The Origin Of Woke: How The Death Of Woke Led To The Birth Of Cancel Culture
In the third and final installment of our “Origin of Woke” series, Elijah Watson writes about how woke culture died and from the ashes came the equally fiery and passionate successor — cancel culture
“Most people who are woke ain’t calling themselves woke. Most people who are woke are agonizing inside. They’re too busy being depressed to call themselves woke.”
This is what Georgia Anne Muldrow — the woman who introduced woke to Erykah Badu who then introduced it to the world — told me almost two years ago. Credited as one of the writers on Badu’s “Master Teacher” from her 2008 album New Amerykah Part One (4th World War), Muldrow also shared that the phrase she initially sang for the track wasn’t “I stay woke” but “I’d stay woke.”
“I wasn’t claiming that I was woke,” Muldrow said. “I never saw myself as woke. I saw myself as aspiring for woke, to try and stay woke. But I knew I wasn’t woke.”
Woke, in its political and racial context, was invented by Black people. Before Muldrow and Badu, the late Harlem author William Melvin Kelley used the term in his 1962 New York Times essay “If You’re Woke You Dig It.” Credited with coining woke, William’s essay doesn’t use the word beyond its title. But it’s worthy of being described as such, considering the article’s prophetic commentary on Black slang and its invention and reinvention in retaliation to its appropriation by white people.
Almost five decades after “If You’re Woke You Dig It” came Badu’s “Master Teacher.” In the song’s hook came the next iteration of woke — “I stay woke.” At the time, the phrase mostly went unnoticed in album reviews; in a decades-old Yahoo! Answers forum focused on the phrase’s meaning, the highest voted answer interpreted it as, “It means [Badu] can’t speak proper English.” (The forum has since come to include more accurate and less racist interpretations of the phrase.) In 2012, the phrase resurfaced in a tweet Badu posted supporting the Russian rock band Pussy Riot, who was being threatened with jail time after staging a queer, sexually charged protest-performance against Russia President Vladimir Putin. Despite not using “stay woke” in the form of a hashtag, Badu’s use of it led to #staywoke.
— ErykahBadoula (@fatbellybella) August 8, 2012
Throughout the 2010s, Muldrow’s declaration became more declarative as woke became ubiquitous in the world. From “I’d stay woke” to “I stay woke”; “I stay woke” to “Stay woke”; and “Stay woke” to “Woke.” As the phrase changed so did what it represented. With “stay woke,” there was the implication that it was a continuous action — that one isn’t only constantly challenging the injustices and transgressions of the world, but themselves, too. “Woke,” on its own, is nothing more than a descriptor — a way to signal one’s social awareness.
To be woke is a fashionable identity. Like most creations derived from Black culture, woke was commodified and diluted of its essence. Anyone or anything can be woke: A brand, company, person. In capitalism’s possession, woke is more about performative grandstanding than anything else. Social media, which encourages behavior that’s performative, amplifies this. Now used as a pejorative, woke has given way to online phenomenons like “call-out culture” and “cancel culture,” both of which have also been met with derision. Despite its root function — to protect and give a voice to marginalized people and communities — woke is now seen as a detriment to societal progress.
Woke peaked in the late 2010s. In 2016, several outlets wrote about the word, with some focusing on its evolution from a call to action due to the Black Lives Matter movement. Others highlighted the trend of liberal white people co-opting woke and treating it like a badge of honor, foreshadowing just how performative woke became during the decade’s last years. That same year, a documentary titled Stay Woke: The Black Lives Matter Movement was released. Starring Jesse Williams, Black Lives Matter founders Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, the film explored the movement’s beginnings — following the deaths of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin — to how it became a global network featuring over 30 chapters across the world. DeRay Mckesson, a Black Lives Matter member who appears in the film, also attempted to keep woke attached to the movement with a Twitter account called Stay Woke Bot. If users tweeted at the account with their geographic location, it offered names and phone numbers for the senators representing the recipient’s zip code.
“It’s to encourage people, and in a way that’s not intimidating,” Samuel Sinyangwe, a Black Lives Matter organizer who helped create the bot, told Fast Company at the time. “The bot is like your friend. It wants to help you become a more empowered activist. You feel comfortable with it.”
Mckesson followed this up in 2017 with StayWoke, a social welfare organization and website where users could participate in different work groups like policy and elections, as well as learn ways to combat the Trump administration through its “Resistance Manual.” (The website is still active despite not having any recent posts.)
Woke was present in pop culture, too. The phrase “stay woke” was featured in the hook of Childish Gambino’s hit song “Redbone,” and served as the title for songs by Meek Mill, Oshun, and Royce Da 5’9″. It appeared throughout the Dear White People TV series; was an acronym in an episode of Empire; was the focus of a Saturday Night Live sketch; and was used on social media accounts for shows like Black-ish, Insecure, and She’s Gotta Have It. It also appeared in countless article titles, varying from “10 Under 21 Celebs That Are Incredibly Woke” to “15 Hot Celebs Who Are Also Woke AF.”
On social media, woke had transformed into irony, a reaction to its misuse and overuse as it became a buzzword. This was best reflected in the Twitter subculture hashtag #StayWokeTwitter. Unlike woke, #StayWokeTwitter remained a relatively Black exchange. #StayWokeTwitter allowed users to poke fun at people they thought annoyingly and unnecessarily over-intellectualized everything. “Hoteps” (a greeting used in Afrocentric circles that became a pejorative to describe black men who often champion a very male-centric idea of blackness), activists, academics, and feminists were all targets of #StayWokeTwitter. The hashtag was often used in tandem alongside other hashtags like #HotepTwitter, #ConspiracyTwitter, and #FakeDeepTwitter.
As woke was nearing its end on social media, another word was beginning to take its place — canceled. Like woke, canceled now means something different than its standard definition. An early use of it as slang appeared in a scene from the 1991 film New Jack City. In it, Nino Brown’s girlfriend condemns him for all the violence he has incited. In response, he breaks up with her by saying, “Cancel that bitch. I’ll buy another one.” More than two decades later, Brown’s memorable line resurfaced in the social media age courtesy of an episode of Love and Hip-Hop: New York from December 2014. In it, cast members Cisco Rosado and then-girlfriend Diamond Strawberry are in the middle of a fight, when Rosado proceeds to tell Strawberry, “you’re canceled.”
“I was just watching New Jack City the night before I met with her that day,” Rosado said during the episode. “And that’s where the whole cancel shit came from.”
Following the episode’s airing, a number of people referenced Rosado’s remark on Twitter, with most of them seeming to not get the New Jack City reference. By the late 2010s, Joanne the Scammer became synonymous with canceled. The social media star used the word similarly to Rosado in a viral video from 2016 when she failed to operate a coffee machine, pointing to the device and saying, “That’s over. It’s canceled.”
Along with Rosado and Joanne, Black Twitter also contributed to the prominence of canceled on social media. As the Vox article “Why we can’t stop fighting about cancel culture” noted, by 2015 Twitter users weren’t solely using the term as a joke. Some started to use it in a more serious manner, particularly for celebrities and other public figures that ranged from Miley Cyrus to Donald Trump. These examples foreshadowed the political subtext that ultimately became attached to canceled — the act of no longer supporting public figures based on something objectionable they’ve done or said. When one is deemed canceled in the social media age, it tends to come all at once. Multiple messengers making their declaration in a way that comes across as condemning, incendiary, and self-righteous by their recipients. Because of how frequent canceling has become, it is now also referred to as cancel culture.
Although cancel culture is used interchangeably with call-out culture, some argue that the latter preceded the former. Call-out culture is believed to have come about in the early 2010s courtesy of Tumblr blogs like Your Fave Is Problematic. The blog’s six moderators (some were as young as 17) described it as an archive, saying: “We just document problematic things celebrities have done. We are record keepers, and nothing more.” Some celebrities were even aware of the blog; Orlando Jones submitted himself to the page after he faced backlash for a tweet that seemed to compare Olivia Pope to Sally Hemmings in 2013. (The actor also used his personal Tumblr account to issue a statement on the backlash.)
The blog also served as an introduction to progressive concepts and terms, as moderators and users spoke on cultural appropriation, microaggressions, transphobia, and more. On the site’s FAQ page, the moderators further elaborated on the intent behind the blog and even acknowledged how they were fans of some of the celebrities they were criticizing, too.
“…it’s important to remember that our favorites are human and they will make mistakes and do or say bad things,” a part of the FAQ reads. “This does not necessarily mean they are bad people, nor does it mean you cannot like them — all it means is you should acknowledge their flaws and that they should be held accountable for them.”
Despite how divisive the blog is viewed as now, it still provided the framework for cancel culture — for better and worse. As culture critic Haaniyah Angus wrote in her essay from last year, “Cancel Culture: Moral Panic or Reality?“:
While I believe that the blog had pure intentions in holding people accountable for actions that nobody wanted to acknowledge, I feel that it spiraled into something we cannot contain anymore; instant-gratification for calling out those we do not like.
Throughout the late 2010s, many, many, people have been canceled: Kevin Hart, Kanye West, Dave Chappelle — even Badu has been canceled for expressing empathy toward controversial figures like Adolf Hitler and Bill Cosby. Cancel culture has been called everything from “misplaced hysteria” to “toxic,” and while some defended it, others have opposed it.
In Chappelle’s latest comedy special, Sticks & Stones, the comedian practically offers an indictment on cancel culture. He dedicates most of his special to being blatantly offensive, as if to incite someone to try and cancel him. During his set, he even caricatures what he believes cancel culture is: “Hey, if you do anything wrong in your life and I find out about it I’m gonna try and take everything away from you, and I don’t care when I find out. Could be today, tomorrow, 15, 20 years from now. If I find out you’re fucking finished.”
That most of the people in the audience were incorrect when Chappelle asked them who he was mocking arguably reflects cancel culture being perceived as some epidemic when, in reality, it’s not much of a conversation outside of the internet. Still, the former would likely agree with Chappelle’s description of cancel culture. How Chappelle and countless other critics see cancel culture as just an identity isn’t the only problem though. It’s people who, in an age of branding, have gained social — and possibly financial — capital as overzealous cancelers who present themselves as activists. It’s how canceled is thrown around and used loosely in different contexts. It’s how cancel culture also doesn’t have a collective, unanimous definition. It’s how language used in niche spaces is adopted and absorbed into a larger lexicon, and the complexities that come with it. It’s how subjective canceling can be. It’s how canceled functions as a blanket term for accountability and “precludes a nuanced discussion of the specific harm done and how those who did it should be held accountable,” as Sarah Hagi wrote in her piece, “Cancel Culture Is Not Real — At Least Not in the Way People Think.” All of this has made canceled more and more meaningless, adding to the collective burnout and cynicism people feel toward the term and cancel culture.
In practice, cancel culture should function as cultural boycotts.
“It’s an agreement not to amplify, signal boost, give money to. People talk about the attention economy — when you deprive someone of your attention, you’re depriving them of a livelihood,” Lisa Nakamura, a professor at the University of Michigan who studies the intersection of digital media and race, gender and sexuality, said of cultural boycotts to the New York Times.
Social media has given individuals agency against powerful people and corporations, offering them a platform to share their experiences and find solidarity in knowing they’re not alone. Disenfranchised and marginalized people have been able to mobilize and support one another through hashtags that bring awareness to national (#BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, #TakeAKnee) and international injustices (#ArabSpring, #HongKongUprising), as well as more localized incidents (#BBQBecky and other adjacent hashtags, for example).
Cancel culture is an extension of this. It aims to bring awareness to the transgressions a person has committed and to hold them accountable. The outcome could be anything from deplatforming (a form of political activism commonly used against controversial speakers) to criminal punishment (or both). That democratization of power is arguably unsettling to those who’ve always had that power.
The most recent example of this — as it primarily pertains to Black people — is R. Kelly.
It was an anonymous fax that tipped journalist Jim DeRogatis on the multiple sexual abuse lawsuits filed against the R&B singer in 2000. Later that year, DeRogatis published a story on his findings at the Chicago Sun-Times, the first of many reports he wrote on the allegations against Kelly. Almost two decades later, Kelly is finally facing consequences for his wrongdoings. The Lifetime documentary series Surviving R. Kelly, as well as the rise of the #MeToo movement, amplified the allegations against the singer in a way that hadn’t been done before, even inciting an FBI agent to investigate the singer. Kelly is now facing two federal cases, as well as charges from state prosecutors in Illinois and Minnesota. The trial date for his sexual abuse case is happening on May 18, 2020.
One wouldn’t call the beginnings of Kelly’s reckoning cancel culture, but that’s essentially what it was. People bringing awareness to his transgressions in the hopes of receiving justice. The hashtag #MuteRKelly served as the cultural boycott against the artist, the movement calling for the divestment of his career — from calling for companies to no longer work with him to calling for fans to no longer attend his shows and stream his music.
Still, Kelly hasn’t fully been canceled. There are some fans who still defend him, and on Spotify he still has over 4.7 million monthly listeners. Instances like this — and others — where figures are canceled but still have a fanbase and career, is what leads many to argue that cancel culture doesn’t exist.
It’s unsurprising that cancel culture’s critics tend to equate it with political correctness. The term political correctness (and its more recognizable adjective politically incorrect) was ironically used early on by leftists (people with left-wing political views). It was something they called each other when they felt someone was being self-righteous. The term became a pejorative in the late 20th century as a result of conservative criticism, as well as a number of articles written on political correctness in the ’90s.
Its evolution is explored in the Guardian piece, “Political correctness: how the right invented a phantom enemy.” In unpacking how political correctness has since been used to by right-wing figures (primarily Donald Trump) to dismiss and undermine the critiques against them, the piece not only shows the parallels between political correctness and cancel culture (and other words seen as synonymous or interchangeable like “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings”) but that the hysteria surrounding cancel culture isn’t anything new. The buzzwords might be, but their timelines are similar: first used in niche communities and spaces before being reported on (both objectively and dismissively) and, ultimately, lambasted by certain figures who are then catapulted as the fearless crusaders against these terms.
That this has happened before shows that cancel culture’s moment isn’t atypical but cyclical and reflects a deeper problem that goes beyond these terms being misunderstood and weaponized against themselves. It speaks to this country’s inability to uproot itself from the oppressive systems that it was built on. But it also speaks to the complexity of ideas like accountability, transparency, and vulnerability, and what that looks like in a social media world. Because of this, cancel culture was an inevitability. The social media spawn of the many predecessors that came before it and — whether one believes in it or not — is an extreme projection of the collective anxiety, anger, frustration, paranoia and pain of a country that feels like it’s getting worse before it’s getting better.
Earlier this year, Badu spoke at length about woke with the New York Times. She went on to say that woke not only has different phases but that it’s more than the political context that now defines it.
“Stay woke just means pay attention to everything, don’t lean on your own understanding or anyone else’s, observe, evolve, eliminate things that no longer evolve,” she said to the Times. “That’s what it means. Stay conscious, stay awake. It doesn’t mean judge others. It doesn’t mean gang up on somebody who you feel is not woke. That’s not evolved.”
However, it’s a statement that Badu later offers up clarifying her remarks on Hitler and Cosby in the interview that could be seen as a better definition of woke:
“Restorative justice involves finding a solution that not only helps the innocent victims cope with the trauma but to also help the violator, who in many cases, has been the victim of abuse and holds them accountable and is a huge part of recovery. This thinking may help to break the cycle of abuse and ultimately help to heal the community. That’s the goal.”
The woke that Badu speaks to is idealistic, nuanced, optimistic, and utopian. Maybe at some point that will be a reality. But for now it’s not. In woke culture’s death came its equally fiery and passionate successor cancel culture, lighting ablaze everything in sight, all of us waiting for the smoke to clear and simmer for a bit to try and prepare for what may come next.