Inside ‘Tupac Shakur. Wake Me When I’m Free’ Exhibit

The new immersive exhibit, which debuted last month in Los Angeles, explores the late musician’s childhood, revolutionary roots, and pivotal moments in his career

“Tupac Shakur. Wake Me When I’m Free,” the museum experience that commemorates the acclaimed rapper, actor, and activist, is not a hip-hop exhibit.

The immersive exhibition, which debuted on Jan. 21 in Los Angeles, highlights Shakur’s brief but impactful recording career, which lasted only five years due to his tragic murder in 1996.

But the overall purpose of the thought provoking museum, which is backed by Shakur’s estate and has been years in the making, is to provide visitors with a deeper understanding of his life and work by exploring his childhood, revolutionary roots, and pivotal moments in his career.

“The exhibit has been very good about sharing everything with family and people who were close to him, saying ‘Does this feel right?’” said Jamal Joseph, Tupac’s godfather and special advisor to the estate. “So nothing was edited out because people said don’t show it because that’s not who Tupac was.”

He adds, “I think the exhibit will do what Afeni [Shakur] believed in her life and what Tupac believed in his life, ‘Here’s who I am. Here’s my word. I’ll let you decide. You can come up with the final nouns, pronouns, and adjectives. But this is who I am. Pure and unashamed.”

Shakur’s mother, Afeni Shakur who was a political activist and a former member of the Black Panther Party, established the blueprint for the exhibit years before her death in 2016. Creative director Jeremy Hodges, who is the founder of the Project Art Collective, and Nwaka Onwusa, who is the Chief Curator & Vice President of Curatorial Affairs at The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, helped bring Afeni’s vision to life.

“It is a privilege to be a part of such a monumental project,” Hodges said in a statement. “Tupac Shakur was my Malcolm; he was my Martin, and to build an experience that honors such a prolific man, cannot be summed up in words. We wanted to create a memorable experience that will inspire you to be better than when you walked in, all while leaving you with the knowledge that he was a true revolutionary spirit.”

Housed in a 20,000 square foot venue akin to a contemporary art museum, “Wake Me When I’m Free” showcases thousands of handwritten notes ranging from song lyrics, to screenplay ideas, to Tupac’s grocery list; clothing from iconic moments throughout his career; and other treasured artifacts. As visitors walk through the interactive exhibit with a headset and remote that guides them through the experience, each room is meant to peel back a layer of who Tupac was.

Ahead of opening day, we stopped by “Wake Me When I’m Free” to speak to a few of the creatives behind the exhibit and to capture some of our favorite moments.

Please Wake Me When I’m Free

(Photo by Monique Gardner)

As visitors enter “Wake Me When I’m Free,” one of the first images they will see is a 10-foot statue of the Egyptian queen Nefertiti. This sculpture is one of many deconstructions of the various tattoos that Tupac had on his body. Tupac had a tattoo of Nefertiti with the words “2DIE4” written below to pay tribute to his mother, Afeni, who he referred to as a “Black queen.”

In the center of the lobby is an illuminated scroll of an untitled poem that Tupac wrote. It begins with the words “Please wake me when I’m free. I cannot bear captivity,” which is where the title of the exhibition comes from.

Tupac’s Version of the Louvre

Arron Saxe
(Photo by Monique Gardner)

“You’ll see as you walk through, this is not a hip-hop museum,” explains Arron Saxe, co-producer of the exhibit. “Which is, I think, pretty evident from when you walk through the door and what you’re seeing now. If you’ve been to the Louvre in Paris, this is the lobby of the Louvre. It’s just his version.”

“Dear Mama:” Afeni’s Revolutionary Influence 

(Photo by Monique Gardner)

The third gallery inside the exhibit is dedicated to Shakur’s mother, Afeni, and her activism with the Black Panther Party. Afeni joined the organization at the age of 21 in 1968 and became one of the leaders of the Harlem chapter. The gallery focuses on the historic Panther 21 trial in which Afeni and 20 other Black Panther members were arrested on conspiracy charges to bomb department stores and murder police officers, but later acquitted. She was released from jail when she was eight months pregnant with Tupac.

In the center of the room, there is a sculpture of a Black fist that is surrounded by 300 handcuffs—one for each year in prison that Afeni was facing charges for.

This gallery provides visitors with an understanding of Tupac’s influences from his mother and the Black Panther Party, which later inspired his ideals and work.

Mama Raised a Hellrazor

(Photo by Monique Gardner)

The next room depicts moments from Tupac’s childhood including the tricycle he used to ride around during Black Panther meetings. “I remember Tupac riding through the house on his tricycle with a helmet, and you better get out of his way,” said Jamal Joseph, who was a member of the Panther 21. “And who he was that day depended on what character he was playing. So it could be a football player or it might be an astronaut, but ‘Here I come.'”

He adds, “So to talk about that story and to see that story be larger than life. And to know that Tupac’s energy was larger than life when he came through that room, is really quite amazing.”

The Power of Knowledge

Jamal Jopseh
(Photo by Monique Gardner)

Joseph, who is an author, filmmaker, and professor at Columbia University, donated several of his cherished possessions to the exhibit including a haiku book that Tupac made for him when he was just 11 years old. Tupac sent him the book, which was filled with words of encouragement, while Joseph was serving nearly a decade in state and federal prisons.

“That’s what it was to be a panther cub in Afeni’s household,” Joseph said.

He adds, “This is what Afeni said and she believed in. In my home, a book—any book—is a sacred item. In my home, a book is more important than a light bulb. A book is more important than a sofa. A book must be preserved. That’s the home Tupac grew up in.”

The exhibit is filled with newspapers and some of the books that Afeni instructed Tupac to read in order to strengthen his mind. These habits would later strengthen his pen as well.

The Writings of Tupac

(Photo by Monique Gardner)

Perhaps one of the most inspiring galleries in the expansive exhibition is a room that is dedicated to all of Tupac’s written works. It’s filled with more than 320 pieces of paper, which details everything from his early poems and song lyrics, soundtracks and potential actors for his future films, and ideas for screenplays. One of the displayed pages, titled ‘People to Contact,’ shows a list of celebrities that Tupac planned to reach out to one day including legendary producer Quincy Jones and pop superstar Janet Jackson. He would later go on to getting engaged to Jones’ daughter, Kidada, and co-starring with Jackson in John Singleton’s 1993-film Poetic Justice. This is just one of the many visions that Tupac manifested for his life through writing.

“This is why I know this gallery is just so important because if nothing else, your written words are what lasts and they live beyond you,” said Nwaka Onwusa who curated the gallery. Onwusa, who is an L.A. native, also worked with Shakur’s estate to curate another exhibition called “All Eyez On Me: The Writings of Tupac” in 2015 at the Grammy Museum.

All Eyez On Me

(Photo by Monique Gardner)

This room displays a recreation of Can-Am Studios, the notorious Death Row Records studio where Tupac recorded his 1996-album All Eyez On Me, which features hits such as “How Do U Want It” featuring K-Ci & JoJo, “Ambitionz Az a Ridah,” and “All About U.” The southwest Hollywood studio, where several other hip-hop greats including Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg recorded, is now owned by Top Dawg Entertainment’s MixedByAli.

Historic Cultural Moments 

(Photo by Monique Gardner)

Towards the end of the “Wake Me When I’m Free” experience is a shrine filled with clothing that Tupac wore during the last 11 months of his life. Some of the memorable outfits includes the all-white suit he wore in the “I Ain’t Mad At Cha” music video, the leather vest he’s wearing on the album cover of All Eyez On Me, and the Versace suit he wore to the Grammy Awards in 1996.

The Rose That Grew From Concrete 

(Photo by Monique Gardner)

A rose that looks like it is erupting from a piece of concrete rests in the center of the final gallery titled “The Rose That Grew From the Concrete.” It’s a visual representation of the symbolic poem that Tupac wrote, which meditates on how something beautiful can come from a space where it is least expected. It perfectly sums up both the exhibit and the life of Tupac, who faced many hardships during his 25 years on Earth, but is now being celebrated as a global icon.

The “Tupac Shakur. Wake Me When I’m Free” exhibit runs through May 1 at The Canvas at L.A. Live. Tickets range from $14.50 to $54.50.

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