East Africa

How Disney made Billions from Lion King through Swahili Term “Hakuna Matata”

Story Highlights

  • Hakuna Matata: Controversies & Trademark by Disney
  • Conclusion

Hakuna matata is a Swahili phrase that is literally translated as “There are no worries”. It is sometimes translated as “no worries”, although is more commonly used similarly to the English phrase “no problem”. It is formed by the words hakuna (there is not here) and matata (plural form of problem).

The phrase was later popularized by its use in a Walt Disney  animation movie The Lion King (in which it is translated as “no worries” in a song named after the phrase)

Hakuna matata was first popularized in 1980 when ‘Them Mushrooms”, a Kenyan hotel band released a song in Swahili called “Jambo Bwana” (“Hello Mister”) that their band leader Teddy Kalanda Harrison had written. “Hakuna Matata” was repeated in the song’s chorus.

Later on, a German group Bony M. Released a song in English called “Jambo – Hakuna Matata” with the lead vocals sung by Liz Mitchell and backed by Reggie Tsiboe, Frank Farian, Cathy Bartney, Madeleine Davis, and Judy Cheek.

Also in the mid-1980s, the saying appeared in the Swedish comic book Bamse by Rune Andréasson. Bamse the bear’s baby daughter Brumma’s first words are “Hakuna matata,” which no one understands except the tortoise Skalman. He later made it his and Brumma’s secret motto, and the phrase has reappeared several times in the cartoon. Skalman gave readers several clues as to what language the phrase came from but never said directly that it was Swahili.

However it wasn’t until Disney’s Lion King in 1994 that the phrase received worldwide prominence through a song written by Elton John and Tim Rice.

In the film a Meerkat and a warthog (Timon and Pumbaa) teach Simba, the lion cub to forget his troubles and to live in the present. In reference to the two characters, the phrase had the added implication of a complete lack of ambition. Timon and Pumbaa helped young Simba and encouraged him to leave memories in the past and live for the present.

The song, like the rest of the soundtrack, was written by Elton John (music) and Tim Rice (lyrics).   It was nominated for Best Original Song at the 1995 Academy Awards, and was later ranked the 99th best song in movie history by the American Film Institute on a list of 100.

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One story says that the film’s production team claim they picked up the term from a tour guide while on safari in Tanzania (which sounds very plausible). It was then turned into the idea that is central to the moral content of the film. Another version is that Rice himself, who wrote the lyrics, came across the phrase in a Swahili phrase book.

How Disney Made Billions from Lion King

Michael Scantlebury, the founder of the creative agency Impero, says: “Disney bet it would be big when it first released the film in 1994 – so it spent a fortune on guaranteeing its success through its marketing and PR machines. It also had a No. 1 selling soundtrack. Then it spawned a musical which has legions of fans and then, of course, the merchandise: toys, lunch boxes, clothes, cartoon series and a whole plethora of more branded goods. The Lion King has endured because it’s a massive brand, and there is strength in size.”

The Lion King was strengthened by merchandise partnerships with various retailers selling everything from Simba pajamas and Nala bracelet charms to Timon and Pumbaa phone cases and Hakuna Matata slogan shirts.”

2019 Lion King Remake

The first teaser trailer and the official teaser poster for The Lion King debuted during the annual Dallas Cowboys’ Thanksgiving Day game on November 22, 2018. The trailer was viewed 224.6 million times in its first 24 hours, becoming the then 2nd-most-viewed trailer in that time period.  A special sneak peek featuring John Kani‘s voice as Rafiki and a new poster were released during the 91st Academy Awards on February 24, 2019. On April 10, 2019, Disney released the official trailer featuring new footage which revealed ScarZazuSimba and Nala (both as cubs and as adults), SarabiRafikiTimon and Pumbaa, and the hyenas. The trailer was viewed 174 million times in its first 24 hours, which was revealed on Disney’s Investor Day 2019 Webcast. On May 30, 2019, 11 individual character posters were released. A special sneak peek featuring Beyoncé Knowles-Carter‘s, Billy Eichner‘s, and Seth Rogen‘s voices as NalaTimon, and Pumbaa, respectively, was released on June 3, 2019. A special sneak peek featuring Knowles-Carter and Donald Glover‘s voices as Simba and Nala singing “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” and also featuring James Earl Jones‘ voice as Mufasa, was released on June 20, 2019. On July 2, 2019, Disney released an extensive behind-the-scenes featurette detailing the various aspects of the film’s production along with seven publicity stills featuring the voice actors facing their animal counterparts. All-in-all, Disney spent around $145 million promoting the film.

The Lion King was later released on July 19 2019. After just 19 days after its release, the Walt Disney Studio remake of the Lion King, the 1994 animated classic grossed $1 billion dollar at the worldwide box office. This made “The Lion King” Disney’s fourth billion-dollar film of 2019.

Three other Disney productions that made $1 billion at the global box office 2019 were: “Avengers: Endgame,” “Captain Marvel” and Disney’s live action remake of “Aladdin.” “Endgame”

The last time Disney had four films cross the billion-dollar mark in one year was in 2016. Disney had two billion-dollar movies in 2017 (“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” and the live-action “Beauty and the Beast”) and three in 2018 (“Black Panther,” “Avengers: Infinity War,” and “Incredibles 2”).

The film was theatrically released in the United States on July 19, 2019, boosted by a new Beyoncé song grossed over $1.6 billion worldwide.  $543.2 million in the U.S. and Canada, and $1.11 billion in other countries. In addition, the original The Lion King film from 1994, with its African score featuring Sir Elton John and Sir Tim Rice music, has made $968.5 million.

The Lion King surpasses Frozen to become the highest-grossing animated film of all time. It is also the second-highest-grossing film of 2019, and the seventh-highest of all time.

It is the seventh-biggest global grosser of all time, the seventh-biggest overseas earner and the 13th biggest domestic earner ever in raw earnings. Of all nine films that have earned over $1 billion overseas, The Lion King made the least in China.

The film received nominations for Best Animated Feature Film and Original Song categories at the 77th Golden Globe Awards and 25th Critics’ Choice Awards. It was also nominated at 73rd British Academy Film Awards and 92nd Academy Awards, both for visual effects.

Hakuna Matata: Controversies & Trademark by Disney

In 2003, Disney was granted a US trademark, protecting use of the phrase on clothing or footwear. This means that those who use it commercially could face a law suit from the film production company.

Although reports suggest that the trademark applies only in the United States, there is international uproar over Disney’s ownership of language and the cultural implications of such ownership. In fact, a was petition launched to counter this perceived injustice by petition organiser Shelton Mpala. Mpala claims that the trademark is “colonialism and robbery; the appropriation of something you have no right over”.

The petition’s call to action reads, “Disney has trademarked the Swahili phrase Hakuna matata. Join us and say NO to DISNEY or any corporations/individuals looking to trademark languages, terms or phrases they didn’t invent.”

“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. Disney can’t be allowed to trademark something that it didn’t invent.”

More than 50,000 people have since signed the petition accusing Disney of “colonialism and robbery” after it trademarked the Swahili phrase “hakuna matata”.

Mpala wants to stop Disney, any corporation and individuals who want to trademark languages, terms or phrases they didn’t invent.

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“For hundreds of years, Africa has been exploited in some shape, fashion or form whether its been our arts where we have billions of dollars of African artefacts in museums all over the world, through our natural resources. And this to me looks like one of those things that I will have to fight,” he told the BBC.

For Professor Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Kenyan writer and professor of comparative literature at the School of Humanities at the University of California, Irvine, Disney cannot own a phrase that is used commonly used every day. 

“It would be like trademarking ‘good morning’ or ‘it is raining cats and dogs’ in the case of English … It’s a common phrase we use every other day. No company can own it,” he told NPR in a recent interview saying he was “horrified” by Disney’s claim.

Hakuna matata is more than just an expression, added Njogu. “[Them Mushrooms] made hakuna matata a lifestyle – of fun, of leisure, of happiness.”

The phrase is popular across east Africa, with merchandise featuring the phrase sold to tourists. It is unfair, Njogu added, that Kenyans are not able to sell such goods in the US.

“I see the petition as not just a challenge to Disney but also to jurisdictions in the north,” he said.

Until Disney decides to cancel the trademark, anyone in the United States – including Africans – would have to pay royalties to print the phrase Hakuna Matata on a T-shirt.

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The trademark has prompted calls for African governments to do more to protect heritage and culture. Writing in Business Daily Africa, Cathy Mputhia, a lawyer based in Kenya, said: “It is unfortunate that there has been a lot of pilferage of African culture over the years, through the use of intellectual property rights.” Government agencies such as Brand Kenya should do more to protect indigenous slogans, she added.


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