Shakira Personifies a Multicultural Identity in a Globalized World
By: Thomas Simsarian Dolan/Arab America Contributing Writer
Even before Shakira and JLo’s Superbowl Halftime Show had ended, a slew of naysayers had taken to Twitter to lament the performance’s purported hyper-sexualization, an homage to various Latinx cultures, critical political content, and high Spanish language quotient.
However, since this sort of knee-jerk response has become de rigueur among conservative and not-always-white Americans, what was more remarkable was the spate of articles that appeared in the ensuing weeks to claim Shakira, particularly through performance elements that referenced her Colombian and Arab heritage. Notably, many Arab Americans and other reporters penned pieces explaining her belly dancing, ululation, and Middle Eastern instrumentation, thereby staking claim to the often illegible cultural links embodied by this proudly Lebanese-Colombian superstar.
The truth, Arabic and Middle Eastern influences have always been integral to Shakira’s music. Nearly all her international tours have sampled the prototypical Arab divas – Umm Kulthum and Fairouz – and included extended belly-dancing breaks far longer than the snippet we saw at the Super Bowl. This same sonic vocabulary appears in many of Shakira’s songs, and her virtuosic US television debuts on an MTV Unplugged special and performance of “Ojos Así” at the inaugural Latin Grammys in 2000 featured Arabic lyrics, Middle Eastern instrumentation, as well as camels and Arabic script projected on-stage. In fact, it was Shakira’s belly dancing and covers of the Lebanese singer Fairouz that first established her as a wunderkind in Colombia’s Caribbean Coast – and how Emilio Estefan, another Arab Latino, first saw her perform while she was a child.
In the United States, Shakira profited from the millennial boom in belly dancing and sonic orientalism in world music and pop music that sampled Middle Eastern performers in tracks like Jay-Z’s “Big Pimpin” or Aaliyah’s “More Than a Woman,” without crediting or overtly referencing Middle Eastern identities. Even discounting Shakira and Beyoncé’s foray into this genre with “Beautiful Liar,” Shakira constantly referenced the formative influence of her Arab heritage in early interviews and refused to remove Arab influences from her music in spite of virulent US hatred of anything and everything that seemed Arab.
Even after penning 2017 a Time op-ed decrying the Muslim Ban and briefly adding her last name Mebarak (the Hispanicized version of Mubarak) to her YouTube and Vimeo channels last summer, Shakira has always been hiding in plain sight. Unlike in the rest of the world, where far more nuanced representations of Middle Eastern peoples exist, US depictions of Middle Eastern subjects differ so dramatically from Shakira as to render her a spectacular blind spot. This should be a sobering lesson about the US’ overwhelming hostility toward Arabs and other peoples indigenous to the Middle East – and a pervasive inability to imagine us as anything other than terrorists or hijabis, victimized or violent.
That said, Shakira (and especially the Colombian, if not broader Latin American press) has consistently described herself as a multicultural costeña, a native of Colombia’s uniquely diverse Caribbean coast. Not surprisingly, the Superbowl performance was also extensively covered in the Spanish-language press. Although some of these writers emphasized Shakira’s well-known Arab roots, they instead interpreted much of her performance as epitomizing carnival, including elements like champeta (or terapia), salsa, and mapalé. In these explanations, Shakira’s lampooned tongue-wagging originated in the facial contortions of son de negro, a familiar part of the Carnaval de Barranquilla, an annual celebration in her hometown.
In this world, Colombians of Arab descent, or ColomboArabes, are ubiquitous, whether in street vendors hawking kibbe, Arab characters in Shakira’s friend Gabriel García Márquez’ novels, Arab social and cultural institutions, and nearly 20% of Colombian congressmen. In fact, Shakira’s most recent Instagram post reposts an homage from current Carnival Queen Isabella Chams – a fellow Lebanese Colombian – at last weekend’s Carnaval. This world indexes Shakira’s myriad influences – musical forms like cumbia, vallenato, and rock en Espanol – and the fleet transnationalism that brings together Afro-Colombians, indigenous communities like the Wayuu, as well as people of Arab, Sephardic, European and mixed descent like her.
The multiple roots grafted onto one another in “Hips Don’t Lie” emphasize rather than confuse costeño common sense, in which a trumpet solo from Panamanian artist Omar Alfano comfortably mixes with cumbia, belly dancing, and champeta (which itself draws on Congolese soukous, Nigerian high-life, and other Caribbean forms like konpa, soca, and reggae). Accordingly, ululating, a practice common to most Middle Eastern and North African ethnic groups, might blend into son de negro, such that at least for many, differences between the two might not be entirely clear.
These coexisting elements should be a reminder to celebrate music as always blending cultures, meanings, and sonic vocabularies and to understand identity as a process always in flux. Just as the concept of hermetically sealed (or pure) cultures is a false one – so too is the idea of stable tradition that doesn’t incorporate the impossibly complicated, interconnected and vibrant world, where cultural contact and mixing has always been the norm.
It’s exciting to see the cultural influences Shakira synthesizes interpreted for a global audience, alongside the important political work the performance did in condemning anti-Middle Eastern and anti-Latinx prejudice. That said, this performance and its interpretations should remind us that the Middle East and Latin America remain those parts of the world most subject to American intervention and destruction, but also that Latin American and Middle Eastern organizations like the Summit of South-American Arab Countries have worked to build solidarity and a common cause for more than a decade. It should caution us against projecting myopic US understandings of “whiteness,” “latinidad” or “Middle Eastern-ness” onto Shakira, and against trafficking in authenticity (since as many noted, her “tongue thing” was really not that polished).
Instead, a more nuanced and politically powerful reading of her performance would connect rather than dissociate her multiple heritages and influences. It’s Shakira’s ability to embody so many different cultures that make her such a dynamic performer, humanitarian and transnational subject – and a source of pride for people all over the world. While Shakira has certainly been marketed differently in different contexts, this performance’s popular reception underscores both our tendency to interpret through narrow lenses and how such interpretations remain an obstacle to thinking coalitional.
This eye toward complexity and interconnectedness would help us better see how much popular glosses omit when they treat identity as a zero-sum game, and how Shakira personifies the more complicated and multicultural identities of a globalized world. In this light, Shakira’s hips don’t lie, but we must better read the signs of her body – and biography – to think and imagine as globally and generously as she does.
Thomas Simsarian Dolan is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of American Studies at George Washington University
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