• Obasi Shaw poses outside the gates of Harvard Yard in Cambridge. (AAP)
“Rap is a historically black form of art, and if I want to tell a story of black people, the most appropriate art form is to use their art form – to use our art form."
By
Sam Carroll

19 May 2017 - 12:11 PM  UPDATED 19 May 2017 - 12:19 PM

Obasi Shaw may be the first student in the history of Harvard University to produce a rap album as part of a senior thesis.

While the submission of a thesis isn’t a requirement for most Harvard undergraduates, students can get approval to include artistic work, like poetry and screenplays.

But English student Shaw, an avid rap fan, went one step further. He submitted a proposal for a 10-track album to be part of his Harvard thesis.

“I feel like a rapped project kind of conveys the black culture more than a set of poetry would or an even, like, a movie…. This is one of the very few forms of art that black people can claim as their own.”

Despite his initial surprise that the university's English department accepted his idea, his album - called Liminal Minds - received the equivalent of an A-minus grade. And the originality of his thesis could be the reason why this 20-year-old ends up completing his degree with honors.

In an interview with The Boston Globe, Shaw detailed the theme of the album, describing it as a take on life as a black person in the United States, with each song old from a new character’s perspective.

The inspiration for the idea, he said, was Geoffrey Chaucer's 14th century story collection "The Canterbury Tales".

Speaking with student paper The Harvard Crimson in April, he revealed his frustrations with society's tendency to split race relations by time periods.

“I feel like we compartmentalise our understanding of race relations in America into five distinct categories – there’s slavery, reconstruction, Jim Crow, civil rights, and now,” Shaw said.

"And I think that because we make these sharp categorical distinctions, it’s hard for us to see how… violence now is influenced by housing policies in the ‘60s, and how different times intersect and how nothing's really distinct.”

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He went on to highlight his reasoning for choosing the musical form, going beyond his musical taste.

“Rap is a historically black form of art, and if I want to tell a story of black people, the most appropriate art form is to use their art form—to use our art form,” Shaw said.

“I feel like a rapped project kind of conveys the black culture more than a set of poetry would or an even, like, a movie…. This is one of the very few forms of art that black people can claim as their own.”

While he submitted the album, he plans to improve the production quality before circulating it online for free in the hope that it opens a pathway into the music industry.

In the meantime, Shaw is set to follow a different path, travelling to Seattle to begin a role as a software engineer with Google.

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