How Harvard student Obasi Shaw rapped his way to Honors!

Obasi Shaw

There are students, like most of us, who work under an educational system (how obvious though). But then, there are also people who find their way out of the limitations of the existing educational system. They outshine the benchmarks that educational officers create for them sitting inside their monotonous offices. Obasi Shaw is one such student.

Obasi Shaw, a 20-year old from a small town in Georgia, Alabama, is an undergraduate from Harvard. He started rapping at a summer Bible camp in Tennessee for fun. He will be graduating with honors this year after submitting *wait for it* a 10-track RAP album for his senior thesis in the English department, the first to do so in the prestigious school’s history.

It is much usual for students to submit screenplays, novels or poetry collections as their final thesis project, but Shaw wanted to go against the current and try something entirely different. His mother suggested to him that he uses the lyrics he had written at open mic nights on campus for his thesis. This was his cue, and he started taking the idea seriously.

Obasi Shaw

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 narration, a format inspired by Geoffrey Chaucer’s collection of stories, The Canterbury Tales.

Obasi’s thesis advisor, English lecturer Josh Bell, said that not only was his work unique and creative but also a never seen before statement of art, backed up by serious 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, his album was awarded with the second highest grade in the department – summa cum laude minus.

Obasi Shaw

‘‘I never thought it would be accepted by Harvard. I didn’t think they would respect rap as an art form enough for me to do it.’’, as Shaw told the Globe. “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.”

It’s really empowering to witness how rap is elevating in status in academia by popular culture. It is giving way to the kind of freedom that makes way for development. 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.

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.


-Ananya Talwar

Edited by Mrinaal Datt.

Read more about them here.


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