U.K. Trademark of African Ethnic Group’s Name Sparks Debate

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A battle over the ownership of the name of an African ethnic group is stirring debate about cultural appropriation.

Yoruba is one of Nigeria’s major ethnic groups, and it makes up about 21% of the population, according to World Atlas. People who identify with the group mainly live in the west of the country and speak the Yoruba language. There are also Yorubas in neighboring Benin, Togo, and as far as Brazil, taken from West Africa through the transatlantic slave trade.

But the word ‘Yoruba’ was trademarked and owned for nearly six years by a British retail clothing firm, Timbuktu Global Ltd. And it recently tried to prevent British-Nigerian citizen Gbemisola Isimi -- who’s a member of the ethnic group -- from using it to name her culture and language program ‘Yoruba Stars.’

A tweet by Isimi sparked a wave of online protests, and a social media campaign called #Yorubaisnotforsale.

“It was really strange that a company would be allowed to trademark the word ‘Yoruba,’ a tribe and language of millions of people,” she said. “Today it’s Yoruba, tomorrow it could be Igbo, Swahili or even the word AFRICA.”

The company said this week it has started the process of surrendering its trademark. The dispute was particularly sensitive in Nigeria, which was ruled for decades by Britain before becoming independent in 1960 and where authorities are seeking the return of artifacts pillaged during that time.

Timbuktu registered the trademark “Yoruba” in 2016, according to the U.K.’s Intellectual Property Office website. It had offered to sell the rights to Culture Tree, the company owned by Isimi that teaches people the Yoruba language, when she first complained. But she turned down the proposal.

The U.K. IPO says its decisions are based on existing laws, and that the public can challenge the validity of a trademark. “When examining trademarks, our role is to interpret existing laws and be as transparent as possible in our decision-making processes while reflecting the society around us.”

It’s not the first case of its kind.

In 2019, Disney faced a campaign and an online petition signed by thousands against its trademark of the Swahili phrase Hakuna Matata, which means “no worries,” used in its blockbuster movie “The Lion King.”

Neither Timbuktu nor its legal representative responded to an e-mailed request for comment. Calls to their offices weren’t answered. The company has closed its Twitter and Instagram handles; its website is no longer available.

Isimi vowed to fight on. “We will be seeking to invalidate the trademark,” she said in an email response Thursday, “and also be taking action with the IPO who registered it in the first place.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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