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New Tupac Shakur exhibit, ‘Wake Me When I’m Free,’ looks at the revolution that created the revolutionary

The show opening in Los Angeles is about more than the music

Taking a virtual tour of Wake Me When I’m Free, an interactive exhibit on Tupac Shakur that opens Friday in Los Angeles, I couldn’t stop thinking about an interview Shakur gave to BET’s Ed Gordon a month before he was shot multiple times at New York’s Quad Studios and convicted of sexual assault the following day.

“If I can’t live free — if I can’t live with the same respect as the next man — I don’t wanna be here. Because God has cursed me to see what life should be like,” he said in October 1994. “Just because I don’t have nothing to pass around to let people put money in the bucket doesn’t mean I ain’t doing God’s work. These ghetto kids ain’t God’s children? ’Cause I don’t see no missionaries coming through there. I’m doing God’s work.”

Two years later, Shakur, only 25, would die in a drive-by shooting in Las Vegas. Since then, the legacy of one of rap’s foremost artists rested largely in the hands of Afeni Shakur, Shakur’s mother. She was deeply involved when conversations began six years ago about an exhibit to examine the meaning of his art and his activism — how he was “doing God’s work.”

Outside of the “Tupac Shakur. Wake Me When I’m Free” exhibit at The Canvas at L.A. Live in Los Angeles on Jan. 20.

VALERIE MACON/AFP via Getty Images

Afeni Shakur’s death in 2016, coupled with watershed events such as the coronavirus pandemic and the global response to the murder of George Floyd by police, pushed deadlines. But it also prepared us to see the full context of his life. When it came to Shakur’s analysis of the Black experience in America, he seemingly had a poem, an interview, a song or sound bite for everything.

“Afeni passing was the gut punch of gut punches. This is a different exhibit if she’s still here. But I’m glad it’s taken this long because every time it’s gotten better,” said Arron Saxe, the exhibit’s producer and president of Kinfolk Management + Media. “We think the messaging just got better.”

The goal, Saxe said, was not to create merely a “hip-hop exhibit.” The trajectory of Shakur’s musical career is well known. While Wake Me When I’m Free explores Shakur’s time in the studio, the works he produced and the controversy they courted, its true intention is peeling back the layers on his early life and its revolutionary roots.

One of the first images that visitors will see when they enter The Canvas, the venue housing the 25,000-square-foot exhibit in the LA Live district, is a 12-by-8-foot image of Nefertiti. Shakur had it tattooed on his chest in honor of his mother and all that he thought the symbol of strong Black women represented. Across the lobby are examples of his other tattoos. For instance, “50 N—az” referred to Shakur’s belief that if one Black person from every state joined with him that he, and Black folks as a whole, would be stronger than an AK-47. His most well-known tattoo, “THUG LIFE,” inked on his stomach, was an acronym for “The Hate U Give Little Infants F— Everybody.”

Every 15 minutes or so, visitors can expect a large rose to appear on a wall and a door will open leading them into the next room. The sound of gunshots and police sirens ripple across the room as wall-to-wall screens rotate images of what Shakur saw and read with his own eyes. A 3½-minute video, narrated by Shakur himself, appears on every screen in the room. Images of Black people hung from trees, police brutality and other examples of American injustice to Black bodies accompany his words.

“Who he is, is not just rap,” Saxe said. “If we can blow that all away, we can clean the slate.”

From there, different galleries provide deeper context into not only Shakur’s life, but the revolutionary life he was born into. A large part of the exhibit focuses on Afeni Shakur, whom many involved in Wake Me When I’m Free’s production say produced “light bulb moments.” An exploration of the 1971 Panther 21 trial, in which Afeni Shakur and 20 others were acquitted, consumes much of this portion of the gallery. The exhibit includes a sculpted Black fist surrounded by 350 handcuffs, one for each year in prison that Afeni Shakur was facing for charges of conspiring to bomb department stores and murder police officers.

Only a few artifacts exist from Shakur’s childhood. But there are large recreations of certain items, such as a tricycle a young Tupac used to ride around during Black Panther meetings. Or a 10-foot stack of New York Times newspapers Afeni Shakur would have her son read front to back as punishment and report back with his findings and opinions on current events. Or a giant jar of peanut butter placed beside a stack of televisions. Black Panther cubs like Tupac were told to smear the peanut butter on doorknobs, sink handles and other surfaces that law enforcement might examine for fingerprints. He was a child experiencing a revolution.

Shakur’s musical calling comes into focus a little more than halfway through the tour. “We had to establish who he was as a full person before that,” Saxe said.

A room dedicated to all of his written works is probably where most people will spend the bulk of their time. It includes approximately 280 pieces of paper, in Shakur’s signature handwriting, from screenplays to poems to early songs. 

Coming out of that gallery, the influence of television, music and movies comes into play. The visitor stands in an 18-year-old Shakur’s shoes, firmly planted at a crossroads. At the very beginning of his musical career, Shakur had a decision to make. He could advance up the ranks of the New Afrikan Panthers. Or he could take a contract with Shock G of the group Digital Underground. Shakur’s explanation for going the route he did is that he wanted to create a platform and come back to the Panthers and truly make a difference.

All around the visitor are relics of his movies: school lockers from Juice, his character Lucky’s mail truck from Poetic Justice and 1994’s Above The Rim. So are his albums, such as 2Pacalypse Now, Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z. and Thug Life: Volume 1.

All of the chaos of his meteoric rise to rap superstar and public enemy No. 1 is there. The exhibit features a “prison experience,” bringing to light Shakur’s time in a maximum-security penitentiary in 1995 for sexually abusing a fan, Ayanna Jackson, in his hotel room in 1993. (Shakur denied taking part in Jackson’s assault for the remainder of his life.) Time in prison not only changed Shakur, it altered the course of rap history. For Saxe, it was important to document every twist and turn of Shakur’s life.

“Anyone who spent time in prison will have a visceral reaction to this,” Saxe noted of the sounds of prison doors slamming closed and inmates yelling.

Recreations of three different jail cells reflect the impact of the prison industrial complex on his family. In one cell sits a letter from Afeni Shakur demanding nourishment from the jail she’s housed in while trying to carry her unborn son to a full term. The second breaks down Shakur’s time in prison — why he went, the mental and physical abuse suffered as a result (prison guards would perform extra cavity searches on him). And last is a cell featuring a video from Shakur’s 1995 prison interview just weeks before his release. It is Tupac Shakur, at the height of his fame, at perhaps his most clear-minded and focused. Alas, this version of him would not define the last 11 months of his life once he signed to Death Row Records and began waging all-out war on former friend The Notorious B.I.G., Sean “Puffy” Combs and Bad Boy Records.

After he got out of prison in the fall of 1995, the remainder of Shakur’s life is well documented. Can-Am Studios, where he went to begin recording All Eyez On Me, is re-created. Behind the glass of the studio runs a loop of clips of Shakur recording at a blistering pace.

Then come three of the most fascinating moments of the tour: first, a hallway over-populated by scripts, call sheets, birthday party and video show invitations, plane tickets, Versace wardrobes and more. These are artifacts from every day of the last 11 months of Shakur’s life. The last item we see before turning the corner is the key to his room at the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas, where he and his fiancee, Kidada Jones, were staying the night of Sept. 7, 1996. And then we’re shown the famous Euphanasia chain he was wearing at the time of his shooting.

“We’re not trying to solve the murder, but he fulfilled his contract to Death Row. He creates [the production company] Euphanasia,” Saxe said. “What everyone is doing now with TV and businesses, he was attempting to do then. The power behind the chain is where his life was about to go. It represented to him a newfound creative freedom.”

By the end of the tour, I returned to that quote that had haunted me since the onset. “If I can’t live free — if I can’t live with the same respect as the next man — then I don’t wanna be here.”

Shakur was one of the peerless orators of the 20th century. One who was never afforded the time to see his vision, his worldview and his own maturity evolve and expand in the 21st.

What would he have to say about the world today? For many men, women and children who will take in the exhibit in the coming days and months still aren’t free. Shakur still isn’t either. The fight for freedom, he understood, would last far longer than his own life.

Justin Tinsley is a senior culture writer for Andscape. He firmly believes “Cash Money Records takin’ ova for da ’99 and da 2000” is the single most impactful statement of his generation.