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Music

Why we still need Shakira's cultural mélange

Colombian pop star Shakira, turning 40, is inspired by her Middle Eastern roots and has smashed sales records in Spanish and English. In times of insular politics, her globalized sound could be a healthy escape.

She might just be the proof some women may need that turning 40 is nothing to dread.

Since dropping her lastest single, "Chantaje" featuring Maluma, last November, the Colombian superstar has been challenging her fans to send in videos of their own dance moves as they shake their own hips to her track. (Shakira faithfully posts most tweets twice, in Spanish and English.)

A quick scan of #ChantajeChallengeContest offers a few moments of what the Germans would call "fremdschämen" (being embarrassed for someone else) - and proof that at 40 Shakira herself still has the world's fastest, sexiest hips.

While with her midriff tops, skimpy dresses and erotic moves and lyrics, she may not embody the emancipated modern woman - and certainly didn't in 2001 when she stormed onto the US music scene with her steamy "Laundry Service" video and run-of-the-mill pop album of the same name.

Not your typical pop queen

She was already a big star in Latin America, but with her North American breakthrough at the beginning of the 2000s, "some people associated the Colombian singer with her American pop-music contemporaries Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera," wrote music magazine "Rolling Stone."

"But the stylistic breadth of Shakira's music - elements of folk, Middle Eastern and traditional Latin styles over a foundation of rock and pop - gave her a degree of credibility the American teen queens lacked."

And perhaps that - besides her sheer vocal and dance talent - is what makes Shakira not only the inevitable superstar, but also all the more relevant in times of insular politics.

So maybe we can't dance like Shak (see #ChantajeChallengeContest). And maybe we can't sing like Shak, a wunderkind who wrote her first song at age eight. But still, she could be any of us.

Citizens of the world

Shakira Isabel Mebarak Ripoll was born in Barranquilla, Colombia, on February 2, 1977, as the youngest of eight siblings. Her Colombian-born mother had Spanish and Italian roots, while her father was born in New York to Lebanese immigrants.

To create her signature dance style, the superstar is able to draw on her diverse cultural heritage - having tapped into her Lebanese background in particular to master the art of belly-dancing.

The salsa beats in her 2006 megahit "Hips Don't Lie" transported us to the palm-tree-lined squares of Havana, while "Waka Waka" made us all feel like Africans. Her 2010 single became the theme song of the FIFA World Cup in South Africa and the video has since racked up well over one billion views.

As a UNICEF ambassador and founder of the Barefoot charity for kids in Colombia, Shakira's activism has focused more on education than politics. But in times where national boundaries are being fiercely defended and cultural differences become points of contention, perhaps we are desperately in need of a beat that can break down barriers.

Shakira's Latin beats, spiced with Middle Eastern and other world elements and made comfortably familiar by being churned through the pop machine, make you feel like a citizen of the world - albeit one who traipses through the clubs of Miami, Barcelona, Cape Town or Havana, dressed in linen with cocktail in hand.

 

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