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Lion King: Petition calls for Disney to give up 'Hakuna Matata' trademark on grounds of cultural appropriation

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Dec 21, 2018, 11:41 AM EST

Disney has come under fire for one of its most recognizable songs, "Hakuna Matata," from 1994's The Lion King.

The company owns a trademark on the phrase, which means "no worries" or "no trouble" in Swahili, for use on T-shirts, but a petition is trying to change that. Alleging that Disney appropriated African culture, the petition seeks to ban the House of Mouse (and all other major corporations) from trademarking cultural expressions that they did not invent. To date, more than 125,000 people have signed the petition, which ultimately wants Disney to give up its trademark on the phrase.

"Hakuna Matata has been used by most Kiswahili-speaking countries such as Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Mozambique, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo," reads the official page. "While we respect Disney as an entertainment institution responsible for creating many of our childhood memories, the decision to trademark ‘Hakuna Matata’ is predicated purely on greed and is an insult not only [to] the spirit of the Swahili people but also, Africa as a whole."

Disney does not own a blanket trademark on the phrase, but only specifically for its use on T-shirt merchandise. 

In a statement to SYFY WIRE, a Disney spokesperson said: “Disney’s registration for ‘Hakuna Matata’ T-shirts, which was filed in 1994, has never and will not prevent individuals from using the phrase. Indeed, for many years, trademarks have been registered for popular words and phrases such as ‘Yahoo!’, ‘Vaya con Dios (Go with God),’ ‘Merry Christmas,’ and ‘Seasons Greetings’ without impeding the use of these phrases and words in any cultural way. In 2018 alone, 638,000 trademark applications were filed.”

In the animated film, the song is sung by Timon, a meerkat (voiced by Nathan Lane), and Pumbaa, a warthog (Ernie Sabella), when they first meet Simba, the lion cub (Jonathan Taylor Thomas), after he runs away from home. The musical number accomplishes two things: It gives us an idea of who Timon and Pumbaa are via a description of their carefree lifestyle while also providing a nifty flash-forward to Simba as a grown lion.

With Jon Favreau's live-action CGI remake of the movie just on the horizon, the film and the petition's profiles will only rise as more trailers and clips are released. There is also much speculation that songs from the original film will appear in the live-action version — an inevitable step, given Elton John and Tim Rice's iconic tunes like "Circle of Life," "I Just Can't Wait to Be King," "Be Prepared," and "Can You Feel the Love Tonight." Also, Beyoncé plays Nala in the film, so fans are no doubt expecting a musical number of some sort from the pop superstar.

"Hakuna Matata" is such a big part of the animated version that it's hard to imagine that Favreau won't include it when introducing his takes on Timon (Billy Eichner) and Pumbaa (Seth Rogen).

"A trademark does not prohibit use of language or interfere with culture of any people," Liz Lenjo, a Kenyan intellectual property and entertainment lawyer, tells SYFY WIRE. "It does not mean taking away the language from its speakers and it is dangerous to interpret it as an asset to only one community... This misinformed attempt to argue appropriation will just make Kenya more unattractive to international brands because of our ignorance."

Favreau's Lion King opens in theaters July 19. It also stars Donald Glover, James Earl Jones, Alfre Woodard, Keegan-Michael Key, Florence Kasumba, Eric Andre, Chiwetel Ejiofor, John Kani, John Oliver, and Amy Sedaris.