Wednesday, May 2, 2018

What "Stay Woke" REALLY Means (definitions, early influences, & uses)

Edited by Azizi Powell

This is Part I of a three part pancocojams series that focuses on the English language vernacular saying "stay woke".

This post presents definitions for the saying "stay woke" and some documentation of that saying's use off-line and online in the United States.

Click for Part II of this series. Part II showcases a YouTube video from Spike Lee's 1988 movie School Daze. I believe this "Wake Up!!!!" scene influenced the later vernacular meaning of "Stay woke!" That post also showcases Erykah Badu's song "Master Teacher" (Part 2) which is an early example of music's use of the vernacular meaning of "Stay woke".

Click for Part III of this series. Part III showcases a video performance of Childish Gambino's singing his award winning R&B song "Redbone". The chorus of that song repeats the African American vernacular saying "stay woke".

The content of this post is presented for historical, linguistic, and socio-cultural purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to all those who are quoted in this post.

Stay Woke
Part of a series on Internet Slang.
Added 2016 by Ari Spool; Updated February 2018 by Y F.
Stay Woke, derived from the phrase “stay awake,” is an Internet slang term often used to demonstrate the need for awareness of an issue, particularly those relating to social justice or the Black Lives Matter movement. The term is also used ironically in a similar manner to "Wake Up, Sheeple".

The earliest known instance of the “woke” as slang for political or social awareness comes from an article in the New York Times magazine. On May 20th, 1962, the Times published a piece on white beatniks appropriating black culture by African-American novelist William Melvin Kelley entitled “If You’re Woke, You Dig It.” The article also included a cartoon with the phrase."...[8]

The expression continued to bubble to the cultural surface over the next 50 years. In Garvey Lives!, a 1972 play by Barry Beckham, the author writes “I been sleeping all my life. And now that Mr. Garvey done woke me up, I’m gon stay woke. And I’m gon help him wake up other black folk.”[8]

In 2008, recording artist Erykah Badu used the phrase in her 2008 song “Master Teachers” from the album New Amerykah Part 1: The 4th World War.[1]


The phrase continues to be used in both non-ironic and ironic ways on all platforms. The hashtag #staywoke is in wide use on Twitter,[3] Tumblr,[4] and Instagram,[5] where it has more than 128,000 associated posts. In summer of 2015, programmers Darius Kazemi and Courtney Stanton built a Twitter bot called @StayWokeBot,[6] intended to automate replies to those who might need more education about racism in society. On January 5th, 2016, MTV declared that “woke” was a new slang term for the new year, but many commenters noted that the term was not new.[7]

On June 27th, 2017, the Oxford English Dictionary officially added “Woke” to the dictionary, defining it as:

“Originally: well-informed, up-to-date. Now chiefly: alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice; frequently in stay woke (often used as an exhortation).”[9]...
The sub-title for the 1962 New York Times Magazine article that is mentioned above is "No Mickey Mouse can be expected to follow today’s Negro idiom without a hip assist." That sub-title clearly documents that this vernacular use of "stay woke" was ascribed to African Americans. (Note: "Negro" was largely dropped as a referent for African Americans by the late 1960s if not earlier.)

The vernacular use of the word "woke" (for instance, in the sentence "I'm finally woke."), the word "woke" is an adjective. The sentence "Stay woke" is an verb phrase.

Pancocojams Editor:
The next two excerpts are reprinted from this pancocojams post: The Black Consciousness Movement, Spike Lee's Movie "School Daze", & The Vernacular Word "Woke"

"According to, the contemporary African American Vernacular English meaning of the word "woke" is "being in a state of awareness: "Being Woke means being aware.. Knowing whats going on in the community" specifically relating to racism and social injustice....

Woke .... describ[es] someone who is enlightened and has a greater understanding of social injustices."

An important point for the sub-set of African Americans and other people who consider themselves to be "woke", is that people need to Stay Woke, i.e. stay socially and politically conscious, and stay engaged in efforts to eradicate social injustices etc.

In the late 1960s I was involved in the Black cultural nationalist movement in the United States (Committee For Unified Newark (CFUN) which for most of the time I was a member was headed by Imamu Amiri Baraka (formerly known as LeRoi Jones). Members of that organization considered ourselves (and some other, but not all people who called themselves "Black nationalists") to be "conscious". And we also believed that it was our duty to encourage other Black folks to also become "conscious" (in the same way that we were). Once a week our organization would invite Black community members to attend a program that featured performances by the Simba Wachungas (Young Lion "African" boot dancers), a group that was composed of male only members of our organization who were in their teens or were young adults. That program also featured poetry readings and speakers who blasted the "establishment" and encouraged Black folks to unite to better themselves and their community. Similar to the exhortations that are heard during some Black church services, when Imamu or other speakers said something about institutional racism members of our organization would shout "Pull the covers off!", "Tell it!", "Yeah!" etc. "The covers" symbolized the obfuscations and institutional apparatus that hid the truth about this nation and the truth about who we really were: i.e. another common saying that we chanted is "We are an African people".

It occurs to me that our late 1960s' concept of being "conscious" is similar if not the same as the late 20th century or 21st century concept of being "woke" and needing to "stay woke".

I believe that the term "conscious" in the context of the Black consciousness movement/Black power movement and Spike Lee's "Wake Up!" scene have greatly influenced the coinage of the contemporary afrocentric terms "woke" and "stay woke". While reading articles about and examples of "staying woke" in this afrocentric context, I immediately thought of the "Wake Up!" scene from Spike Lee's 1988 movie, School Daze. That said, the lead character's yell that other students "Wake Up!" may have had more to do with them becoming aware of and ridding themselves of self-hatred and colorism than it did for them to be aware of institutional racism and other forms of social injustice. Then again, being aware of self-hatred and colorism is probably also what "being woke" and "staying woke" means nowadays in its afrocentric context and beyond (i.e. America and other nations need to wake up as to what has been going on and what is still going on regarding institutional racism.)
The vernacular meanings of "being woke" and "staying woke" are closer in meaning to the present tense of the word "awake" than it is to the past tense of that word. The opposite of "being woke" is to be "asleep" to (and unconscious of) the realities of neo-colonialism, institutional racism, and injustice, particularly as they refer to Black people (or as these refer to all People of Color).

From by Charles Pulliam-Moore, 1/08/16
"For years, the idea of being "woke" was a hallmark of socially-minded, black social media, but it's recently crossed over onto the broader, whiter internet.

... "Woke," MTV decided, was the new "on fleek" on its list of 2016's teen slang. And Twitter is full of people tweeting "#staywoke," often as a joke.
Desus Nice
Uber surge cheaper than dui #stay woke

10:31 PM December 31, 2015

What does being "woke" actually mean, though? A quick search through Urban Dictionary turns up this result:

"Being Woke means being aware. Knowing whats going on in the community"

But it's not quite that simple. Like most slang, the meaning of "woke" changes depending on who's saying it, and to whom. Among black people talking about Ferguson, "stay woke" might mean something like: "stay conscious of the apparatus of white supremacy, don't automatically accept the official explanations for police violence, keep safe."

In this usage, "woke" indicates healthy paranoia, especially about issues of racial and political justice...

"Woke" can also refer, mockingly, to (white) people whose perspectives on race change suddenly after learning about historical injustice. (e.g. "You talked to Brad recently? He read some Ta-Nehesi Coates and now he thinks he's woke.")

Though it was popularized as a call to action that went hand in hand with the #BlackLivesMatter movement, the idea of getting (and staying) "woke" has taken on a different, more complex meaning in the years since it first began to spread across the internet.

Understanding that evolution is easiest when we look back at just where "woke" came from.

In her 2008 song Master Teacher, Erykah Badu (along with Bilal and Georgia Anne Muldrow) sing about how they dream of a world where there are "no ni&&as*," but instead "only master teachers." They immediately clarify that they "stay woke." (Meaning that they recognize that, although it would be nice, their dream of racial equality is far from reality.) Badu's song is generally considered the first major usage of the phrase.


When a curious fan took to Yahoo Answers in 2010 wondering what Badu meant, the best voted answer at the time explained that she was referring to staying awake using improper grammar.

"It means she can't speak proper English," another user agreed.

Blatant racism aside, the overall themes of the song are fairly straightforward, but in a pre-Trayvon Martin, pre-Ferguson, pre-#BlackLivesMatter world, "stay woke" did not yet mean what it does today.

2010: Hibernation
After Badu's album, the phrase "stay woke" didn't appear in any prominent media for another two years. The phrase "stay woke" first appeared on Twitter in late August of 2009, but the tweet was sent late in the evening and was literally referencing the act of staying awake close to midnight.


2012-2013: Trayvon Martin, #BlackLivesMatter, and Pussy Riot
On February 26, 2012, George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin, and in the following months, Zimmerman was charged with second-degree murder and subsequently found not guilty.

That same year, Erykah Badu came out in solidarity with the Russian rock group Pussy Riot. At the time, the band was being threatened with jailtime for staging a queer, sexually charged protest-performance. Badu took to Twitter expressing her support for the women and urging her followers to stay woke. It's around this time that other Twitter users began to use the #StayWoke hashtag in reference to remaining vigilant about social issues.

ErykahBadoula Verified account
Truth requires no belief.
Stay woke. Watch closely #freepussyriot.
10:56 AM August 8, 2012


By 2013, Black Lives Matter had become a powerful, real-world force and an iconic hashtag used by thousands of Twitters users to organize and shed light on the stories of even more black lives that had been lost too soon.


Calling someone "woke," in these years, was a signal that they understood these systemic injustices, and were determined to do something about them.

2014: Memeification
Around 2014, something interesting began to happen. While #BlackLivesMatter continued to thrive as a rallying cry for the modern Civil Rights movement, #StayWoke began to drift off into meme territory, and it was quickly co-opted in a way that #BlackLivesMatter never really was.


The core idea—staying cognizant of large, adversarial forces—remained intact, but #StayWoke's new meaning allowed it to be attached to mundane, ridiculous things.


Jeff J.

Verified account


Footlocker Champs and Footaction are all the same website with different designs #StayWoke

6:10 AM - 21 Dec 2013


2015-2016: Irony
Today, "woke," a phrase that was meant to encourage critical thinking about social issues and injustices, has slowly morphed into something that occasionally comes across as a derogatory jab at the very idea of staying "woke." #StayWokeTwitter, a loosely-connected Twitter subculture, is filled with people deemed to be too woke for their own good and the people who get kicks out of their over-the-top conspiracy theories.


Like "bae," "on fleek," and "bruh," it was only a matter of time before "woke" was co-opted by the mainstream (read: white) internet, but there's a certain tragedy to its loss that's different and more painful. Like #SayHerName or #IfIDieWhileInPoliceCustody, #StayWoke was, for a time, a legitimately useful word for black people reminding each other to be conscious of black struggles during a time of systematic injustice.

Now, though, for some, it's just an internet signifier, used for joking about how you should stay woke to about idling UPS trucks or bragging about how you have the same initials as Anakin Skywalker."

*This word is fully spelled out in that article.

UPDATE July 8, 2018
Click for a pancocojams post that showcases the 1992 hit song "E Si Mala (Ça ne va pas) by the Cameroonian (West African) Makossa star Petit Pays.

In that song Petit Pays sings (in French) "wake up people are watching you Sleepers have to wake up".

Also, the line "Sleepers just stop sleepin”" in Stevie Wonder's 1973 hit song "Higher Ground" indirectly refers to this vernacular meaning of "being woke".

Can you think of any other musical examples of the "being woke" or "stay woke" concept? If so, please share them in the comment section below. Thanks!
This concludes Part I of this pancocojams series.

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