Disney Ripped Off Poor African Artists To Make Lion King

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Beach In Mombasa, Kenya. Home To The Band That Coined Hakuna Matata
4 mins read

We loved The Lion King

We liked it so much that we were willing to overlook some glaring inaccuracies like animals not indigenous to Africa living happily in the African jungle. It is after all, make-believe. What is very very real, is the tragic story behind this hugely successful movie. 

Hakuna Matata

The movie’s success helped familiarize the world with a famous Kenyan phrase; Hakuna Matata. The phrase, which means “no worries” was a central theme in the movie. The son of the ousted Incumbent Lion King, aptly named Simba which is Swahili for Lion, is banished out of the kingdom by his evil Uncle who has usurped the throne from Simba’s dad. Living beyond the kingdom lines, Simba befriends Timon and Pumbaa, a meerkat and warthog. His two new friends teach the young lion prince their philosophy of Hakuna Matata, a worry-free, carefree lifestyle. One of the most popular scenes in the movie is the rendition of the theme song by the three friends, go ahead and sing along; 

“It means no worries

For the rest of your days

It’s our problem-freeee philosophyyyy

Hakuna Matata!”

Kenyans Had Been Saying It For Decades

It is an uplifting, catchy tune that propelled the movie. The world embraced it; everybody was saying it. Disney had coined a winning phrase, even today the Hakuna Matata hashtag still has over a million tags! Only, they hadn’t. Ask any Kenyan, and they will be happy to tell you that Hakuna Matata had been popular in Kenya years before Disney appropriated it for use in their feel-good blockbuster animation. Every Kenyan has owned a T-shirt that said Hakuna Matata as a child; the word was ubiquitous in Kenyan society. The tourism board used it as the catchline in advertising campaigns to lure tourists to our beautiful country. “Karibu Kenya – Hakuna Matata,” (Welcome to Kenya there are no worries) the slogan read on brochures, newspapers, and TV. It was the country’s national identity. Hakuna Matata is a fitting description of Kenyan life. The Kenyan people are peaceful, laid back, fun-loving people who embrace the good times even in bad times. Visit Kenya, and you will understand the philosophy. 

Billboard In Kenya Welcoming Tourists To Kenya With Hakuna Matata

The Originators (OGs)

The phrase was first neologized by a band that was popular in Kenya in the 1980s called “Them Mushrooms.” Back then, there was no money to be made in the Kenyan music scene, at least not selling records. So popular bands of the time made their living playing live venues, and the most lucrative live venues were tourist spots. Them Mushrooms were in demand around such venues and played to mostly tourists. Their signature song was a song that welcomed their audience into the country; you can listen to it here. The song starts with;

“Jambo, jambo bwana

Habari gani, mzuri sana

Wageni mwakaribishwa

Kenya yetu, Hakuna Matata

Loosely translated it means “Hello sir, how are you, fine. Visitors, we welcome you to Kenya where there are no worries.” Kenyans viewed it as their unofficial anthem especially given the economy’s heavy reliance on globetrotter’s visiting the country. Its influence on Kenyan pop culture can be seen decades later with merchandise all over the country spotting the popular phrase. When we visited Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium In the UK (Soccer team that John supports in the English Premier League), we were genuinely chuffed to see a banner that read “Arsenal Kenya – Hakuna Matata.” It is more than a phrase to us Kenyans; it is our identity.

Day Light Robbery

So you can understand our outrage when we found out that Disney had trademarked the phrase, robing Kenyans of their beloved expression! When Lion King first came out, we mused at how lucrative it would have been had Them Mushrooms trademarked the phrase. But they didn’t, and now Disney owns it. John’s mum grew up in Mombasa, the coastal town that Them Mushrooms emanate. The band members were friends of the family, and knowing them, John argues that they would not have wanted to own the phrase, they would rather have shared it freely with their beloved country. Disney would never understand this. 

At first, we gave Disney the benefit of the doubt. Maybe they didn’t realize how vital Hakuna Matata was to Kenya. Once they comprehended the significance, surely they would renege on the ownership, right? Wrong! After taking a closer look at Disney’s record of cultural appropriation, we realized that they were not interested in doing the right thing. We found out that an African Musician’s estate had sued Disney for “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” another popular song in the movie. The plaintiff, a South African musician, named Solomon Popoli Linda (now represented by his Estate), died in abject poverty back in the ’60s. When Disney ripped off his song (Named Mbube) to make “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” they did not give him any credit, and thus his estate was not entitled to any royalties. This lack of ethics is downright astonishing since the song has been used in hundreds of recordings in movies, commercials, and records. Disney has made hundreds of millions of dollars from the song; a simple acknowledgment would have meant at least 10 million dollars for the Estate. A minuscule amount compared to what they made. Let’s get something straight; Disney has not broken any laws – criminally. But would you do business with an organization that operated with such disregard for doing the right thing? Growing up, we were taught that you did the right thing for the right things sake, even if nobody was looking. Disney does not! They fought the Solomon Popoli Linda Estate ferociously for years before deciding to settle for an undisclosed amount.

What You Can Do About It

Hakuna Matata belongs to Kenya and its people and not to an oligarch like Disney that has no vision beyond monetary incentives. Join us in our outrage by sharing this story to raise awareness of this blatant cultural appropriation that borders on neo-colonialism. Also, sign the petition on change.org here to lend your voice to this worthy cause. 

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