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Researcher, rapper Kofi Kusi-Boadum releases album and pursues UNT doctorate

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Rebecca Slezak
/
Staff Photographer, The Dallas Morning News
Kofi Kusi-Boadum, 26, in the Photo Studio Thursday, August 18, 2022 at the Dallas Morning News. Kusi-Boadum is a biomedical PhD student at The University of North Texas Health Science Center.

Arts Access is a partnership between The Dallas Morning News and KERA that expands local arts, music and culture coverage through the lens of access and equity.

This community-funded journalism initiative is funded by the Better Together Fund, Carol & Don Glendenning, City of Dallas OAC, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Eugene McDermott Foundation, James & Gayle Halperin Foundation, Jennifer & Peter Altabef and The Meadows Foundation. The News and KERA retain full editorial control of Arts Access’ journalism.

At first glance, Kofi Kusi-Boadum seems like your typical graduate student. He’s aiming for a Ph.D. in biomedical sciences at the University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth, where he studies nicotine addiction in rats.

He’s also an aspiring rapper. Kusi-Boadum released his first album, 5foot3, in February under his stage name, KooKusi. The album title is a reference to his height, which Kusi-Boadum has often felt insecure about. A video of him rapping in a moving car racked up over 80,000 views on Instagram.

Kusi-Boadum’s two interests seem like diametric opposites, but he sees an important connection between them. He wants to use his scientific knowledge, combined with his passion for music, to tell moving stories about science-based topics like substance abuse.

Kusi-Boadum wants to make a difference in people’s lives. And he’s on an unconventional path toward doing just that.

“It’s going to be very hard,” he said. “But my life has always been hard. I’m down for this.”

Science and song

Growing up in Ghana, Kusi-Boadum describes himself as the kid who didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life. He focused on doing well in school, hoping that would give him the power to pursue his dream career — once he figured out what it was.

Kusi-Boadum’s interest in rap music came about in 2010, right after junior high. He was influenced by Ghanaian rappers like Paapa Versa, EL and Sarkodie.

“I would just string some words together that just rhymed, [and] didn’t really make sense,” he said. “And I realized my expression was storytelling.”

He experimented with rap for a few years before putting his music on pause to go to pharmacy school in 2013.

After settling into Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Ghana, Kusi-Boadum picked up rap again in 2014. At the time, his music focused mainly on religious themes.

In 2017, Kusi-Boadum joined a group called SASA at pharmacy school: the singers, artists and speakers association. He says SASA members discussed the Christian religion at meetings, but put an emphasis on social issues. The group hosted shows on campus that showcased the members’ poetry, singing and rap.

Kusi-Boadum began performing at SASA events. Inspired by SASA, his muse shifted from religion to social issues he was passionate about.

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Rebecca Slezak
/
Staff Photographer, The Dallas Morning News
Kofi Kusi-Boadum, 26, in the Photo Studio Thursday, August 18, 2022 at the Dallas Morning News. Kusi-Boadum is a biomedical PhD student at The University of North Texas Health Science Center.

At the same time, Kusi-Boadum became more and more curious about substance abuse research. He volunteered at a mental health clinic in Ghana where he met patients battling addiction, and he remembers watching friends from high school and from his community struggle with alcoholism.

“I felt like this could have been me,” he said. “I could have been that person.”

Kusi-Boadum wanted to speak up about addiction. He knew he had the ability to connect with people through his art, but he needed an even stronger scientific background to talk about difficult topics accurately.

The last musical straw

After graduating from pharmacy school, Kusi-Boadum decided to hit the books again: this time not in Ghana, but at HSC in Fort Worth. Kusi-Boadum wanted to get a Ph.D. in biomedical sciences and research substance addiction in more depth.

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Rebecca Slezak
/
Staff Photographer, The Dallas Morning News
Kofi Kusi-Boadum, 26, in the Photo Studio Thursday, August 18, 2022 at the Dallas Morning News. Kusi-Boadum is a biomedical PhD student at The University of North Texas Health Science Center.

But in early 2021, months before he made the big move, Kusi-Boadum realized his music was getting left behind. He didn’t know anyone from the music industry in Texas, and didn’t know whether he’d have the time to pursue rap alongside his schoolwork at all.

He felt like this was the last straw: his last opportunity to know he’d truly given music a shot.

So, before he started his Ph.D., Kusi-Boadum recorded a rap album, with the help of friends from SASA. Kusi-Boadum wanted the album to tell one story over several songs, and tackle a variety of social issues.

The titular song, “5foot3,” uses Kusi-Boadum’s own height insecurity as a stand-in for any shortcomings a listener might feel about themselves. On other tracks, Kusi-Boadum tackles stereotypes and cellphone addiction. He also includes a track called “Pentecost Signboard” about hypocrisy, where his friend Kweku “Li” Diaw calls Kusi-Boadum out on some of the issues he raps about in earlier tracks.

The album has lyrics in English and in Akan, a local dialect from Ghana.

“I want it to sound like the normal conversation that you have with your sister,” Kusi-Boadum said.

Kusi-Boadum called the album recording process a “one-year dream.” The project was released in February 2022, once Kusi-Boadum was a semester into his study at HSC. Currently, the title track has nearly 5,000 streams on Spotify, with the other tracks ranging from 2,000-3,000 streams.

Kusi-Boadum said after the album release, he received offers from startup record labels looking to sign him. But he turned them down. He said he couldn’t afford to pursue his music career more seriously, because it would mean leaving his research behind.

“I can’t leave my rats in the lab,” he said.

But Kusi-Boadum did decide not to leave his rap dreams behind in Ghana. He’s already at work on his next project, where he wants to address suicide and substance abuse. Kusi-Boadum feels like he’s armed with the right amount of scientific and social knowledge to tackle the issues from both angles.

“When I moved here, and I looked back at what I had created,” Kusi-Boadum recalled, “I didn’t think it was a good idea to stop.”

He’s also continuing with his schoolwork. Kusi-Boadum is beginning the second year of his Ph.D. program and continuing his research with Michael Forster and Nathalie Sumien, who are professors of pharmacology and neuroscience at HSC.

“[Kusi-Boadum] listens to himself,” Forster said. “He has great honesty and sincerity, and … a genuine interest in improving health.”

Striking a balance

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Rebecca Slezak
/
Staff Photographer, The Dallas Morning News
Kofi Kusi-Boadum, 26, is a biomedical Ph.D. student at the University of North Texas Health Science Center.

Balancing research and rap isn’t easy. Kusi-Boadum says it’s hard having to take time away from schoolwork to fine-tune his music, and he’s still working on a balance between the two.

This spring, Kusi-Boadum received the Elena and Thomas Yorio Scholarship for First-Year Students at HSC based on his academic performance, leadership and integrity. He said when he received the award, he had to look at his name on the certificate to convince himself he had truly earned it.

“I didn’t think I deserved it,” he said, “after everything that I had done, putting school aside and doing music.”

Kusi-Boadum’s walking a difficult path, but he’s optimistic about finding his way.

Diaw is confident about that too. He’s known Kusi-Boadum for around five years, and helped him with creative direction on “5foot3″ in addition to rapping on “Pentecost Signboard.”

Diaw said Kusi-Boadum used to tell him that he wanted to make music that made people listen. After Kusi-Boadum’s first project, Diaw said people are taking notice.

“After releasing this first body of work … people are actually paying attention to the things he’s saying,” Diaw said. “So for me, that’s what I admire: the fact that he wanted to genuinely become this person, this artist, and over the years, he’s actually been able to pull it off.”

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Rebecca Slezak
/
Staff Photographer, The Dallas Morning News
Kofi Kusi-Boadum, a biomedical Ph.D. student at The University of North Texas Health Science Center, is also a rapper.

Adithi Ramakrishnan is a science reporting fellow at The Dallas Morning News. Her fellowship is supported by the University of Texas at Dallas. The News makes all editorial decisions.