Cultural Appropriation: Theft and a Lack of Cultural Appreciation

“The Lion Sleeps Tonight”: The Tokens

“The Lion King” may just be the most beloved animated film of all time, but is it also an example of the ills of cultural appropriation? This question specifically regards the song “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” by The Tokens.

In 2000, Rian Malan wrote a history about the song in The Rolling Stone. Solomon Linda created the song he originally called “Mbube” in Zulu, or “The Lion” in English, in 1939 South Africa. This is during a time of white South African rule, who, in under ten years after this, would establish the insidious Apartheid-regime.[1] The history of the song itself boils down to it being remade by several different American folk singers until finally it reached The Tokens who popularized it into the hit that made it into “The Lion King”. Malan estimated The Tokens version earned upwards of $15 million, while Linda himself died without enough money for a gravestone, only earning ten shillings for the song.[2]

The pathway of the song from South Africa to America did not involve any illegal transfers, however, Malan believed that the song represents the most evil potential of cultural appropriation: a song that made millions, did not benefit its creator in anyway. The sad part about this song is that it does not represent something different than what could have been expected of America’s treatment of black artists at the time. Songs were not protected, royalties were not paid, and white people, for the most part, did not want to hear black artists.

But, what was interesting about this song, was that it did not gain its success because The Tokens were white. It became so popular in America, and the United Kingdom, specifically because of white America’s ability to ‘exotify’ foreign cultures. It did not matter that the chants of “awimboweh” in the song represented Zulu gibberish, as the result of a lazy transcription of the original song. It is not hard to imagine that this part, in the American version, is an attempt to take advantage of its ‘foreignness’. The actual translation, and meaning, meant nothing to The Tokens, or their listeners – the symbolism of of the song’s foreignness was enough. The true essence of the song was of no importance, as its different sound and unrecognizable words were enough to entertain white America.

Not only did the The Tokens take Solomon’s melodies and wrongfully combine his lyrics, but they did not even acknowledge his involvement in making the song. So, originally, none of the earnings went to Solomon and he died in poverty. The song’s deep roots in Zulu language and culture created such an authenticity that its adopters, the Tokens, could not even accurately translate the lyrics, yet Solomon received no credit for its creation. It is important to remember that the degree of separation from South African culture provided The Tokens an opportunity to recreate the song however they pleased because there was no one to stop them from doing so. The Tokens were able to take advantage of their white American status and their separation from Solomon, the Zulu language and South Africa, and recreate “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” which brought them much fortune and popularity.

[1] http://prospectjournal.org/2011/10/21/americas-role-in-the-end-of-south-african-apartheid/

[2] http://longform.org/stories/in-the-jungle-rian-malan

  • Kyle Josias and Myles Gaines
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