A group of online activists want the Walt Disney Company to relinquish their trademark on the phrase, “Hakuna Matata,” which appears in the immensely popular “Lion King” movies and television shows, because Disney’s “ownership” is emblematic of “colonialism” and “cultural appropriation.”
CNN reports that more than 50,000 people have signed an online petition urging Disney to drop the mark, which it snagged back in 1994, when the original “Lion King” movie hit theaters. They were granted additional trademark protection in 2003, allowing the company to use the phrase on “clothing or footwear.”
“Zimbabwean activist Shelton Mpala” created the petition, which he says is designed to “to draw attention to the appropriation of African culture and the importance of protecting our heritage, identity and culture from being exploited for financial gain by third parties.”
He likened Disney’s trademark on the phrase, “Hakuna Matata” to grave robbing and “plundering” Africa of priceless historical artifacts.
“This plundered artwork serves to enrich or benefit these museums and corporations and not the creators or people it’s derived from,” Mpala told CNN. In the petition itself, Mpala accuses Disney of, among other things, “colonialism and robbery” for profiting off the phrase.
“A lot of Swahili speakers have been utterly shocked, they had no idea this was happening,” Mpala added in an interview with the BBC. “Growing up in Zimbabwe, I always had an understanding that a culture’s language was its richness.”
“The expression means ‘no problem’ in Swahili, which is spoken across east Africa and is a national language of Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo,” the Guardian reports, echoing the words of a song in the movie, which translates the phrase as “no worries.” But activists who’ve joined Mpala say the phrase actually refers to a way of life, and that Africans were using it well before Disney “appropriated” the phrase.
“They know very well that this expression is really the people’s property, created by people, popularized by people,” one activist told the Guardian. “[Them Mushrooms, a band popular in the early 1980s] made hakuna matata a lifestyle – of fun, of leisure, of happiness.”
The problem, though, seems to be less about culture and more about money. Disney’s trademark on the phrase “hakuna matata” doesn’t prevent anyone from using the term; it prevents companies from selling merchandise featuring the term. The Guardian reports that Kenyans are able to sell lots of tee shirts, key chains, and souvenirs with the phrase “Hakuna Matata” on them in Africa, but are banned by Disney from profiting off the phrase in the United States.
With a remake of the “Lion King” due in theaters in 2019, the phrase has a lot of earning potential.
Disney is no stranger to engaging in culturally based copyright battles. Although no one challenged Disney’s claim on “Hakuna Matata” at the time, the massive entertainment company was denied a trademark on the phrase, “Dia de Los Muertos” last year. It tried to trademark the phrase in order to capitalize on the release of the Pixar film, “Coco,” but the Mexican community complained to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office almost immediately, citing a deep cultural connection to the term.