Should anyone really own the phrase “Hakuna Matata”?

“The Lion King” on Broadway in New York
“The Lion King” on Broadway in New York
Image: AP Photo/Cameron Bloch
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The Walt Disney Company, a purveyor of cultural products, services and experiences, showcases stories primarily to Americans, then Europeans and people wherever they have Disney Worlds or Disneyland Resorts, and lastly to the rest of the world. Disney also own other entertainment multiverses, such as Lucasfilm, the home of Star Wars, and Marvel Studios, the comic book and superhero movie juggernaut.

Nobody’s under the illusion Disney is here to do anything except rack up dollars, using culture in various forms as a medium.

Noting this, it makes sense its executives would want to create unique merchandise that allows people to take memories of their stories home from the screen.

One example of this strategy is the Swahili phrase “Hakuna Matata”, meaning “No Problems”. Disney’s 1994 animated feature, The Lion King, features a fast-talking meerkat and an ebullient warthog who sing this catchphrase, tying zen vacation wisdom with friendship and new beginnings, to help a traumatized lion cub find a moment’s respite from grief at losing his father.

Trademarking “Hakuna Matata” gives Disney the right to emblazon it on anything from fridge magnets to sweatshirts, or even have a tinny recording of it in a press-and-play plush toy. From Disney’s perspective they had to secure the rights to use it. Now the upcoming live action 2019 reboot will introduce a whole new generation to the phrase as part of a story that locates Shakespearean intrigues in tropical animal kingdoms.

On the other hand, we must consider several radical changes in the 25 years since 1994. The internet has come of age, and social media has enabled conversations to race round the globe in record time. Africans from the continent and the diaspora have not been left behind. Their thinking, art, design, academic work, education and other multi-sector interventions have reframed both how they see themselves and how the rest of the world sees them.

Narratives of black power and glory have taken their place irreversibly among hungry audiences, via everything from hashtags like #BlackGirlMagic and #BlackBoyJoy, to cultural moments like “Black Panther” (ironically also Disney-owned via Marvel). All these have been jump-offs for the ways in which diverse blackness can be things of beauty, victory and joy.

These intangibles have immeasurable meaning to a people familiar with memories of themselves and their lands being stolen by white monopoly capital. They are inseparable from our narratives as people who were on the wrong side of colonization, apartheid and slavery. We thus cannot deny that hearing about Disney’s totalitarian rights to “Hakuna Matata” via trademark feels like they are attempting to buy pieces of how we speak.

It ceases to be a thing of honor for Disney to share stories with elements that are familiar to us, when they are also mining how we talk so that they can try to sell it. The morality of these purchases is a bone of contention for black people and Africans: after all, dignity is apparently only for those with high GDPs. That attitude may have flown at a point in time when Africa was viewed as a bottomless pit people could “discover”, plunder and remake in their own image, but now the world knows that Africa is and has always been owned by Africans.

Having a huge budget means Disney can tell stories set in savannas featuring cute animals singing songs replete with Swahili phrases. However, too much about throwing handcuffs on words and dictating who can profit from their use feels familiar.

Disney is far from the sole villain in this regard—other foreign vultures have attempted to sweep up the words “kikoy” and “kiondo “from Kenya. Is it only African things that are “legally” trademarked in this way?

How many other bits and pieces from other cultures are owned thus? Disney is the most visible buyer in this contemporary trafficking in pieces of intangible blackness via the same frame that slavers and colonizers used before—that it was legal.

There’s an unavoidable link between this and the existence of African artifacts of dubious provenance—the Benin bronzes and the bust of Nefertiti, to name a few—in museums abroad. Again, the items belong originally to one group of people. Another group of people “obtained” and kept them for vague reasons, and quietly profit off them to this day. The conversation becomes about who can host them “properly” and who has the ability to attract larger, higher-value audiences. The parallels are thus uncanny.

This is far less about two words than it is about if African languages can even be “owned” in the West. What do global storytellers—industrial ones, or individuals and even cultural producers in general—have to add to the idea of the “green” or fair/ethical economy? We can trace a coffee bean to the farmer who grew it, and put his name on the package to demonstrate fair pay, thus cementing the guilt-free joy of an ethically sourced latte. Can we then not be more intentional about how we move within pieces of history, person, language and place?

One day we will not have to ask why the umpteenth Brit or American must play Nelson Mandela in the umpteenth Hollywood biopic to spur emotions in the world, but a South African Xhosa actor cannot be trusted to carry this homegrown inspiration substantively.

Until then, the real issues are whose cultures get extracted for bits and bobs high in “exotic” feel-good factor, as well as who profits from this unseemly trade, and Africans will not watch this happening quietly any more when what is taken is theirs.

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