The 20-year-old English major grew up in Stone Mountain, Ga. as a fan of Christian rap (think Lecrae and Trip Lee), but mainstream acts like Kendrick Lamar and Chance The Rapper shifted his focus two years ago. It was Shaw’s mom who noticed her son’s interest in rhyming and suggested he craft an album of his own for his senior thesis.
“I just remember thinking, That would never work,” Shaw tells XXL over the phone. “They would never accept it or allow it because somebody has to choose to advise it.”
The day before the deadline, Shaw submitted the rap album proposal on a whim and was shocked a few weeks later when he learned it was approved. As Shaw described, the labor took “a little over a year” and was submitted for final analysis back in March. Shaw’s final LP, Liminal Minds, was the first rap album to ever be submitted as a thesis in the prestigious school’s nearly 400-year history. The format of the 10-track project tells stories from different character’s perspectives living in America today.
“I’d say it’s definitely a play on Criminal Minds,” explains Shaw. “There was this quote—I don’t remember where it was from—but it said Black people in America are caught between freedom and slavery and even though they’re not enslaved anymore, the effects of slavery still exist in society and in our consciousness. So, very soon after I heard that quote, I learned the world ‘liminal’ and it just all connected.
“It’s the idea that we can understand Black minds not as criminal minds but as liminal minds and as minds that are under all these different kinds of pressures that cause them to be the way they are and do the things that they do. Like, this is the way Black people experience America.”
The hard work paid off. Liminal Minds was awarded summa cum laude minus, the second highest grade in Harvard’s English department.
Though the wordsmith has no plans to sell Liminal Minds or entertain a career in rap—he has already accepted a position as a software engineer at Google—he does enjoy the art form of hip-hop and isn’t opposed into turning his hobby into something more in the future. “For now, I have a job so I’m going to go down that path, continue writing music and just see who reaches out to me. I want people to hear my music but I don’t know if a full-blown rap career is what I want.”
Harvard University continues to show that rap has a place within the Ivy Leagues’ walls. Rappers like Pusha T and Chance The Rapper have been invited to speak at the college in the past and earlier this year, the Crimson announced four rap albums—K. Dot’s To Pimp a Butterfly, Nas’ Illmatic, A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory and Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill—would be archived in the university library.
“I don’t think anything weighty rests on the fact that Ivy Leagues are taking it seriously but I do think that it’s great for anybody to make rap more accessible to people,” says Shaw. “So, if Ivy Leagues are promoting rap, then people who may never touch rap outside of my thesis or of Harvard might come to it because they saw Harvard promoted it. Anything that broadens rap’s reach I’m in support of.”