The Issue with Trademarking the phrase “Hakuna Matata”

For those of us who have watched Disney’s “The Lion King”, when Simba goes into exile following his father’s death, he meets the carefree, fun-loving Meerkat and Warthog pair Timon and Pumba who introduce him to their “problem free philosophy”, “Hakuna Matata.” The “wonderful phrase” and song that goes along with it in the film is etched into the hearts of many of us who have sang along to it on countless occasions.

The phase Hakuna Matata is derived from the east African language, Swahili and in English roughly translates to “no worries”. To be more specific, the word “Hakuna” means “there is not here” and “matata” means “problems.”

In the past few weeks, this phrase has not been problem free due to a controversy surrounding Disney’s trademarking of the phrase.  The trademark request was first filed in 1994 when The Lion King was released. The trademarks current successful approval has come at a perfect time with the films 2019 live action remake being released this year. The trademark is limited to the United States and its use on clothing, footwear and headgear.

In reaction to Disney successfully trademarking the phrase, the Zimbabwean activist, Shelton Mpala created a Change.org petition calling for Disney to remove the trademark on Hakuna Matata. The petition has collected over 180,000 signatures. He explained on his petition that although Disney is a respected entertainment institution that has created many childhood memories, trademarking Hakuna Matata is purely out of greed. For Mpala, this move disrespects not only Swahili speaking people but Africans as a whole and at a time when the world is more divisive than ever, Disney completely goes against the values of friendship, acceptance and unity that are celebrated in the Lion King.

Kimani Njogu, the founder of Twaweza Communications, a think tank that specialises in public policy, media and culture labelled Disney’s trademarking of Hakuna Matata “unethical”. For him, large companies from the North take advantage of cultural expression from Africa. These companies know that this is the people’s property but go right ahead and appropriate products for their own benefit.

This issue of appropriation has been linked to African artifacts such as bronzes from Benin being kept  in museums abroad where those in the West are benefiting from pieces of African culture. The key issue for many goes beyond these artifacts and the two words. There is a larger question on extraction of culture and who is allowed to benefit from it.

When it comes to the legality of the trademark, the phrase cannot be used on clothing by any other organisation in the United States without permission from Disney. It is common for companies to trademark phrases that they did not invent. Disney has no power to stop individuals from using the phrase except when it comes to the sale of clothing. Ironically, the attention Disney has received adds to the value of the trademark as the more people know about a trademark, the more value it garners.

With trademarking Hakuna Matata, Disney has no legal worries, the biggest worry is where the line should be drawn when it comes to appropriating pieces of culture such as language.


Featured image| Hakuna Matata | Harbingerkin | flickr

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Best of Africa.

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