‘Wake Me When I’m Free’ Dismantles the Tupac Myth

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In this week’s FRONTPAGE, we dive into an immersive new exhibit in Los Angeles that recontextualizes everything we think we know about pop man and cultural totem Tupac.

We’ve seen this story unfold too many times: a young artist capturing the hearts of people around the world before their lives are killed too soon. It’s one that never feels less painful, even decades later. When we talk about Tupac, it’s often in the context of what could have been – imagine what the most iconic rapper of all time and global cultural icon could have done if his life hadn’t tragically ended. completed at age 25. It’s tempting to say “it wasn’t his time” or “his story was cut short,” but Tupac was someone who lived his life like his days were numbered. He once said, “I have a very short window to live, I have to create a body of work”, and you can feel there is a purpose in everything he has done. Perhaps because of this, his work doesn’t quite feel like the hologram performances and “Tupac Lives On” plots trying to put life above legacy just feel superfluous and out of place. Instead, a new exhibit titled Wake me up when I’m free gives an optimistic epilogue to the life of an ambitious artist.

Wake me up when I’m free is derived from a poem Tupac wrote when he was a teenager. That was the opening line and it stuck,” Jeremy Hodges, the show’s creative director, tells me on a Zoom call. “If you have read this poem, it was literally about all the injustices a young black man goes through. We live in a time he referred to when he was a teenager. Arron Saxe, who co-produced the project, understands the complicated process of preserving the legacy of deceased artists, and his work managing Tupac’s estate is what ultimately led him to bring this exhibition to fruition. “During the process of creating the project, it became really clear that it wasn’t about his possessions, or specifically about hip-hop music,” says Saxe. “It was really about the story of a black man in America. And from there, the exhibit grew.

Wake me up when I’m free invites you to journey through Tupac’s life and legacy. Like a physical and interactive biography, it takes you from his growing up days as a child of the Black Panthers to his explosive music career, his time in prison and his tragic end. We already know this story, but Saxe and Hodges offer a portrait that nuances the traditional Tupac mythos with context, turning it into something intimate and personal. “It’s rare to have so much archival material from a deceased person, and being able to get deep into their mind in this way is the closest thing to a living experience,” says Saxe.

Although he is no longer with us, Tupac, the myth, remains, along with the complexities he embodied. No other artist has better illuminated hip-hop’s potential to grow beyond its humble origins and gangster iterations to become a global phenomenon. And no one has transcended and elevated the role of a rapper to cultural authorship quite like him. Besides his undefeated penmanship, hip-hop is equally indebted to Tupac, the style icon, poet, actor, and activist. “The main reason his legacy is where it is is really because of the growth of hip-hop around the world. And vice versa,” Saxe explains. The exhibit, which opened in Los Angeles on January 21, wraps up this trajectory that Tupac set in motion. “What I loved was watching the family of five, three different generations, go through and see who gets attached to what, whether it’s technology in the exhibit, the written record, the clothing, or the technology. Everyone will get something different out of it. But at the end of the day, we want people to realize that it was a 25-year-old man with such a promise. And the cycle of violence is not limited to the anonymous downtown. It got him. Think of what it would be like today if he were still around.

Pac represented the contradictions that many black men face in society to this day: the tattooed, bandana-clad thug rapping about systemic and societal obstacles with anthropological precision; the struggle to honor the streets that lifted you up and also to rise above your circumstances. “He was very much a product of his environment – social, cultural, political – but more importantly, his message for humanity and his fight for the people was the most important thing he was for,” says Hodges. “You can love his music, you can love his artistry, but through that artistry he had such a big and bigger message that I want people to walk away, to understand that was his real mission on this earth […] He was much more than a musician, an artist or a poet. It was truly a revolutionary spirit.

All these years later, the fights Pac put on the wax resonate more than ever. “This [titular] The poem we used describes a world very similar to the one we live in now,” Hodges continues. It was about the spirit rising and really, really coming together as a people to realize, not just injustice, but to effect change.

We can’t discuss Tupac’s politics without commemorating his mother, Black Panther Afeni Shakur, without whom Wake me up when I’m free would not have taken shape. “We started talking about this project about six years ago when Afeni was still alive,” Saxe reveals. “She died suddenly in 2016, which obviously changed the trajectory and the general guideline of the project. But we decided to continue, not only to honor his son, but also to honor him. The exhibit contemplates the spirit of Afeni through her son, the love and idealism of a single mother and freedom fighter that would inspire songs like “Dear Mama” and “Keep Ya Head Up. “, odes to women, with commentary on being pro-feminist, pro-choice, and anti-street harassment. She was such an important figure in his life and shaped his political consciousness, but in the same breath, Pac’s music doesn’t shy away from the less glorious dynamic of their relationship. He talks about his mother’s drug addiction, he talks about poverty, their separation and the need to find his own way as a young man without a father figure. And that was what made Tupac unique: his ability to weave together the good, the bad, and the ugly to paint a complete and honest picture.

Through his art, Tupac gave us the depth of his humanity, even when the reality was unpleasant. In 1995, Tupac served nine months in prison for the sexual assault of Ayanna Jackson – he maintained his innocence until his death. It’s a less simple, more difficult to romanticize – and therefore often overlooked – side of Pac’s story, but the exhibit chooses not to gloss over it. “It’s an uncomfortable thing to talk about. But it happened in his life,” Saxe says. “The same way ‘California Love’ happened in his life or we talk about his acting roles. , the same way we all have those moments in our lives, proud or not so proud. But if you don’t talk about it, you take away a piece of history that was part of his life.

For Saxe and Hodges, Pac’s humanization is the show’s biggest takeaway. Wake me up when I’m free dismantles the myth and looks at the man and his contradictions, with an installation crucially replicating Pac’s prison experience. “We take you through prison, then to the studio once he’s released from prison, and then we take you on a journey through the last 11 months of his life to give you that realization that this man never didn’t live long, he was young and learning about himself during this time.

Maybe we would have more clarity on Tupac’s duality if he had lived longer, maybe he himself would have found more clarity. But what remains of his life and art shows that Tupac was preoccupied with building his own legacy, a rogue angel, an anti-hero who decided his work would reflect the world around him and offer inspiration. ‘hope. “It’s his pure honesty – it’s so rare. You never felt like it was a gimmick. You never felt like he wasn’t himself,” Hodges tells me. “Being the voice of the voiceless…that’s why so many people tune into Tupac, because it really is, when you hear it, an honest look into the world of a young black man that so many people can relate to. identify, that you’re brown, black, white. If you are part of the struggle, you feel this message.

“He was so prolific in his short life,” Saxe concludes, “that we often forget he was human.”

“Wake Me When I’m Free” is currently open to audiences in Los Angeles with plans to travel to other cities. See website for tickets and more information.


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