Wake’s Words

A beloved New Mexico rapper leaves behind messages of self-love

( Noor-un-Nisa Touchon)

Wake Self's album would be titled Ready to Live, a 25-years-in-the-future counter to Notorious B.I.G.'s 1994 classic Ready to Die. In hindsight, that album was an ominous kind of foreshadowing, a confessional and a glimpse into '90s New York through B.I.G.'s prism. Here, he dwelled in extremes, in the what-could-have-beens, as much as the cutting realities of the street. Either you were "slinging crack rock or had a wicked jump shot." You feared for your life or others feared you. The scantiness of the slums could quickly turn into the excess of success and back again. B.I.G. was both the storyteller and the protagonist in this vision, and he had nothing to lose.

B.I.G. didn't or couldn't have made much room for hope in his bars. But Wake did, and that's why I think the album title, both a nod to one of rap's greats and a call to the future, rang true. Where Ready to Die captured the loss of agency that results from circular systems of violence, Ready to Live is about electing the path of optimism, self-love and rising up, despite, or perhaps because of, the structures of inequity that Wake so eloquently and critically rapped about in his music.

I first met Wake over a cup of tea at Satellite Coffee in Albuquerque, close to where he lived at the time. He was wearing a pastel pink windbreaker and a matching "dad hat." I laughed because my hoodie was the same color, making us oddly coordinated strangers in a sea of caffeinated UNM students. He cleared his throat and introduced himself. "My name is Wake Self. Government name Andrew Martinez. I'm from Fort Wingate, New Mexico, and Albuquerque. Mainly, I come home from traveling from shows all over the world and when I'm home I just make music."

When I asked him how he became a rapper, his response was typical of the kind of conversations we'd later have—poetic and earnest to the point of philosophical.

He said, "Everybody's into music. We're made out of music. We're born on beat."

He went on to say it began with writing poetry as a "secret pleasure" in junior high.

"I had a secret folder that I would put rap songs in and then I would hide it away in this box," he said. "And then some people started encouraging me to rap in public."

That conversation was eventually edited down and printed in a feature highlighting a swath of New Mexico's musicians in the May issue of New Mexico Magazine, where I work as senior editor.

Ready to Live, Wake told me a month ago over text, would drop either Nov. 15 or 22, a week or two after his Nov. 7 album release party at Meow Wolf. He said it "was a hundred times better than the last album" from three years ago and had asked if I might help hype it in print. He was new to Santa Fe, having recently moved from Albuquerque. "Of course," I told him and soon got a Dropbox link with the just-mixed album for a first listen.

From the opening title "FTP," a lyrical but hard-hitting meditation on police violence, and "Only You," an energetic, danceable tribute to a lover, to "GOD," an ode to finding godliness among the most marginalized, I heard Wake's testament to a life where love and pain, social ills, personal triumphs and a belief that a higher power inhabited all of us, were intertwined.

Unlike in B.I.G.'s realm of feast or famine, where extremes were mutually exclusive, Wake said he didn't frame the world in the zero sum terms we're often conditioned to think in.

"Duality isn't the only state of existence," he said.

There was always that grey, that place in the Venn diagram where all things could overlap regardless of whether they were in contradiction. "The world," he told me, "is fucked up—but the world is also beautiful."

Both the fuckedupness and the beauty coexist on the album. And though I still needed more time with Ready to Live when we met to talk about it later, I knew it was incredible.

In many ways, Wake broke the mold for a rapper. He wrote a song titled "Malala" about respecting women before the #MeToo movement and recognized the LGBTQ, Indigenous and Black communities in his raps. More than that, he was a disciplined vegan who avoided all processed food and grains, attributing the decision to having lived in welfare housing where the bad water quality made him ill as a baby.

"Bacteria got into my body. I got sick at 6 months old for three to four months. It messed up my stomach," he said. "Food affects you. Whatever you ingest musically and physically does. Now, I'm just aware of everything I take in on all levels. My name makes sense."

As I look back, Wake's messages reflected both light and dark. But light, he said, "means more" when it's born from authenticity, from a life in which you've had baggage but you don't let it weigh you down, "because life's already a trip." His optimism wasn't saccharine. It was real. And it was needed, making his death in a Santa Fe car crash last week feel so deeply unjust. It was a profound loss for the community near and far, and like others, all I could feel was that mix of anger and melancholy and helplessness.

I have to think that as Wake joins the ancestors, his words and his recordings carry him forward in a different way, like an echo or a prayer that continues to be received as long as we want or need to hear it. A release date for Ready to Live is unknown for now.

"The truth," Wake said, "doesn't have an expiration date. It wants to be discovered. We use these creative forces to allow it to be expressed. Then it can time travel. It can span generations."

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