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Swahili Speakers Debate Disney's Trademark of 'Hakuna Matata' For T-Shirts

"The Lion King," released in 1994 and one of the top grossing U.S. films of all time, is celebrated at a Disney fan event in Anaheim, Calif.
Image Group LA/Disney via Getty Images
"The Lion King," released in 1994 and one of the top grossing U.S. films of all time, is celebrated at a Disney fan event in Anaheim, Calif.

A years-old Disney trademark on the use of the phrase "Hakuna Matata" on T-shirts has stirred up a new debate among Swahili speakers about cultural appropriation.

The words mean "no worries" in Swahili, a language spoken in countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. Estimates for the number of speakers vary widely, from 60 to 150 million.

"Hakuna Matata" is the title of a song from the 1994 Disney film The Lion King. Disney applied to register the words in a trademark that year to protect the phrase from being printed on T-shirts. According to public records, the trademark was approved for registration in 2003 and is still active — meaning that Disney can sue companies that use the words on a shirt if it looks like a Lion King knockoff.

The Disney trademark has attracted attention over the past few weeks in African media. In November, a Kenyan writer named Cathy Mputhia wrote an op-ed in Business Daily, a Kenyan newspaper, calling for East Africans to protect their heritage, culture and identity from exploitation by outside forces. She cited the trademark as an example.

"[Hakuna matata] is widely used in East Africa, especially the coastal region as a response to greetings," she wrote. "Some words form part of our heritage and ought to be protected where possible."

Since her article appeared, the topic has been debated on social media and among African bloggers. The conversation comes ahead of Disney's 2019 live action version of The Lion King, starring Beyonce, Donald Glover and Chiwetel Ejiofor.

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o is a Kenyan writer and professor of comparative literature at the School of Humanities at the University of California, Irvine. He writes in Gikuyu and Swahili and has written and spoken extensively on African language.

Thiong'o says he is "horrified" by Disney's claim on the phrase, even though the trademark had a specific business goal and just covers T-shirts. "It would be like trademarking 'good morning' or 'it is raining cats and dogs' in the case of English," he says. "It's a common phrase we use every other day. No company can own it."

Disney did not respond to NPR's requests to comment on the debate over the trademark.

Esther Ngumbi, a Kenyan post-doctoral researcher at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, grew up singing a different "Hakuna Matata" song in the 1980s, by a Kenyan band called Them Mushrooms.

Ngumbi thinks the trademark is "ethically wrong." Like Mputhia, the op-ed writer, she thinks it should be a wake-up call for African governments to take stronger steps to protect African culture — "the authentic African things we are proud of," she says.

Meanwhile, a petition has been circulating on social media, calling for Disney to remove the trademark on the phrase. Created two weeks ago, it currently has more than 26,000 signatures.

Shelton Mpala, a Zimbabwean-Canadian activist based in Toronto, says he was inspired to start the petition because he "thought it was wrong of Disney to just appropriate and trademark something they didn't invent, without the consent of the people who speak the language."

Although Mpala does not speak Swahili, his petition has resonated with Swahili speakers and beyond, who saw wider repercussions to the T-shirt trademark.

"We have used [hakuna matata] as our Kenyan slogan since l was born almost 5 decades ago ... Disney, no way you are getting this one. You borrowed it during Lion King, now you think you can keep it? ... Create your own original stuff," wrote Florence Maina, a signer on the petition page.

"It is very disrespectful to take other people's languages for commercial gain. Stop it!" wrote another petition signer, Patrick Mbugua.

According to data from IMDB Pro, the entertainment database, the 1994 version of The Lion King is one of the highest grossing films in the U.S., raking in $422 million at the box office. The Lion King franchise also includes its Broadway show (which grossed just under $8.1 billion in 2017, according to Forbes magazine), merchandise, sequels and TV spinoffs.

In the wake of the T-shirt debate, some wonder whether Africa can find a way to cash in on the enterprise. In a comment in Afro-IP, a blog on African intellectual property, Isaac Rutenberg, a member of the board of directors of Kenya's Copyright Board, wrote: "Disney's profit from African culture/imagery goes far, far beyond the simple two-word phrase ... Clearly, though, there [is] a market for such entertainment. Can Africa capitalize on it?"

But some think the trademark was a smart move. "Hakuna matata ... is quite synonymous with the Lion King movie ... the Walt Disney company took the intelligent and capitalistic step to trademark and profit off it," wrote Allan Tuli, a Kenyan law student at Suffolk University Law School, in an article on his LinkedIn page.

Perhaps the debate can be summed up in another Swahili phrase, says Ngumbi.

"Hapana iko matata," she says. "It means yes — there are worries."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Malaka Gharib is the deputy editor and digital strategist on NPR's global health and development team. She covers topics such as the refugee crisis, gender equality and women's health. Her work as part of NPR's reporting teams has been recognized with two Gracie Awards: in 2019 for How To Raise A Human, a series on global parenting, and in 2015 for #15Girls, a series that profiled teen girls around the world.