“We are the roses. This is the concrete. And these are my damaged petals…don’t ask me why? Ask me how…” Tupac Shakur
Nikki Giovanni originally wrote something similar in her poem “The Rose that Grew from Concrete” which inspired Tupac to expand on her original idea. The concept behind the poem is simple: how did a rose grow from concrete? The amount of pressure and pain the rose had to go through to fully bloom on a concrete sidewalk despite all of its scratches and the damage it had to endure to grow… through it all it somehow persevered and bloomed.
My connection to Tupac is through his love for roses, and as I have gotten older I like to think Tupac was from Pasadena. I am starting to believe that so much, especially since a section of the “Wake Me When I’m Free” exhibit is a room that has huge screens of falling rose petals and smells like a field of roses. Jeremy Hodges & Nwaka Onwusa did an amazing job of curating an exhibit that highlighted Tupac’s life and creative endeavors. It pays homage to not only a West Coast legend but a cultural icon whose influence is still relevant today.
“I found myself lost at times with realization of Tupac’s body of work.
You could feel the energy and vibration of his complexity, yet the simplicity of his lyrical prowess is so powerful.
For years, I too struggled with how to best describe Tupac and what he was–and is. He was a revolutionary. His spirit illuminates, the thorns on the roses he spoke of growing up out of the concrete.
I lived in this era of hip hop. I breathed the air of that golden age and this exhibit brought it all home to me again.”
~ James Farr, author of “Tupac’s Last Concert, The House of Blues & the 22 Year Old Who Made It Happen”
Upon entering the exhibit you will be greeted by the very friendly staff members and will see a few art installations that were created by various artists that were inspired by Tupac’s lyrics. My favorite amongst the pieces is an installation of Tupac’s lyrics written in his writing in black on a white background. Before you enter the next room where the actual exhibit begins you will be asked to grab a pair of headphones and a handheld device which you will use throughout the entire exhibit. The exhibit is designed to be an immersive experience for viewers, so the headphones explain every installation and the story behind each piece. The handheld device is meant for each individual to point at each piece then click a button to activate the story and history behind it. As you make your way through the exhibit each piece is narrated to give context about that stage of Tupac’s life.
Beginning the exhibit you are taken through the early stages of Tupac’s life and given information about his mother’s work as a Black Panther and how she worked alongside Bobby Seale and Angela Davis. Listening to Tupac’s music you can easily hear the influence of his mother and being a proud black man in his lyrics. Once you make it past that room you will enter another room that showcases influences from Tupac’s childhood such as football and riding his bike with friends up and down the street. Pac lived a pretty happy life as a child doing what most children would do at his age, which is just enjoying life and playing outside and coming home before the streetlights came on.
As you move past his early life section you then make your way into the section that has many of his lyrics and ideas written on notebook paper. Many of these sheets of papers had half-written songs or different versions of songs such as “I ain’t mad at cha” or “me against the world”. You can see Tupac was focused on making sure he wrote what he really wanted to express by having so many versions of some of his most popular songs. What I found fascinating was the sketches for other ideas Pac had in mind such as cafés, musicals, movie theaters, clothing, and non-profit organizations to help uplift the black community. On the same notebook paper he wrote his lyrics on he also sketched out his other ideas. It was very similar to Kanye West’s sketches about other creative endeavors to bring the community together. It was evident that Tupac was definitely ahead of his time.
Moving on to the next section of the exhibit you will come across Tupac’s second love of acting and movie roles he scored while he was alive. After viewing this segment it seemed to me like Tupac seemed his happiest when he was acting. The energy he exuded throughout the interviews between movie sets showed he enjoyed acting very much. I believe if he was still alive today he definitely would have a few Academy Awards under his belt. Above the Rim is one of my favorite movies besides Juice that cast Pac as the main antagonist. You can see he was very passionate about the craft. One of my favorite movie soundtracks is for Above the Rim which has two of my favorite Tupac songs of all time. In this section you will also see classic iconic clips from movies like Poetic Justice and Juice. After you make your way through his acting career you come across an installation which touches on his time present in prison and how it affected his music and changed his perspective on life. Next you enter a studio where it displays the famous North Carolina Jersey when he recorded “Ambitionz az a Ridah” and the infamous “Hit Em Up” tracks which ultimately comprised the peak of his beef with East Cast emcee the Notorious BIG.
Then you make your way out of the studio set up and enter a section that has many of Tupac’s popular outfits he wore in music videos, award shows, or court. Tupac had an eclectic style but to this day his style still has a large impact on fashion long after his death. Pac was the best example of “the clothes don’t make the man, the man makes the clothes”. He expressed himself so confidently that even if he wore a bad outfit you wouldn’t bother to take notice because he made the clothes adapt to his persona and character. Lastly, you finish in a room which wraps up everything Tupac embodied while he was alive through his art and explains his legacy of being a rose that grew from concrete and succeeded despite the obstacles he had to face when he was alive. Once again, tying it back to the rose metaphor, his rose petals are still blossoming and have spread their roots for generations to come by creating a path to turn pain into art.
Express with full confidence and stand by what you believe in no matter if anyone agrees or not. I view Pac in a class of his own that has surpassed solely being a rapper or musician. I view Pac as a hood philosopher and street scholar who was the first to translate the pain and hardships of our black community into an art form that has now transcended into a global phenomenon. Tupac is long gone but his music is still healing people and instilling confidence in our community to express and be yourself unapologetically.