A Harvard undergraduate student will be graduating with honors this year after submitting a 10-track rap album for his senior thesis in the English department, the first to do so in the prestigious school’s history.
Obasi Shaw, a 20-year old from a small town in Georgia, Alabama started rapping at a summer Bible camp in Tennessee for fun, according to the Harvard Gazette.
But it wasn’t until his mother suggested he use the lyrics he had written and performed at open mic nights on campus for his thesis that he started taking the idea seriously.
The 10 track album, entitled ‘‘Liminal Minds” (a play of words on “Criminal Minds” ), offers a broad sweep of African American history by drawing on the works of James Baldwin, Barack Obama and dealing with topics ranging from police brutality to slavery. It also highlights Shaw’s own experience of growing up black in America.
Each song is told from a different character’s perspective, a format inspired by Geoffrey Chaucer’s collection of stories written in the 14th century, The Canterbury Tales.
Shaw’s thesis adviser, English lecturer Josh Bell, praised his student’s creative work for its originality both as an artistic statement and a serious piece of research.
He “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 Harvard Gazette.
After review, it was awarded the second highest grade in the department – summa cum laude minus.
The young Christian poet, who has a secondary in computer science, was the first to be surprised by the accolade.
‘‘I never thought it would be accepted by Harvard,’’ Shaw told the Globe. ‘‘I didn’t think they would respect rap as an art form enough for me to do it.’’
Undergraduates at Harvard do not need to submit senior theses, but it is mandatory for those wishing to graduate with honors.
It is common for students to submit screenplays, novels or poetry collections as their final project but Shaw wanted to go against the grain and try something entirely different.
“Rap is a genre in which I can say everything I want to say,” he said. “I’ve been writing in different capacities, but I never felt that I found my art form until I started rapping.”
Growing interest in the literary quality of rap and hip-hop, sped up by popular artists like Kendrick Lamar, Nas or Jay-Z, has elevated the genre’s status in academia.
Harvard, for instance, launched a fellowship for hip-hop scholars in 2013 while other schools including the University of Arizona have started to offer minors in hip-hop studies.
In a case not dissimilar to the Harvard one, Clemson University announced in February that one of its PhD students submitted a 34-track rap album as his dissertation – also a first for the South Carolina university.
Shaw hopes to break into the music industry and plans to circulate the album online free of charge to get noticed.
But in the meantime, after graduation he’ll be joining the Google Seattle office to work as a software engineer.
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