The sad story of how the song Mbube which became later known as The Lion Sleeps Tonight was stolen from South African composer Solomon Linda and used as the Theme Song by Disney in the Lion King Movie is laid bare in a Netflix documentary The Lion’s Share.
It’s an unmatched story of cultural appropriation and exploitation revealing how despite Linda’s Mbube composition became a worldwide phenomenon when it was re-recorded as the Lion Sleeps Tonight earning millions in sales and publishing Royalties for Record Companies and Disney Studios both in Africa and abroad, the Composer of Mbube the original Mbube song on which the Lion Sleeps Tonight was based and his family continued to wallow in poverty until a Lawsuit was instituted over Royalty payments due for Mbube’s use as the Lion Sleeps Tonight was finally settled by Disney in 2006.
The Recording, Release and Success Of Mbube
Mbube or The Lion Sleeps Tonight as it would later become more popularly known is a 1939 Zulu recording by Solomon Linda and his group The Evening Birds for Gallo Records, South Africa.
Mbube was a hit in South Africa that influenced the evolution of a new choral musical style dubbed Mbube which was popular on South Africa’s mines.
Mbube the song was destined for bigger things however, when in 1951, American group The Weavers recorded an adaptation they called Wimoweh, or the Lion Sleeps Tonight, a title arising out of a mistaken attempt at translating the original Zulu chorus into English.
Wimoweh or The Lion Sleeps Tonight hit the Billboard charts, and spawned more adaptations by other African and international Artists including The Tokens, Miriam Makeba and Jimmy Dorsey.
Eventually Mbube was used by Disney as part of the Lion King soundtrack.
The Missing Royalties
The Royalties and sales for Mbube and the Lion Sleeps Tonight were unfortunately not passed onto Solomon Linda or his family.
Instead, Gallo Records attributed authorship of Mbube and the Lion Sleeps Tonight to a fictitious Paul Campbell which allowed the Record Company to collect Royalties for its own benefit.
In order to resolve the question of Ownership of the Mbube/The Lion Sleeps Tonight on South African soil, Linda signed away his rights to Mbube to Gallo under a Copyright Assignment agreement concluded prior to his death.
The document which Linda probably did not fully understand was then used as the basis for Gallo’s Publishing copyright and control of Mbube and the Lion Sleeps Tonight, allowing Gallo to collect all recording and publishing worldwide Royalties for Mbube.
The story of Mbube and The Lion Sleeps Tonight might have ended there had it not been for a Rolling Stone Article written by Rian Malan in 2000.
The Mbube Lion Sleeps Tonight Controversy
Rian’s Rolling Stone piece estimated that Mbube and the Lion Sleeps Tonight had earned at least $15 million from its use by Disney in the Lion King alone.
In addition, it also told the story of how Linda the Composer of Mbube died a pauper and that his family had not received any of the Royalties earned from Mbube and the Lion Sleeps Tonight over the years.
The article ignited a Lawsuit which Disney promptly settled with the Linda Family who received some Royalty payments for Mbube and the Lion Sleeps Tonight into a Family Trust.
Despite the payments received for Mbube so far, it appearse as if a dispute subsequently arose between the Family and Trustees concerning the full amount due to the family from the Trust.
The Lion’s Share concludes on a positive note recognising that after all it was better for the Family to have received some compensation for Mbube and The Lion Sleeps Tonight than none at all as would have been the case if the Lawsuit had not been filed.
In the meantime, Mbube’s Copyright in South Africa has now expired and no publishing Royalties are due to the family in South Africa.
Nevertheless, Disney and the other International Record Companies continue to collect the international Royalties for Mbube and The Lion Sleeps Tonight due from the International adaptations of the song whose copyright is still enforceable outside South Africa.
The settlement reached with the Family assigned the International Publishing Rights of Mbube and the Lion Sleeps Tonight to Disney, and so the Family is now excluded from further participation in Mbube’s overseas earnings.
In the final analysis, Solomon Linda’s story of Mbube and The Lion Sleeps Tonight is an extremely tragic case of exploitation and cultural appropriation…It also reminds one of the History of Rock n Roll music which was started by Black Artists like Little Richard who never got the full financial benefits or Cultural recognition for their creativity.