70 The Lion Sleeps Tonight

Anna Greenwood

Our discussion based around Ania Loomba’s book from Thursday has been buzzing around in my mind… and it’s ruining the things that I love! Don’t get me wrong. It’s not a bad thing to realize that there’s an imperialistic influence that surrounds a great deal of the media that we consume… you gotta ~stay woke~. But I had a certain type of epiphany that hit me hard on Friday night. I was in my friend’s car and I was offered up an aux cord. I playfully selected one of my favorite sing-along songs, The Lion Sleep Tonight  by the Tokens. In my mind, it’s always been a lighthearted song about a drowsy big cat. I can even remember singing this song as early as my fifth grade music class. However, as I listened to these white guys from the 60’s doo-woping phrases like “a-weema-weh” over and over again, a dark cloud loomed over my mind. I realized that there’s either an aspect of cultural appropriation at hand or something worse. When I got home, I cracked open my laptop and did some digging.

IT TURNS OUT that the song was originally titled  “Mbube” (1939) which means “lion” in Zulu. “A-weema-weh” is actually a phrase that plays on the Zulu word “uyimbue”, which means “you are a lion”. “Mbube” was written by a South African man named Solomon Linda about his childhood memories of herding cattle and trying to keep the lions at bay. You can check out the original song out right here.

Under Apartheid, black people had limited rights, including those that had to do with royalties for songs. Solomon initially sold around 100,000 copies of his song, but in 1948 (the start of Apartheid) he sold his song to a recording company for less than two dollars. He died in poverty in 1962 (only one year after the Tokens released their version of the song). In the end, The Tokens in America made a BOATLOAD of cash from their westernized interpretation of Solomon’s work. Solomon never saw any of the royalties and I’ve also never heard of him getting any credit for composing the original. At the bottom of this blogpost is an NPR article from 2006 that explains that Linda’s family is due to receive 25% of the royalties from the song. It only took fifty years.

So what does all of that have to do with postcolonial critique? First of all, Apartheid is a direct result of colonization. Correct me if I’m wrong, because it’s been a while since I’ve studied this, but wasn’t South Africa imperialized by the Dutch and then the British in a way where a good deal of white people moved there and tried to implement Christianity and all the other types of westernized cultural stuff? My point is white people moved there. Once South Africa was no longer under British rule, there was an intrinsic racism that lingered…. obviously. This racism produced the racially oppressive government that came into power in South Africa from 1948-1988.

The fact that Linda existed within this government is a direct relation to postcolonialism. In the book, Loomba makes sure to emphasize that “‘postcolonial’ does not apply to those that are at the bottom end of this hierarchy, who are still ‘at the far economic margins of the nation-state’ so that nothing is ‘post’ about their colonization.” (1104).

Is there anything more economically debilitating than having your own creative property taken from you? And THEN you look at the American interpretation of the song which isn’t bad,  but it’s definitely cultural appropriation. This is the type of cultural appropriation that I find particularly sinister. When intellectual property and cultural expression is taken, reworked, and then distributed for economic consumption from a white cooperation or individual it’s appalling to me. And it happens all.the.time. !!! This is an element of capitalist imperialism that is alive and well in our media today. I know I selected an example from the 60’s but it doesn’t mean that it’s stopped happening. Like what about the ‘Cash Me Outside’ girl?!



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The Student Theorist: An Open Handbook of Collective College Theory Copyright © 2018 by Anna Greenwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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