Obasi Shaw wrote the album, titled Liminal Minds in a year. It was awarded the second highest grade in the department – summa cum laude minus.
Each song is told from a different character’s perspective, a format inspired by Geoffrey Chaucer’s seminal 14th century piece, The Canterbury Tales, and focuses on black identity in America.
The20-year-old, originally from Stone Mountain, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta said he “never thought it would be accepted by Harvard”.
Undergraduates at the university do not need to submit senior theses, but for those wishing to graduate with honours, it is a requirement.
Rather than write an essay, collection of poems or a piece of prose, Shaw decided to try something different.
It was Shaw’s mother who sparked the initial idea, after noticing her son write raps and perform them at open mic nights on campus.
Changing perceptions of rap, pioneered by artists like Kendrick Lamar, have catapulted the genre into literary acclaim.
The rapper’s album To Pimp A Butterfly, as well as Nas’ Illmatic were both added to the Harvard Library in acknowledgement of their cultural significance.
In Shaw’s first track, Declaration of Independence, he writes: “Behold, what we hold is three-fold—Body and spirit to be thrones for free souls. Self is the evidence, please close the freak shows, And depose the evils, our peoples are equals”.
Shaw also uses the writings of James Balwdin to talk about slavery and police violence.
Harvard English lecturer and Shaw’s thesis adviser Josh Bell, was highly impressed with his student’s creation, praising the album for its fluidity – both as an academic piece and an artistic creation.
The album is available online for free, and Shaw after graduation, Shaw will work as a software engineer at Google.