Hakuna Matata: No worries about cultural appropriation?

The new reboot of the Disney classic The Lion King opened in theatres a few weeks back. The critics and audiences have taken polarising stances. Some say there was no need for a reboot in the first place and this one feels a bit bland, while there are others who feel that the soundtrack is what saves the movie.

Simba, the lion, Pumba, the warhog, and Timon, the meerkat grooving to Hakuna Matata (Image Credits- Genius)

Boasting musical talents like Beyonce and Childish Gambino (aka Donald Glover) in its main cast, the OST has a blend of classics from the 1990s version like Hakuna Matata and Can You Feel The Love Tonight, along with a few originals (which Beyonce curated in another album called The Lion King: The Gift) like Spirit.

Spirit is gaining more acclaim than the movie itself and polls are predicting that this song might end up giving her an Oscar nomination too. It heavily features lyrics in Kiswahili (or Swahili) which is spoken in large parts of Africa, the continent where the story of Simba and the kingdom of lions is set.

Like last year’s diverse Black Panther album, The Gift version of The Lion King’s soundtrack features prominent African artists like Yemi Alade and Wizkid. In a press statement, Beyonce said ‘It was important that the music was not only performed by the most interesting and talented artists but also produced by the best African producers. Authenticity and heart were important to me.’

Still, with all the praise this recent album is getting, one can’t deny that the award-winning 1994 soundtrack has also stood the test of time. An authentic African touch was added in its songs too such as the intro to the Elton John-composed Circle of Life and the merry, fun anthem Hakuna Matata. But over the years, many have questioned this ‘Africanness’.

Just take Hakuna Matata as the biggest example. The song is sung by the carefree characters Timon and Pumba literally translates to ‘no worries’ in Swahili. The phrase soon caught on in pop culture and has been referenced multiple times later on. In fact, it’s believed that Disney technically owns the Swahili phrase now, with the words being used on a lot of their official merchandise.

This trademark has made many question the extent to which a large American corporation like Disney can monopolize anything while some are plainly asking ‘Disney trademarking Swahili? Can they actually do that?’

Cathy Mputhia, a Kenyan journalist feels that Hakuna Matata being popularised with an American film is ‘cultural exploitation’. While there are hints of truth in it, but this is how it has been with this American cultural hegemony.

More flames were added to the fire when a Canadian activist of Zimbabwean origin, Shelton Mpala drafted an online petition last year demanding The Walt Disney Co. to give up its trademark on Hakuna Matata as it was an assault of Swahili people. This might seem like an exaggerated issue to make a whole petition for but about 100,000 people did sign this petition!

But Disney later clarified that the company having a trademark doesn’t mean that any African or anybody from the world can’t use it. This adds a new dimension to the debate. It can make us think whether The Lion King should just be taken as a kids film with some great songs and nothing else, or should this be seen as another example of how conveniently the First World makes good cash out of Third World culture?

Album art of The Lion King: The Gift (Image Credits- Stereogum)

But considering that more and more African artists were involved in the making of The Lion King: The Gift, we can probably think of a more diverse and inclusive future. Have you heard the new album? How do you feel about it?

Shaurya Singh Thapa