Disney Owns “Hakuna Matata”: Theft or Mere Cultural Appropriation?

“Heeeeey!” Samia cried out sassily. “What’s with that smile?” she inquired shooting me a you-better-share-the-secret kind of look.

“Mmmh!” I sighed. Embarrassed. “Well, I just remembered our performance at the graduation ceremony yesterday,” I said much to Samia’s reprobative amusement.

The previous day, attendees at the University of Nairobi’s 42nd graduation ceremony had risen to an overwhelming standing ovation as the university choir exited the stage. We had performed four numbers; two in Kiswahili, one in English and one in Luyhia. In preparation, our relentless trainers had drilled us for weeks, accepting nothing but perfection. The weeks-long stress was now melting away like wax from a lit candle as we made the exit in a single file. The cheers were like music to my ears. I replayed the immensely gratifying moment in my head for a long time after, and now Samia caught me in the act. Lucky me if I ever heard the end of it…

One of the songs we had performed, and one we would treat our varied audiences to in many other occasions, was a harmonized rendition of Them Mushrooms’ Hakuna Matata.

“♪♪Chuo chetu, Hakuna Matata♪♪The words still echo in my head.

Courtesy of African Nostalgia

Thanks to the Kenyan band Them Mushrooms, Hakuna Matata is one of the most popular Kiswahili phrases in Kenya and East Africa. In Kenya, the phrase has been prevalent for as long as I can remember. It has always been among the social phenomena that made the world I grew up in. Constant interaction with the phrase and participation in events that employed it like the university choir performances made me feel a sense of communal ownership for it. To me, it was “all Kenyan, all the time,” to use Jeff Koinange’s voguish K24 mantra… Well, until roughly two years ago when I learnt that the phrase actually belongs to Disney!

Them Mushrooms band. Courtesy of Nairobi Wire.

That’s right! Disney, the American multinational mass media and entertainment corporation headquartered in California, USA, owns trademark rights for the phrase “Hakuna Matata”. I don’t know about you but for me, this knowledge was rather discombobulating.

Disconcerting still, the rights to the phrase were granted in the US. How supercilious!

Ironically, the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USTPO) clearly stipulates on its website that it would refuse trademark registration of a “foreign term that translates to a descriptive or generic term” (page 8). True to this, Donald Trump was denied patent rights for “You are fired!” in the early 2000s, a term that he had used and re-used in his then popular TV show The Apprentice. Yet, in contradiction to that very rule, “Hakuna Matata” is now the property of Disney.

Should Kenyans celebrate USTPO & Disney’s move as “cultural expansion” or should they protest it as “cultural theft”? In our next article, we sample the varied reactions among Kenyans and tell you what you may do to help reclaim the phrase.

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