Shakira’s Multicultural Music Shook the Industry and World

Reflecting on the Singer’s Impact, Two Decades after her U.S. Breakout

On August 25th 2021 » By Jillian Nguyen

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Photo from Shakira’s El Dorado World Tour, via shakira.com

Born as Shakira Isabel Mebarak Ripoll in Barranquilla, Colombia, Shakira has become known as the Queen of Latin Music. Having planted her feet in the industry for over three decades, Shakira has remained authentic as she navigated a tightrope balancing act between remaining genuine with her music and appealing to wider audiences, especially in the early 2000s when she ventured to make a footprint in the U.S. landscape. But, as we now know, her steadfast dedication to vocalizing her own blend of backgrounds has spoken to many. She draws inspiration from both her Colombian and Lebanese heritage, infusing a multitude of diverse styles and instruments into her music and her live performances, eluding commercial demands. From the beginning, Shakira shook the industry and the world with her authenticity, setting the stage with a unique set of sounds that would indicate her greater cultural impact in the U.S. music market and crown her a queen.

The Queen of Latin Music didn’t begin as a named queen — in fact, she struggled at the beginning of her career and battled to even have a semblance of ownership over her own sound. At the age of 13, Shakira signed a contract with Sony Music Colombia, showing promising talent after performing for a few of Sony’s executives. Shortly after signing with the label, her debut album, Magia, was released in 1991, but unfortunately flopped commercially. Sure, it had succeeded around her native country via live performances and traditional media coverage, but the sales simply weren’t there to back up the album. Another round into the studio brought out the 1993 album Peligro, Shakira’s sophomore follow up. Despite hopes of better sales on the label’s side, Peligro did not fare well and had even fewer sales than its predecessor, capping at only a few hundred copies sold. Shakira’s own lack of support for the album played a role in its failure.

Shakira’s contract with Sony lasted for the duration of three albums. With her first two albums doing so poorly, the next one absolutely needed to sell in order for the Colombian singer-songwriter to continue her musical dreams. Shakira took a hiatus from her music, instead opting to finish the rest of her high school experience before once again tackling the next album with a fresh mind. Lo and behold, when she did return to making music, she rose with Pies Descalzos. Of course, knowing how internationally renowned Shakira is today, it’s clear that the third time was the charm.

With the previous albums, Shakira had numerous issues with her lack of control or input on them — so much so that after she rose to prominence, she initially refused to reissue them, and a scroll through her Spotify will show their absences in her discography. But Pies Descalzos was different — this time, she shouldered a greater role with more control over its final rendition as a co-writer and co-producer.

The results were finally unapologetically the music she wanted to portray when she set out to become a singer. The first song in the album, “Estoy Aquí,” became Shakira’s first major successful song and the lead single. Afterward, five other singles were released from the album, and like “Estoy Aquí,” each met favorable reviews and the titles were able to climb the Billboard Latin Songs and Latin Pop Songs charts. Notably, the album’s final single, “Se Quiere, Se Mata” told an alarmingly real story: While the song dripped with Shakira’s signature powerful vocals and sweet harmonica melodies between guitar strums, she sang about the reality of unsafe abortions — in Colombia, abortion was illegal without exceptions prior to 2006 and is today only legally permitted under limited conditions — while narrating the tragic story of the song’s characters. Ultimately, Pies Descalzos landed as a Latin pop album with fusions of reggae (“Un Poco De Amor”), rock (“Vuelve,” “Pies Descalzos, Sueños Blancos”), bossanova (“Te Espero Sentada”) and lower tempo ballads (“Pienso en Ti”) all finding a place within the album.

Finally having rounded up success, Shakira moved on to her next album in 1998 with the release of Dónde Están Los Ladrones? Her previous album hinted at Shakira’s preference toward electric guitars and dynamic drums, having grown up listening to rock legends such as Nirvana, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin and others. This time, the singer doused herself in the sound, following up the light tastes of rock with entire servings. The album’s opening song blended Latin trumpet with the electric guitar for a balance of both her Latin roots and adoration for the genre. The album’s subsequent song, “Si Te Vas” especially boasted Shakira’s growing powerhouse sound, leaning into the robust percussion patterns and riffs trademark to the genre. Even the titular song “Dónde Están los Ladrones?” unleashed Shakira’s fiery, warm tones across equally robust accompaniment. The walls of the album were meant for Shakira to shatter borders, and its last track heavily featured a fusion of both her Latin and Lebanese background as she sang in both Spanish and Arabic with additions of instrumentation and rhythms reflecting her cultures.

Amid belly dances, representing in the official 2010 FIFA World Cup song and online memes of her choice to exemplify the Arabic tradition of wobbling her tongue during the 2020 Super Bowl LIV halftime show, the Colombian singer-songwriter has remained a relevant figure in championing the bonding of cultures, even two decades after her breakout into the U.S. market.

At this point, following Dónde Están los Ladrones? Shakira was slowly making her way into the U.S. market, but the album that came after MTV Unplugged would truly signify her advent into the U.S. Laundry Service became the first album Shakira wrote and recorded in English. Critics perceived the now blonde-haired singer as having entirely abandoned her culture, but the album itself proved otherwise. With the help of famed producer Emilio Estefan and singer-songwriter Gloria Estefan, Shakira’s Laundry Service would indicate how she could captivate audiences across languages while embodying her identities in her music.

“I am a fusion. That’s my persona. I’m a fusion between black and white, between pop and rock, between cultures — between my Lebanese father and my mother’s Spanish blood, the Colombian folklore and Arab dance I love and American music,” the singer-songwriter had said in a Faze interview in 2002. She added, “I plan to keep on being the same artist, with the same musical language, just in a different spoken language. It’s all still coming from my real feelings, my real life experiences.”

Despite the switch to English, she maintained her roots, charming fans with a deft combination of Argentinian tango and surf rock finding a home on the album in “Objection (Tango).” Notably, Shakira’s iconic “Whenever, Wherever,” especially proved she didn’t have to renounce her traditions to appeal to the U.S. audience. Panpipes heavily build up the song’s texture, and the rhythms are unquestionably embedded within South American folklore music. And of course — similar to Dónde Están los Ladrones? — Shakira wholeheartedly unleashed her fondness for rock, with the genre taking a predominant position across the album’s tracks. Shakira danced around various genres yet again, this time including the groovy, disco-inspired “Ready for the Good Times” and an English version of the previously released “Ojos Así.” Still, she didn’t neglect her origins, opting to incorporate Spanish versions of songs as well. It was just as she had promised in her Faze interview.

Amid belly dances, representing in the official 2010 FIFA World Cup song and online memes of her choice to exemplify the Arabic tradition of wobbling her tongue during the 2020 Super Bowl LIV halftime show, the Colombian singer-songwriter has remained a relevant figure in championing the bonding of cultures, even two decades after her breakout into the U.S. market.

Jillian Nguyen Picture

Jillian Nguyen

Jillian's origin story began with jam sessions to early 2000s Eurodance tunes, resulting in her current self-proclamations as an EDM aficionado. Jillian has followed her favorite artists to over 15 music festivals and countless concerts.

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