The (Mis)Use of Kiswahili in Western popular culture
The Kiswahili words and phrases sometimes crop up in western pop culture is not surprising; it is, after all, the most widely spoken African language on the continent. But every so often its use leaves native speakers a little puzzled.
In the United States the African American holiday Kwanzaa takes it names from the Kiswahili phrase ‘matunda ya kwanza’ meaning ‘the first fruits of the harvest’; ‘kwanza’ is the Kiswahili word for first. If you’re English, American or Canadian you may have also found yourself shouting out a Kiswahili word when playing the popular wooden block game Jenga; Jenga being the Kiswahili root word for build.
In western popular culture Kiswahili has found itself in film, television and music. Sometimes its been used in short snippets, while other times complete monologues of characters have been in Kiswahili. However while its use is apparent the correct use of the language has not always been so.
Disney’s 1994 animated feature The Lion King is perhaps the most popular western film featuring Kiswahili. The film tells the story of a lion cub and future king named Simba. The film is full of Kiswahili words and phrases. The main character ‘Simba’ means lion (in Shona it means strength or power) and the friendly Baboon called Rafiki means friend.
There are also many songs in kiswahiki in the film. One of which is when Rafiki sings to Simba‘Asante sana squash banana, Wewe nugu mimi hapana’, which is Kiswahili for ‘Thank you very much, squash banana, you’re a baboon and I’m not.’
The use of Kiswahili here is a little odd as Kiswahili is not spoken in Liberia
Kiswahili has also been incorporated into the lyrics of several pop songs. The late great king of pop Michael Jackson first visited the continent in 1974 when he arrived in Senegal as part of the Jackson 5. In the 1990s Michael Jackson spent time in Cote d’Ivoire, Egypt, Gabon, South Africa, Tanzania and Tunisia.
Michael Jackson expressed his feelings for the continent describing Africa as “the root of all rhythm. It’s home.” It’s no surprise then that his love of Africa was written into his lyrics as early as 1987 when he released Liberian Girl, from the album Bad.
The song celebrates the beauty of African women with Jackson singing about a special girl from Liberia. The song opens with South African female singer and anti-apartheid campaigner Letta Mbulu saying the Kiswahili phrase ‘Nakupenda pia – nakutaka pia – mpenzi we’, which translates as “I Love you too. I want you too, my love.” However the use of Kiswahili here is a little odd as Kiswahili is not spoken in Liberia or anywhere in West Africa. Nevertheless his inclusion of East, South and West African elements in this song was perhaps in honour of his love of sub-Saharan Africa.
The Swahili speaking nations of East Africa have created their own localised forms of hip hop which incorporate Kiswahili, such as Genge in Kenya and Bongo Flava in Tanzania, however Kiswahili has also been used in a number of American hip-hop artist’s songs.
One example is the 2010 hit As We Enter from Nas featuring Damien Marley in which Nas raps “Y’all feel me even if it’s in Swahili, Habari Gani” (meaning whats the news/how are you doing) to which Marley replies“Mzuri sana” (very good). The song called I’m In It from Kanye West’s Yeezus album uses the word“Swaghili”.
While there appears to be no apparent relation to Kiswahili, apart from rumours that Kanye is Kiswahili meaning “the only one”, one commentator decided that Swaghili should be a creole that mashes English with Swahili. Little did he know however that Sheng, a combination of Kiswahili and English, has existed for decades in Kenya’s multilingual environment.