Education

Obasi Shaw Submitted Harvard’s First Ever Rap Thesis and Will Graduate With Honors to Show for It

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Harvard University senior Obasi Shaw will go down in Harvard University history as the first student to ever submit a rap album as his senior thesis. As his thesis, Obasi Shaw, 20, provided the English department with a project consisted of 10 songs entitled Liminal Minds. On it, Shaw presented an in-depth analysis of black identity in America told through the perspectives of different characters.

Shaw grew up in Atlanta, more specifically in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and as a child was never allowed to listen to rap as we know it. Instead, he listened to Christian rap, which is all about clean lyrics and positive faith-based messages.

It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that Shaw began to listen to artists like Kendrick Lamar and Chance the Rapper and he admired them for their mainstream success and the fact that that success never stripped away their message. As he told the Harvard Gazette, he admired the fact that they were artists that were willing to write rhymes that conveyed “questions of race, religion, and black identity.” His admiration for them lent itself to what would be his work with his thesis Liminal Minds.

The type of project he was trying to create was unheard of in the university’s history. Seniors with English concentrations typically submitted memoirs, novels, poems, short stories, screenplays and the like. Shaw chose to write a rap album. He put about a year into developing and creating the album, which drew inspiration from K Dot and Chance the Rapper, but also from English lit classics like Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.

His hard work paid off because Liminal Minds earned a grade of summa cum laude minus, or A-. This means, Shaw will graduate from Harvard with honors this week. To Shaw, this honor made “recognition of rap as an art form, one as valid as poetry.”


“Some people don’t consider rap a high art form,” Shaw continued. “But poetry and rap are very similar. Rhyming poems were very common in old English poetry.”

According to Harvard Gazette, “…The album offers a broad sweep of the history of African-Americans’ quest for equality. The songs deal with issues ranging from slavery to police brutality, from segregation to the Black Lives Matter movement, from mass incarceration to Barack Obama.”

“Black people in America are kind of caught between freedom and slavery,” Shaw added. “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.”

Hats off to you Shaw.

Check out Shaw’s album in full here. Listen to his opening song below.

Photo Credit: Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographer

Sheriden Chanel is a twenty-something writer, Beyoncé enthusiast, and lover of all things visual art. Keep up with her and her musings on social via @indiebyline.