he was managing editor of The Harvard Ichthus, a journal of Christian faith produced by undergrads, and a member of the Christian group Harvard Faith and Action.
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