War on Woke

I keep seeing the word woke being used as an insult, which makes me ask when did the word “woke” become a bad thing?

The term woke is thrown around like parsley so much these days that I had to break down the origins of where it came from.

Where it began

In 1938, the term “Stay Woke” was used in a protest song by Blues musician Huddie Ledbetter; aka Lead Belly.

The Song “Scottsboro Boys” describes what happened in 1931 when 9 Black teenagers were accused of raping two white women in Scottsboro, Arkansas.

“I made this little song about down there,” Lead Belly says. “So I advise everybody, be a little careful — best stay woke, keep their eyes open.”

The word woke was used by the African-American author William Arthur Kelley, “If you’re woke, you dig it.” William wrote this in a New York Times article in 1962, it was to a response that beatniks had appropriated slang from African American culture.

Georgia Anne Muldrow

Funk singer Georgia Anne Muldrow first heard the term used by jazz musician Lakeica Benjamin. 

“The way she would use it is like ‘I’m trying to stay woke because I’m tired’ or ‘I was trying to stay woke but I was bored,’” Muldrow recalls. “It was Kecia talking about how she was trying to stay up — like literally not pass out.”

Muldrow wrote and recorded an unreleased song called “Master Teacher” in 2005 with  Dibiase, Ras G, and Sa-Ra Creative Partners.

In 2005, Erykah Badu had 75 tracks for what would be for her “New Amerykah” album and was in Los Angeles where she met Muldrow for the first time.

Erykah Badu

 “Erykah heard Georgia’s song and was loving it…Badu kept asking about Georgia and then we were like ‘we got this song ‘Master Teacher.’…then she was like ‘I want that song.’” The producer Om’Mas Keith said.

Erykah released her version of “Master Teacher” in 2008 and in the 2017 interview with OkayPlayer Muldrow said

“Erykah has been the person to single-handedly be consistent in shaping the aesthetic for the sisters. She single-handedly did that and she didn’t have to do that. What she helped to do was really something. I’m really honoured to have been a guest on her record.”

The word “woke” had a resurgence around 2014, as a warning similar to Lead Belly in 1938, for Black people to take extra care during the nightly protests for Mike Brown in Ferguson.

It truly erupted the social consciousness on a global scale, it allowed Black people to share and unite.

Childish Gambino

The term “stay woke” was used in Childish Gambino’s Grammy-winning hit “Redbone”. This song is about a cheating lover and was the opening song to Jordan Peele’s box office smash “Get Out”.

Jordan used the song because of the “Stay Woke” hook “I wanted to make sure that this movie satisfied the Black horror movie audience’s need for characters to be smart and do things that intelligent and observant people would do,” he said. “‘Stay woke’ — that’s what this movie is about.”

Get Out is a brilliant film because Black people were frustrated with Horror films because Black characters would be the first to die at the beginning and in the most atrocious way.

We have three meanings of the term woke: 1) slang for being literally awake; 2) slang for being suspicious of a cheating romantic partner; and 3) the original, politically charged usage of always being on the lookout for systemic injustice.

There you have it. Stay Woke.


  1. Thank you for this article on “Stay Woke”.I knew what it meant a long time ago .As a 75yr Black Woman living in America I knew stay woke meant be aware,pay attention to all things in your life from your finances, family and community as well as the larger community.When I was younger we said “Stay Up” “Don’t Let Em Catch You Sleepin.”So now we’re back to using “Stay Woke”. Please do a better job than some of the media in explaining “Stay Woke” so certain people will stop weaponizing and insulting thing’s we say. 🌻🙏

    • Thank you for your detailed and informed response. Totally agree, the right sided media and politicians have certainly tried and continue to try and weaponise our phrases and culture against us. Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoy the other posts too.

  2. I first heard the term “Woke” in a lyric performed by Richie Rich of the rap group 415.

    “Nah-nah, it’s 1990, y’all hoes better get woke to these muthafuckin’ old schools
    Bitch, jump in the bucket..”

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