A Christian student at Harvard University who began rapping at Bible camp for fun made history this month when he submitted a rap album for his final thesis.
Obasi Shaw, an English major at Harvard, is the first student ever to present a rap album for a senior thesis at the Ivy League school’s English department in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Shaw said it took him a year to create, write and mix the 36-minute-long rap album, which is comprised of 10 songs that combines elements of Middle English poetry with issues of racial identity in America.
“The idea is that black people in America are caught between freedom and slavery. Although we are no longer enslaved, the effects of slavery still haunt us in society and in our mind,” Shaw told local news station WBZ-TV.
Shaw, who was managing editor of the Harvard Ichthus, a journal of Christian thought and expression, and was a member of the Christian group Harvard Faith and Action, grew up in Atlanta listening exclusively to Christian rap, which features clean lyrics and positive messages. But about two years ago, Shaw started listening to mainstream rappers, including Kendrick Lamar and Chance the Rapper, who have achieved success for their poignant songs about the everyday struggles of black people in America.
Shaw developed an admiration for the rappers’ willingness to explore “questions of race, religion and black identity,” the same themes that weaved its way into Shaw’s senior thesis.
“Some people don’t consider rap a high art form,” Shaw said in an interview with the Harvard Gazette. “But poetry and rap are very similar. Rhyming poems were very common in old English poetry.”
Shaw began rapping at Bible camp during the summer in Tennessee, but didn’t take the hobby too seriously until he was struggling to come up with an idea for his senior thesis amid a looming deadline. That’s when his mother suggested, “Why don’t you write a rap thesis?”
Shaw said the album’s title, “Liminal Minds,” plays on the phrase “criminal minds.” In the first song, “Declaration of Independence,” Shaw raps about police brutality against black men and finds fault in the nation’s justice system. In the final song, “Open Your Eyes,” Shaw focuses on the progress black people in America have gained in their struggle for rights with their resilience, courage and hope.
“The last song is hopeful, but it ends with the question about forgiveness even for a colored boy,” he told WBZ-TV.
Shaw’s thesis rap album was awarded a grade of “summa cum laude minus,” the second highest mark in Harvard’s English department. He’s scheduled to graduate with honors this week.
After graduation, Shaw plans to move to Seattle for a one-year internship in software engineering. But just like writing, he said rap will always be a treasured hobby.
“Rap is a genre in which I can say everything I want to say,” Shaw told the Harvard Gazette. “I’ve been writing in different capacities, but I never felt that I found my art form until I started rapping.”
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