A furore over Disney's trademark on the Swahili phrase Hakuna Matata heats up the cultural appropriation debate
Hakuna Matata. Some of us might remember Timon the meerkat and Pumbaa the warthog singing this curiously titled song in The Lion King, the 1994 Disney blockbuster. As Timon explains to Simba the lion cub, it means no worries, summing up the motto of their carefree life. This wonderful phrase, as Timon calls it, was no Disney invention but was borrowed from Africa’s Swahili language. It’s a language that’s spoken by close to a 100 million people in over a half dozen countries in the continent. Yet, Disney thought fit to trademark the phrase after the popularity of the film and the song. If anyone could have done so legitimately it would be the Kenyan band Them Mushrooms which popularised Hakuna Matata in their 1982 hit song Jambo Bwana. But then, Them Mushrooms are artistes and do not possess the sharp business sense of US corporations.
Across the world there is outrage over the trademark with online petitions and scores of articles by African writers and activists inveighing against the cultural appropriation by Disney. Some have accused the famous film company of greed. Others have said it insulted “not only the spirit of the Swahili people, but also, of Africa as a whole”. Why the furore now since the trademark was registered more than two decades ago? The reason for the tsunami of outrage that has built up since the end of December is the announcement by Disney that it will be releasing a live action remark of The Lion King later in 2019.
Intellectuals, too, have come out strongly in support of the campaign. Kenyan author Mkoma Wa Nggĩhas asked if it is “cultural appropriation or just good old fashioned exploitation”. Cultural appropriation is a term used to the lifting of another culture’s practices without consent, and covers a wide range of sins. In early 2018 an American high school student was accused of “cultural appropriation” for posting online photos of herself in a traditional Chinese cheongsam, or qipao, that she wore as a prom dress. That’s as ridiculous as such controversies can get sometimes.
It’s a different story with Disney. It clearly has a penchant for grabbing the intellectual property rights on anything that might yield a profit. Earlier, it had tried to trademark the name of a Mexican festival called Dia de los Muertos, which is Spanish for Day of the Dead, following the success of its film Coco which was themed around the festival. But in the wake of widespread protests the trademark quest was abandoned.
The company thinks the protests are overblown since the registration is only clothing. A spokesperson says: “Disney’s registration for ‘Hakuna Matata’ T-shirts, which was filed in 1994, has never and will not prevent individuals from using the phrase. Indeed, for many years, trademarks have been registered for popular words and phrases such as ‘Yahoo!’, ‘Vaya con Dios (Go with God),’ and ‘Seasons Greetings’ without impeding the use of these phrases and words in any cultural way.”
It’s not an explanation that will wash with the Africans, or at least with the 200,000 who have signed online petitions against Disney. For them, Hakuna Matata is more than a phrase; it’s their cultural heritage.
(This article was first published in Down To Earth's January 16-31 print edition)
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