A Harvard Student Made A Rap Album Thesis. Sway Puts Him To The Test (Video)
Last month, Obasi Shaw graduated from Harvard University. For his thesis, the English major submitted a 10-track Hip-Hop album, Liminal Minds. He wrote and recorded the album for more than a year. Shaw’s resulting work tackled the issue of what it means for a young man to be Black in present day America. Citing influences ranging from James Baldwin to Geoffrey Chaucer, the Stone Mountain, Georgia native told The Boston Globe last month, “I never thought [a Hip-Hop album] would be accepted by Harvard. I didn’t think they would respect Rap as an art form enough for me to do it.”
Harvard did, and Obasi Shaw’s professor awarded the album-thesis an “A-” grade. Shaw graduated last month and is newly hired at Google (he minored in Computer Science).
At 21 years old, Obasi Shaw recently appeared on Sway In The Morning. In the episode, he explains how Middle English texts and Hip-Hop neatly converged for his album. Shaw says he started rapping seriously in 2015, and cited local Rap influences such as Childish Gambino and Cyhi The Prynce. With his new job, Shaw plans to pay down student debt and fund his music aspirations as he pivots towards social work in lower income communities. Of his album, he breaks down that “Liminal” means “on the line, between two states.” He then applies that meaning to himself: “I feel personally liminal in a lot of ways: going to Harvard but being Black, being a Christian but also my Christianity seemingly not lining up with what a lot of people think [that means]… also writing an album that’s Hip-Hop [but created] to be graded by academia. [In] a lot of ways, I feel caught between. So what I wanted to express was that for me, all those different groups that I’m a part of or that I’m questioning or whatever, I wanted them to be challenged in some way. I wanted Christians to be challenged to see the complexities in peoples’ lives. I wanted the listener who thinks they understand Black people to be challenged to see that there’s not one Black story. There’s many, many different Black identities, and they’re all Black in their own ways. Most of all I wanted the listener to consider that all these people are not so different than [they are].” Like Chaucer’s 600-plus-year-old Canterbury Tales (which he credits in particular), the album-maker aimed to use distinct characters to illustrate an over-arching message.
As is the case of many Sway guests, Obasi Shaw is put on the spot to freestyle. Having rapped for just two years, the Georgian puts his skills to the test. There’s nearly five minutes of rhyming, starting around 22:00.
However, the strongest dose of bars may come around 25:00, after Sway personally suggests a beat-flip after hearing Shaw’s rhyme pattern begin. With a faster groove for his verse, the 21-year-old spits, “Yo, these aren’t just fast words / I’m trying to shepherd mass herds / Discerning lies, I’m trying to lead y’all to pastors / I did the math, now I’m givin’ Sway the answers / Rapped myself to graduation, I be spittin’ passwords / I turned the tables backwards / I’ma catch a Masters / Give myself an education, we can’t all be rappers.” Moments later, he raps, “They puttin’ kids in caskets / Ask yourself: ‘could that be me?’ / ‘Cause I need you to understand / If one’s a slave, no one’s free / No one’s free / No one’s free / No one’s free / Y’all ain’t heard the verdict, but 30 cops wanna murder me / Most of y’all ain’t heard of me / That’s cool, I’m just a kid.” Shaw is humble in his moment.
Obasi raps about how he watches Sway In The Morning on YouTube, and now is a guest. He makes another reference to Kanye West’s explosive 2013 show appearance, as well as thoughtful allusions to The College Dropout and Graduation. This young man wants his college experience available to others.
#BonusBeat: The Liminal Minds album:
This LP released on May 19.