December 7th, 2008


I first stumbled upon Aaron Bady’s blog, zunguzungu, when searching some keywords along the nationalism / imperialism axis. And though lots of his posts have provoked my imagination, from incisive readings of The Wire and The Office to shock’n’awe as modern-day lynching, it was his blog’s title — for obv reasons, if you’re familiar with my Zunguzung meme-tracking — that grabbed my attention.

I still haven’t been able to answer droid’s question (in the first comment here), which I’ve myself long wondered, about where, if anywhere, Yellowman got that phrase / melody from. (I know, I should probably just ask him. Who’s got a link to King Yellow?) [Update: Actually, mystery solved! Someone else has asked him, I’m happy to report.] So I’m always on the lookout for clues. And though it seemed implausible that Yellowman would have encountered and employed an East African term for a white/mobile/dizzy person (see below), I had to inquire with Mr.Bady to see whether he might know something I don’t. So I wrote him and asked

do you have any sense of how far “zunguzungu” travels? i ask b/c one of the main threads of my dissertation (in ethnomusicology) revolves around a melody associated with yellowman’s “zunguzunguguzunguzeng.” i always assumed king yellow was just playing around with nonsense syllables (especially since much of the actual words in the song are pretty nonsensical), but now i wonder. i’d be surprised to learn that the term made its way to jamaica, especially since i’ve never heard it in any other context there, but i’m curious.

to which, Aaron replied

… wow. I had no idea that “zunguzungu” had such an interesting genealogy, and as you might imagine, I’m really interested to know more; I’ll read your post more closely after I teach today. I took the pseudonym because of its strictly linguistic connotations in swahili; “mzungu” means white person, sort of, but its at least partially derived from the word for spinning, or going around, and the question of why that became the root for “European” potentially has fascinating answers. One of these days, I’ll dig up more on it (though I think, as with much african historiography, the guesswork outweighs what is concrete in ways that make it more symptomatic than analytic), but what caught my eye was the ways that “mzungu” doesn’t actually mean white (it is possible for westernized Africans to be called mzungu) but actually references other ways of understanding identity that reference mobility outside of power structures, or something like that. Very speculative, and I don’t have the resources, but it’s an interesting question anyway (and I just started the blog with that name becasue it needed a name). That said,I recently learned that there’s a popular zong, in Tanzania I believe, about how the singer’s lover makes him dizzy, and he sings “zunguzungu.” I’ll see if I can track that song down.

Well, I’m happy to report that Aaron has tracked down — via Keguru in the comments here — not one but two songs that employ zunguzungu in the title/chorus (actually, kizunguzungu about which, more below):

Saida Karoli’s “Mapenzi Kizunguzungu”:

“Kizunguzungu” by Carter:

Re: ki, I had to ask

Quick, swahili-ignant question: what does adding “ki” to “zunguzungu” as these songs do, do?

To which, Aaron replies

Regarding “ki”, that question is (like your comment on the post!) exactly the right one to ask, but one I don’t have a real answer to (yet). Partly it’s because my practical swahili isn’t good enough to say for sure. I can give you a limited grammatical answer (and I’m going to spend some time listening to these songs and trying to figure it out from context) but advanced swahili is (for me at least) really easy at the beginning and gets more and more incomprehensible the better I get. I can get by on the street, but actually analyzing swahili writing is still incredibly difficult for me, and the more I understand it, the more I perceive weird nuances which are not only uninterpretable by me but might be more intrinsically uninterpretable in linguistic terms full stop.

My first thoughts (I’m actually going to blog on this once I’ve spoken to some better swahili speakers about it):

“Ki” could be an adjectival prefix (and that seems to be the assumption of the wikipedia page translation), but it belongs to a different noun class than “mapenzi” (love), so if it were simply “spinning love ” I would think it should be “Mapenzi Mazungu.” Ki can also be an “adverb of manner” so love were a verb one could speak of “love spinningly” but Mapenzi is firmly the noun form. This seems like the best bet for what it literally means though. I’m interested in the question, though, because while the prefix “ki-” is also the prefix used for languages (swahili is properly “kiswahili” and English is “kiingereza”) but that meaning includes without being limited to languages, meaning something like “the way of” in the sense that to speak English is to speak the way of the English. And since “wazungu” means “white people” but also maybe means (in a more literal sense) people who go around (and the etymological narrative I find most attractive is that “whiteness” is defined not by skin color but by mobility, something that seems to accord with how I’ve seen the term used (Africans can be wazungu too, if they’ve become Westernized, though it’s hard to gauge how much irony that always implies)), I’m charmed by the notion that love that spins one around might also be love that links one to mobility and has something to do with larger issues of global identity (since mzungu is by far the most commonly used variant of the “zungu” root form). But I’m still trying to figure out if that’s plausible, or if I just want it to be true. Also, doubling a word (zunguzungu instead of zungu) adds emphasis.

Those are Aaron’s not-fully-baked thoughts via email. As promised, he’s now blogged about it, collecting his thoughts and questions while connecting them to his dissertation research on Henry Morton Stanley (of “Dr. Livingstone, I presume” fame).

Any Swahili speakers out there want to chime in?


  • 1. Nisikilize kizunguzungu &&hellip  |  December 7th, 2008 at 2:51 pm

    […] the blog Wayne Marshall has posted some of the email conversation we had about the term zunguzungu here. His interest in those syllables comes from what seems like a completely unrelated direction, the […]

  • 2. Nina  |  December 8th, 2008 at 12:23 pm

    one of my names and those of a few siblings and a lot of friends are swahili
    i attribute my fondness for lyrics with certain sound patterns to my familiarity with sounds like that, particularly the phrase
    “tonga la songa mamasanga”
    Only my father was able to pinpoint exactly what made that phrase so appealing to me.We discussed it and he gave me some remedial Swahili lessons

    I have been, since then, doing a bit of tracking afro-latin lyrics that are in SPANISH but retain a African phonology. And then expanded that to hiphop and other music as well. Are doowop and beatboxing the way we maintain the SOUND of music as we feel it should be without having the actual African vocabulary? Spanish is easier than English, so there’s no need for nonsense sounds, just a matter of having lyrical skillz and a good flow.

    The blacker the artist, the blacker the syllables. (I say reggaeton is dying out because the flow has gotten more spanish less african)
    i’ll definitely add these to my list, since the word appeals to me. and i’ll ask my father or brother to explain the word and the “ki” thing

  • 3. Nina  |  December 8th, 2008 at 12:26 pm

    PS- I knew why I liked the sound of the lyrics after writing them and seeing the patterns of letters. And if you’re smart, you can guess the name that both that phrase and this post’s title have letters in common with. I just aint gonna type it.

    This is sort of my project for when I get my spanish degree, linking black identity to the phonology of song lyrics in spanish.

  • 4. Nina  |  December 8th, 2008 at 1:58 pm

    Hey there. My father said that ki does,in all likelihood, indicate that the word “kizungu” refers to the language. So it could mean “european language”, since the song was made in Tanzania “kizungu” likely would mean “english”.

    As far as the deeper meaning, he hasn’t yet listened to the song. But a possibility is that it refers to “love american style” as in “amor a la mexicana”. And perhaps a play on words, a lover getting one in a twist by romancing you american style,”whirlwind”.

  • 5. zunguzungu  |  December 9th, 2008 at 12:28 pm

    Hi Nina,
    What makes it even more complicated is that “kizunguzungu” also has the meaning of (to use the online swahili dictionary definitions) “dizziness,” “giddiness,” or “indisposition.” The fact that “kizungu” would etymologically mean “language of white people” but “kizunguzungu” would colloquially mean “dizzy” (and I’ve been told it means “crazy” too) is what makes me think there might be a connection between them, exactly as you say wrt amor a la mexicana. But mzungu doesn’t normally have that connotation, at all, or at least I wouldn’t have expected it to (I have no idea what it would mean to be “romanced mzungu-style”).

  • 6. Birdseed  |  December 9th, 2008 at 1:12 pm

    All I can do is echo the sentiments expressed previously – mzungu is definitely not a positive or aspirational term. (One of my big regrets in life is not learning Swahili when I lived in Dar es Salaam in my early teens.)

    Just looking at those videos it seems to me there’s little to connect them to
    europeans, and possibly rather more to dizziness (spinning bed in second vid, for instance). Is the -zungu root even used for the “european” in any other context than “mzungu”?

    A couple of more rather older videos with Kizunguzungu in the title:

  • 7. Nina  |  December 10th, 2008 at 2:08 pm

    Hi there. I went with “dizzy” as the meaning as well, though the speculation about a possible doble sentido certainly was interesting!
    My father, by the way, when saying it could POSSIBLY mean “amor a la americana”, discussed it in disparaging terms ie buying stupid stuff like flowers and candy when a house or some cows would be way more useful.

  • 8. zunguzungu  |  December 10th, 2008 at 8:20 pm

    Birdseed, thanks for those finds. I don’t know how I didn’t catch them. As for the prevalence of -zungu, I’ve heard kizungu many times as referring to the ways of wazungu, but often as a kind of joke (and my sense of swahili is always shaped by the fact that I, as a wazungu, will hear certain words much more than others). So who knows… Nina, part of my interest in this line of thinking is in the way it really could mean different things, the way its meaning might be relatively unfixed in really interesting ways. I’m not sure the meaning is really something that could be nailed down (or that’s what interests me about it). It’s all just speculation on my part, though, so far. And as birdseed points out, those videos certainly don’t do much to lend credence to my theory.

  • 9. » F&hellip  |  December 12th, 2008 at 10:41 am

    […] last week’s zungu-fest, I’ve had my eyes peeled for similar (semi-)Swahili utterances. And whattaya know, scanning […]

  • 10. » Z&hellip  |  February 5th, 2009 at 11:51 am

    […] So much for Swahili theories. […]

  • 11. khaye  |  April 6th, 2009 at 4:16 pm

    One word in Kiswahili can have several meanings and the meaning is not related at all. Mapenzi kizunguzungu. (whirlwind romance or dizzy/giddy love) has nothing/no relation to mzungu/wazungu (Caucasian/white person). Saida Karoli in this case sings about dizzy/giddy love/romance. A persn can behave kizungu potraying white lifestyle- this is usually used in jokes or when mocking a person etc

    Just like “paa” means both roof and bushbuck (animal) and “tembo” means both alcoholic drink and elephant. “kaa” has several meanings including sit, coal, crab etc.

  • 12. jay  |  October 6th, 2010 at 7:51 pm

    There is a simply explanation to this, and its that because kiswahili was interpreted by Europeans and there race color theory of the world, the word Mzungu meant exactly what it says…wanders, travelers, the man who is impatient and unsettled.. those who do not settle, does who move about get it….that is why kizungu means….dizzinesses, giddy….etc.

    That is what the Africans do, we before the Europeans brought their race-color theory, did not describe people by color but by their actions…so we called white people Mzungu/Wazungu, because that exactly is what they were to us, whereas we were settled societies…even traders had a home.

    But today, because we Africans do not control the growth of even our own cultures, languages, and world views…the word, just like out thoughts have been taken over by a European state of mind, and now we say the word means white man, when that of course is not what is meant or was and in my mind that is still what it does not mean….because I like my ancestors don’t believe in classifying some in racial terms.

    Its funny because even we still use this term Mzungu to mean person from outside who comes to travel about and explore our ways, that is why even if you are Afro-European or African-American we still refer to you as Mzungu, revealing the true meaning of the word.


    Jay Mambo

  • 13. White People: (Noun) Thos&hellip  |  May 27th, 2011 at 11:53 am

    […] this on how “zunguzungu” has nothing to do with the King Yellowman song […]


I'm a techno-musicologist, internet annotator, imagined community organizer.

I left my <3 in the digital global, but I reside in Cambridge, MA, where I'm from.

I represent like that.

wayne at wayneandwax dot com

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