Music is regarded as the “great uniter.” It transcends language, cultural barriers, distance and time. But what happens after its greatest icons pass on? Nwaka Onwusa is the woman answering this question. Onwusa is the Chief Curator & Vice President of Curatorial Affairs at The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And she’s also the first African American to hold that position.
From starting her career in the education of the arts and museum studies to curating memorials and exhibits at the GRAMMY Museum, Onwusa has dedicated her life to preserving and showcasing the stories of African American icons whose legacies are often overlooked and forgotten. She has been honored as a Museum Rising Star by the Museum of African American Art. Her exhibit at the Rock Hall, “It’s Been Said All Along: Voices of Rage, Hope and Empowerment,” was recognized as Best Exhibit of 2020 by the Ohio Museum Association. And Onwusa was also featured as a leader in music in Rolling Stone’s June 2021 Future of Music Issue.
Onwusa’s latest creation of marvel is the fully immersive, TUPAC SHAKUR. WAKE ME WHEN I’M FREE exhibit which chronicles the life of the rapper and revolutionary. Read as she shares what inspired the exhibit, what visitors are able to come away from the exhibit having learned, what she hopes to accomplish with her work and more!
Jadriena Solomon: You are the Chief Curator & Vice President of Curatorial Affairs at The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And you are the first African American woman to hold that position. How does it feel to not only represent and serve the Black community through your work, but to also be able to work in a realm, music, that is so much a part of who you are?
Nwaka Onwusa: Being the first African American Chief Curator & Vice President of Curatorial Affairs at The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is huge. And, you know, I could lead with the negative of saying ‘Oh, it’s the weight of the world’ or feel like I’m carrying the weight of it for the culture – but it’s really an honor. I’m grateful every day to my mentors, and the people who have believed in me, for giving me a chance to be in this space and be a steward – someone who is responsible for preserving and amplifying the legacy of dynamic artists, artists of color and African American artists.
It’s my time to represent the POC and help pave the path for those that are to come after me. I’m always pinching myself because music is so powerful, and to be creative is such a spiritual thing – I really don’t take it lightly. I know that so many people are healed, inspired and moved by music. And it’s an honor to say that I’m a part of the legacies that come with that. It gives me good thoughts all the time.
JS: You were able to curate a 2015 exhibit called ALL EYEZ ON ME: THE WRITINGS OF TUPAC SHAKUR while working in your previous role at The Grammy Museum. To now, curating the fully immersive, Wake Me When I’m Free exhibit which “leverages technology, contemporary art, and never before seen artifacts from Tupac’s personal archives.” Obviously, this wasn’t entirely new ground or new thought for you because you had done the first exhibit. But how did the idea to do an exhibit of this scale, even become planted in your head?
NO: Wow. Having that smaller exhibit and the trust from Afeni Shakur and the estate of Tupac Shakur was huge. It was a 700 square feet exhibit and the popularity of it was really due to the quality of Tupac’s life – he passed away at 25-years-old and was able to accomplish so much. So that exhibit was an example of that.
When it came to thinking about this larger opportunity, we thought about how we could do it tastefully, honorably, and in the memory of the late Afeni Shakur. It didn’t happen overnight – this has been over several years in the making. And we had to always remember that we were working on something bigger than us – we’re serving this man’s fans, audiences, and a new generation of revolutionaries that are coming up and looking for inspiration. His short but extraordinary life was what really moved us to take on this opportunity because we said that we can’t let this experience die. We need to expose all that’s done so that people can see, and really continue to be moved by it.
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JS: We know that the exhibit takes viewers, or guests, through his extraordinary life. Does it do that chronologically through the different rooms? Or is it more showcasing those special moments that made him who he is?
NO: It’s more so special moments. But we did make sure there’s still a narrative element, which allows for guests to go into deeper discussion and thought as they walk through. There’s Afeni’s autobiography, there’s Tupac’s book of poetry – and it was the perfect space to bring these things together. And even exemplify to the viewers, the larger relationship between Afeni and Tupac.
It was so critical for us to share Afeni’s story – to highlight, and celebrate her journey as an activist, vocal journalist, writer, poet, mother. And showcase to the viewers that this is why, or how, you get someone like Tupac. That’s how we gave everyone a deeper glimpse into their story – so you can see the makings of a genius. You can see how Tupac was raised, and also understand what Afeni went through in her life.
This is the largest gallery that we have in the space with over 340 handwritten documents from Tupac – whether it’s a tracklist, a conception of a poem, a screenplay. It’s all of these things and it’s been such an honor to be able to pull all of these moments and really amplify the experience.
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JS: That’s amazing. What do you see people come away with when they leave the exhibit? Do you feel they get a better understanding of the man that Tupac was, versus just the persona?
NO: I feel that we definitely are able to unravel that misconception of preconceived notions that some people may have already carried about him. And I love that his team, and our creative director, for this exhibit were able to manifest a visual idea and a written idea for what we wanted to see.
In this exhibit, we’re able to break these preconceived notions down through his voice. We allowed Tupac’s essence to speak. We allowed his mentor and friend Jamal Joseph, who was also raised in the Black Panther party, to share his story. We were able to showcase his writings, his idea to create the New Afrikan Panthers, and his revolutionary mind.
And by no means are we making him all Saint and no sinner, but we showcase that he’s a perfect blend of both – that’s what being a human being is. Too often do we villainize our artists and creatives, but it’s important to remember that we’re all going through things and no one’s perfect. But out of this, here is a rose that grew from the concrete. And this is what we strive to show everyone who visits. We want them to walk away with a deeper appreciation for the man, for human beings. To find that connected thread and realize that we’re more alike than we are different.
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JS: The exhibit has been extended through summer 2022, by popular demand. Having accomplished something so amazing, something so memorable as this. What’s next for you? Where would you like to go from here?
NO: There’s so many people of color who have lived on this earth and done so many amazing things, and their stories have yet to be told. So I want to be a vessel, and be used for telling those stories. I’m moving in faith. And whoever the next artist, or cultural phenomenon is, I’m just going to be blessed to tell their story.
In addition, I’m here for all of the young Black girls, girls of color, and women to see someone like themselves in what is typically a male-dominated space. I want to be a conduit for helping to transform that. And I want my life to ultimately be a blessing for however God wants to use it, in whatever direction that may be.