The Mixtape Vol. 111

Press play on Obasi Shaw's Harvard honours thesis, Liminal Minds

After being featured in the Harvard Gazette as one of the Ivy League school’s standout graduates of the class of 2017, English major Obasi Shaw has had his now famous senior thesis, Liminal Minds, reported on by everyone from Hypebeast to CNN. If you haven’t already heard it, it’s a rap album.

A Harvard first, Shaw's project – his mother’s idea – was submitted as a creative thesis for his senior English course, earning himself an A–grade (‘summa cum laude minus’) and graduating with honours just last week.

The project is reflective of the socially relevant rap content made by artists like Chance The Rapper and Kendrick Lamar, both of whom have influenced Shaw’s approach to the art form. The powerful content tells the story of contemporary black consciousness in the style of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales – one experience, multiple perspectives.

So what’s a recent grad to do with a job offer from Google on the one hand and Janelle Monae’s Wondaland Records asking for a meeting on the other? Press play on Shaw’s highly lauded project and find out after the jump.

Do you have a stage name?
I go by Obasi, both on stage and in the rest of my life. Although my first rapper nickname was OBae, so some people still call me that.

What inspired you to use the multi-perspective storytelling device from the Canterbury Tales?
Ever since I took an introductory course on the history of English literature my freshman year of college, I've been fascinated by Old and Middle English poetry, including the Canterbury Tales. What I love about the Canterbury Tales specifically is that they're framed as a series of stories told by ordinary people of different backgrounds in their own unique ways. Everybody is given a voice and treated as equal to everyone else, no matter how socially insignificant they might seem. I wanted to do the same with Liminal Minds, except that I'm telling the stories of the ordinary black people whose voices are not often put on a pedestal.

Is it true that the album was your mom's idea?
Yeah, while I was considering whether I wanted to apply to write a creative thesis (which is allowed in Harvard's English department, usually in the form of a novel, a book of poetry, a screenplay, etc.), my mom suggested I write a rap album as my thesis. At first I thought such an unusual proposal would never be accepted by the department, but when the application deadline arrived and I had no other plans, I decided it was worth a try. To my surprise, the idea (as well as the album) was met with enthusiasm every step of the way.

This album was a thesis submission; will there be another one?
There will definitely be more albums in the future. Although I plan to continue to explore other forms of writing, I love the concept of an album as a story-telling medium, with individual songs acting both as standalone works and as integral parts of a whole. I've already been writing and developing the concept for my next album, and I'm excited to see what begins to take shape.

What other submission formats might you have tried?
I was content with writing a normal thesis, which would have been an essay of approximately 60 to 100 pages, had this idea not worked out. I also toyed with the idea of a collection of short stories, but I was still unsure of my ability to consistently produce quality work in that medium. Rap was the art form I felt most sure I could excel at, which was why I chose to apply to write a rap thesis.

After graduation?

I have a job in software engineering at Google, where I plan to work for the next few years as I feel out how I can best make a positive change in the world. Meanwhile, I'll keep producing music and looking out for opportunities to expand my reach. And if people continue to like what I create, then who knows? Maybe I'll end up doing music for a living!
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