“To be woke is to be black.”
I posit this thought to Georgia Anne Muldrow, one of the most forward-thinking musicians of our time, as we speak on the phone in early October.
There is a brief silence.
“Woke is definitely a black experience — woke is if someone put a burlap sack on your head, knocked you out, and put you in a new location and then you come to and understand where you are ain’t home and the people around you ain’t your neighbors. They’re not acting in a neighborly fashion, they’re the ones who conked you on your head. You got kidnapped here and then you got punked out of your own language, everything. That’s woke — understanding what your ancestors went through. Just being in touch with the struggle that our people have gone through here and understanding we’ve been fighting since the very day we touched down here. There was no year where the fight wasn’t going down.”
This is only one of many profound insights Muldrow offers on the idea of wokeness during our two-and-a-half-hour talk, and what it’s become since she first uttered the word on Erykah Badu‘s “Master Teacher” a decade ago.
Sure, she’s happy to see the word woke become a rallying cry of resilience for black people in America. But she also doesn’t mince her words on wokeness becoming a performative trend for the masses in recent years.
“Most people who are woke ain’t calling themselves woke. Most people who are woke are agonizing inside,” Muldrow says. “They’re too busy being depressed to call themselves woke.”
I could have called Muldrow to talk about a number of topics such as her storied career or multiple collaborative albums with partner Dudley Perkins. But I wanted to talk about the word woke and her role in introducing it to the mainstream.
I embarked on this journey to discover the origins of the word woke because of the uniqueness in its present ubiquity, considering its past is shrouded in mystery. But I also hoped to highlight the erasure of the people who invented it in its political and racial context — black people.
I started this journey researching the work of Harlem author William Melvin Kelley, who’s credited with coining woke in his 1962 New York Times essay “If You’re Woke You Dig It,” and traced its use to Badu’s “Master Teacher” almost five decades later. As important as the word is to our current political state, it is also important to understand the word’s ties to blackness. That the word that was passed from one black person to another, expanding its reach from the streets of Harlem to the West Coast and eventually into the airwaves for mass consumption, making Muldrow an integral part of woke’s story.
Georgia Anne Muldrow’s life story begins in Los Angeles, California, where she was born to a musical home. Ronald Muldrow and Rickie Byars-Beckwith, her father, and mother, respectively, are acclaimed musicians, with the two having worked with Eddie Harris, Pharaoh Sanders, Roland Hanna, and others.
In the early 2000s, Muldrow relocated to New York City to attend New York University, where she enrolled in the school’s jazz program. There, she met the peers who would become her frequent collaborators including Bilal, Robert Glasper, and the Harlem alto saxophonist who indirectly introduced her to woke — Lakecia Benjamin.
“The way she would use [the phrase] 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.”
As a homage to Benjamin, Muldrow had created her own t-shirt with the words stay woke, writing it in marker over her heart. But the phrase came to embody Muldrow’s relentless work ethic and desire to find and love herself while on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
“I had a lot of sleep deprivation [at the time], I literally stayed up,” Muldrow says. “My self-esteem was really bad. I felt like if I wasn’t productive I wasn’t shit. I just felt like the only thing I was good for was making music and if I couldn’t be doing that all the time then I really had to face myself.”
Muldrow’s hectic work ethic ultimately took a toll on her. This, along with the September 11 terrorist attacks, resulted in her returning to Los Angeles. (Muldrow was reserved in discussing the incident during our conversation, but, shortly after, I discovered through an old press release for one of her shows that she was in the area when the attack occurred. She was on a subway crossing underneath the World Trade Center when the first plane crashed into the North Tower of the building that morning.)
However, little did Muldrow know she was the bearer of a coastal cultural exchange — the West Coast was about to get introduced to her theory of wokeness.
Upon returning to Los Angeles, Muldrow paired with Dibiase, Ras G, and Sa-Ra Creative Partners, the latter of whom she’d originally written “Master Teacher” for in 2005 for the trio’s unreleased third album, Black Fuzz. The song that marks the entry of “stay woke” into the musical mainstream would ultimately find Badu, in the throes of her own creative purging.
By 2005, Badu was a Grammy award-winning, commercial and critical success, having earned the title of “Queen of Neo Soul.” But the title, as sincere as it seemed, simplified Badu to a typecast: an Ankh ring and head wrap-wearing, candle and incense-lighting black woman whose personal life — particularly her romantic relationships with the likes of Andre 3000 and Common — was beginning to take precedence over her creative life in the public eye.
Suffering through a string of writer’s block, Badu took a break from recording music and instead focused on her family, namely her new daughter Puma Rose who was born the July prior. But by the end of the year, Badu was working on music again. She received her first computer from Questlove as a Christmas gift and began receiving music from J Dilla and Q-Tip. This, along with her introduction to Apple’s GarageBand digital audio workstation by her son Seven, incited a creative spark in Badu.
“I could be here, in my own space, with headphones on, and the kids could be doing what they doing, and I’m cooking dinner still, I’m making juices still, and it’s so easy just to sing,” she said in a 2008 New York Times story. “You got an idea — boom! Idea, boom!”
Throughout 2005, Badu had composed more than 75 songs intended for what would ultimately become her two New Amerykah albums. In the process, she traveled across the country to work on the tracks: Luminous Sound Recording in Dallas; Electric Lady Studios in New York City; and Sa-Ra’s Cosmic Dust Studio in Los Angeles, where Badu and Muldrow met for the first time.
“We had Georgia at the house one day and it just so happened that Badu came thru,” Om’Mas Keith said in an issue of now-defunct British music magazine Shook. “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 next time Muldrow would hear “Master Teacher” would be when it appeared on Badu’s 2008 album New Amerykah Part One (4th World War). By then, Muldrow was no longer frequenting the Cosmic Dust Studio and was living with her mother after having a nervous breakdown shortly after the song’s completion.
“I felt like my heart was crying out,” Muldrow admits. “My momma had to pick me up from [Sa-Ra’s place] and take me back to her house so I could get mentally stable again.”
According to Muldrow, the final version of “Master Teacher” was a drastic departure from the original. Unlike the psychedelic, futuristic funk of the former, the latter was more minimal and subdued. (Muldrow compares the song to an African chant.) But the biggest revelation she offers about the track may very well be that she wasn’t singing “I stay woke” but “I’d stay woke” on the chorus.
“I wasn’t claiming that I was woke,” Muldrow says. “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.”
Listening to “Master Teacher,” the admittance reflects the themes of self-discovery and growth present on the track.
“I’ve been in search of myself/It’s just too hard for me to find/I am in the search of something new,” Muldrow sings on the first verse. The beauty of “Master Teacher” was the declaration of “I stay woke” — that she attained the self she was searching for. But “I’d stay woke” implies something else — that she’s still searching, striving for that new self.
It’s rare for Muldrow to listen to “Master Teacher” because of how raw the song is for her. A black woman trying to assure and support her people while simultaneously trying to help herself — this divide manifested in “Master Teacher.” Muldrow purged through this song, so much so that she had to leave it. Even now over a decade later she still finds it difficult to return to.
Maybe in Muldrow’s purging Badu saw herself, which is why she wanted “Master Teacher.” Both were enduring the same internal struggle — two creatives in search of something new. But in meeting one another Badu and Muldrow seemed to find that something new they were looking for, a serendipitous moment that ultimately transformed into a bond of sisterhood.
“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,” Muldrow says. “What she helped to do was really something. I’m really honored to have been a guest on her record.”
Since “Master Teacher’s” release, stay woke’s fate has been unfortunate but unsurprising. Like anything created by black people, the phrase was appropriated by the masses, transformed into a trend term before ultimately mutating into a meme and becoming a form of irony. The phrase’s end arguably came in July last year when, during an episode of Jeopardy!, a “Stay Woke” category was included. However, the topic was centered around the literal definition of woke instead of questions related to social injustices.
The moment was a sobering representation of the continual mishandling of blackness in America. Our culture is treated as a trend. But for black people stay woke is anything but — it’s a fucking lifestyle for us. Each and every day, having to be aware that because of the color of your skin you could be legally defined as someone’s property; you could be shot and hung for allegedly talking to or whistling at a white woman; you could be arrested and placed in one of the most dangerous jails in the country for a crime you never committed. Woke was simultaneously a cool and militant descriptor for our experience, a word that channeled our reality into something empowering. Now, it’s gone.
I spoke with Muldrow again the first week of November. She sounded distraught, her voice shaking as she told me about an incident that took place just before our phone call. Muldrow and Perkins had pulled up to a gas station when she saw a white man place his hand over a visible gun holster. The man continued to look at them with his hand over the holster until they left.
“It’s real deep right now, what it is we have to go through right now,” Muldrow says. “We’re living in a fucked up reality right now.”
Our conversation continues but this moment stays with me well after we’re finished talking — a clear and poignant reminder to never get it twisted — being woke isn’t fucking fun.
For the third and final part of the series, we explore woke’s commodification and its transformation into a trend.
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