Shaun Boothe delivers personal histories through hip-hop. Shaun Boothe wants to provide history lessons that are more engaging and inspiring than the textbooks he grew up with.
To that end, he has created more than a dozen multimedia “Unauthorized Biography” projects, and he brings the series to the Lincoln Center on Saturday, Jan. 26. His biography series so far includes Barack Obama, Malala Yousafzai, Oprah Winfrey, Bruce Lee and more.
Each iconic and inspirational figure gets about four minutes of rhyming biographical information against a video backdrop. He also speaks about their ideas and impact at his live shows that are part rap concert, part TED talk, and part history class.
The songs are like Lin-Manuel Miranda’s rap tracks from “Hamilton,” if that musical were a 20th and early 21st Century history survey.
In fact, Boothe had already launched his biography series when he heard about Miranda’s historic hip-hop musical. At first, he was annoyed that “Hamilton” might compete with his project, but he realized the massive success of the Broadway blockbuster helped him.
“Hamilton has opened up minds to people being more receptive to hip-hop at all,” he said. “There’s something incredible about being the only one, but there’s something equally powerful and effective about having a reference point.”
A new perspective
Like Miranda, Boothe drew inspiration from history books he read as an adult. Boothe did not enjoy his high school and college history courses.
“You would think that history was my favorite subject,” he said. “I didn’t like it. I always avoided it.”
He only came back to history well into his hip-hop career.
“I started reading books that really lit me up,” he said. He wanted to provide a similar spark of inspiration, which was missing from his history classes.
“Me repackaging history through hip-hop is kind of like being the thing that wasn’t there,” he said. “I decided, instead of complaining about certain things, to go into that space and be that person that I always wanted to be exposed to during my education.”
Boothe was born and raised in Toronto to Jamaican immigrant parents. In grade school, he started writing raps and poems, mostly light-hearted stories about individual classmates. After sharing the rhymes on the playground, other friends would ask for a composition about them. He realized he had encouraging fans — and a passion.
“I was one of the lucky ones,” Boothe said. “Finding your passion is something people are in search of their entire life.”
The pre-Drake Canadian rap game
He later took a summer during college to pursue his rap career full-time. He won some major contests, but there wasn’t much interest in Canadian rap “pre-Drake.”
“It was a grind in the independent hip-hop scene,” Boothe said. “A lot of incredible music was being created with no real outlet for it.”
After James Brown died, Boothe was asked to write a verse about the late godfather of soul. Inspired by a Nas track about rap godfather Rakim, he ended up composing a full track and creating an accompanying video.
“It was a side project to celebrate someone who had meant so much to music history, and it evolved into celebrating figures in general,” Boothe said.
He knew he was on the right track when he later posted a Muhammed Ali biography track online and Ali’s daughter emailed him to say, “You really captured who he was.”
He abandoned the traditional music career and focused full time on the biography pieces, which each take about two months to compose.
“It will reach people, so you better be sure you’re doing a good job and that you’ve got your facts right. You have to quadruple check,” Boothe said. “You only get one shot at it. I have to push myself to rise to the occasion.”