In an interview with Ari Melber on MSNBC, Erykah Badu talked about her 2008 song, “Master Teacher” which is often credited as most recently popularizing the term “woke.”
The song, which also featured Georgia Anne Muldrow, had a chorus that said, “I stay woke,” and the 52-year-old singer further explained her role in popularizing the phrase. “There’s a song on [New Amerykah Part One] called ‘Master Teacher,’ and in that song… the chorus is ‘I stay woke,’ so ‘stay woke’ was introduced to the world by this album,” the 52-year-old neo-soul icon said. “And I tweeted it about this group that was detained, Pussy Riot… In my tweet, I said ‘Free Pussy Riot…stay woke.’ After that, ‘woke’ took off.”
The word woke has most recently been used by the GOP as a buzzword for any part of the liberal agenda from teaching Black history to protecting LGBTQ rights.
But, when asked directly what Badu thinks conservatives mean when they use the word, she said plainly, “I think they mean ‘Black,’” the singer said. “It’s just another way to say ‘thug’ or something else, right?”
She also noted, “It is what it is. It doesn’t belong to us anymore, and once something goes out into the world, it takes a life of its own. It has an energy of its own.”
The term woke has found its way into the mainstream lexicon with Republicans using it daily to describe almost anything that they disagree with. The most significant legislative action was the passage of the Stop WOKE Act signed into law by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in 2022. The legislation restricts how racism and other parts of history can be taught in schools and workplaces. It even includes language that is supposed to prevent white students from “feeling bad” about actual American History.
The act is behind the banning of several books in the state as well as sanitized versions of Black historical facts like Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
While the popular and eclectic singer may have brought the term back to the forefront of American culture, social and culture historians note that the phrase can be traced back to as far as the 1930s.
According to MadameNoire, American folk legend Huddie Michael Ledbetter (aka Lead Belly) coined the term during an interview discussing his hit song “Scottsboro Boys,” according to NewsOne. In the 1938 interview, Belly urged Black people to stay vigilant when traveling through Alabama to avoid racial tension.
African American author Melvin Kelley also used the phrase in a New York Times essay where he examined Black language and idioms as a pushback against white supremacy called, “If You’re Woke You Dig It.”
The most recent use and retaliation against the phrase originated in 2020 during national protests against the police state in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by former Minnesota police officer Derek Chauvin.
Badu said in the interview that the true meaning of the expression belongs to the people who created it.
“It means being aware, being in alignment with nature,” the Grammy-winning singer added. “It’s not only in the political arena. That means with your health, that means in your relationships, that means in your home, that means in your car, that means in your sleep.”
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