The first thing visitors will notice at Tupac Shakur: Wake Me When I’m Free at Canvas at L.A. Live in Los Angeles, California, is a towering 12-foot bust of the Egyptian queen Nefertiti with the words “2 DIE 4” etched beneath her.
Then you look around and realize that you’re a part of the larger-than-life reproduction of the late rapper’s tattoos, which feature a tribute to his mother Afeni Shakur. The exhibit, which opened earlier this year on Jan. 21 and will move to an as-yet-to-be announced location after May 1, was named after a poem that Tupac Shakur wrote when he was only a teenager.
As a longtime fan of both mother and son, many people have written about the exhibit which was meant to salute the late artist and his family’s impact. Unregrettably, this written essay about my experience was purposely meant to come after the hype of Wake Me When I’m Free’s opening to showcase how I viewed the exhibit both virtually and in-person (twice). The moment to do so meant reconnecting with an artist who influenced me to read intently, write profusely, fight for those who look like me 24/7 while carrying the lessons I learned from the likes of Malcolm X, Nikki Giovanni, Nina Simone, and ‘Pac’s mother.
To be immersed in the inked artwork that represented ‘Pac’s messaging to the world wherever he went was an apt introduction to what guests can expect when viewing Wake Me When I’m Free.
I walked in with acclaimed director Felicia Pride (Really Love, tender), where attendees received a set of headphones and a remote control upon entering what looked like “Rose that Grew From the Concrete” meets an Avengers spaceship. The sensor on the remote would enable guests to also hear the spoken voices of Tupac, his mother Afeni, and other influential people in his life. Walking with a dedicated throng of guests, I shared with her how my first trip was a private experience where I met and learned from the likes of exhibit co-producer Arron Saxe (The Shakur Estate), Nwaka Onwusa (Chief Curator & VP of Curatorial Affairs at The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame), and Pac’s godfather Jamal Joseph.
Joseph, who was imprisoned when the “California Love” rapper was but a kid, shared intimate details about receiving letters from his kinfolk that helped him to keep hope alive. “He wrote me this haiku at only 11-years-old, and when you take a look at his mother, who was the baddest Black woman to walk the planet, you can see how sharp his awareness was and that, together, their brilliance shined brighter than the sun,” Mr. Joseph shared with me during the preview.
Yes, the word is out now about Afeni, a biopic detailing ‘Pac’s mother and her experience as part of the 1969 “Panther 21” trial in New York City, but at the time, walking through the crowd found most people gravitating to other spots of the 20,000 square foot curated space. As part museum, part art installation, part sensory experience — WMWIF was all heart with no chaser and no filter. Through a myriad of sound spaces, I was transported to the hallways ‘Pac would ride his tricycle on as her mother led meetings to organize Black Panthers and activists to hit the street. You could see the books and words she shared with ‘Pac to get him and his sister, Sekyiwa, to read any and everything.
With an array of never-before-seen artifacts, WMWIF was not an experience to rush through because you would miss something. For instance, by now how many people who haven’t been there (yet) have heard about POWAMEKKA CAFE? Five years ago, Nas, who, during one of rap’s darkest times was considered an enemigo to Tupac, curated an experience to highlight just how multifaceted and wide-ranging the Death Row star’s ideas would have been had the tragic night of Sept. 7, 1996, never happened.
A true revolutionary spirit, WMWIF made it hard to sit with the fact that the man born Lesane Parish Crooks was only 25 when he was taken from his family, friends, and fans. 26 years after Tupac’s murder, most of his contemporaries are entering into their fifties — and yet, ‘Pac’s remarkable collection belies the breadth, depth, and volume of his work. No Coachella hologram was needed when WMWIF boasts a range of poetry, screenplays, business plans, and letters to friends, family members, and unborn kids which put ‘Pac and Afeni’s lives into historical context.
One of the most personal experiences for me was walking through “The Writings of Tupac,” which was curated by Nwaka Onwusa and Project Art Collective founder, Jeremy Hodges. Filled with more than 320 pieces of paper, handwritten by Tupac himself, each line is a glimpse into the artist’s insights and genius. The dedication he put into Euthanasia, an album that featured songs that would live on All Eyez on Me, Me Against the World, and Makaveli, was meticulously planned from who would be featured to phone numbers of contacts he had hoped to bring in at a later time.
The love he shows Jada Pinkett (now Smith) in “4 Jada,” is a constant note that gets referenced between the two by gossip sites, but to see it in person places you inside of ‘Pac’s heart and mind and endears guests who welcome an opportunity to learn about how he treated his most cherished relationships.
Whether it was hearing stories about ‘Pac’s favorite toys in “Mama Raised a Hellrazor” or reading his treatments for “2 Of Amerika’s Most Wanted” and “To Live and Die in L.A.” in the “Death Row Records” room, the experience was full of memorable moments and rare glimpses into the life, legacy and times of Tupac Amaru Shakur.
Upon exiting, Wake Me When I’m Free, you hear Tupac recite his “Rose that Grew from the Concrete” poem from his own voice. It was a bittersweet moment because while I had a chance to reconnect with a long-lost friend, just like that — it was over, a moment still too short just like his life.
Tickets for Tupac Shakur: Wake Me When I’m Free range from $14 to $54.50. For more information, visit wakemewhenimfree.com.
Kevin L. Clark is a screenwriter and entertainment director for BET Digital, who covers the intersection of music, film, pop culture, and social justice. Follow him on @KevitoClark.