Nearshore Americas

Tracing Shakira’s Roots to Back to Barranquilla

Fame didn’t exactly greet Shakira Isabel Mebarak Ripoll at her family doorstep in the middle class neighborhood of Barranquilla where she was raised. Born in 1977 to a Lebanese father and Colombian mother in Barranquilla, Shakira discovered her talent when she started writing poetry at age four. By the time she was eight Shakira wrote her first song, “Tus gafas oscuras” (“Your Dark Glasses”) inspired by her beloved father who wore dark lenses for years after one of his sons, Shakira’s older half-brother, was killed in a motorcycle accident.

Disappointment and Determination

After being rejected by a local choir director because her voice “sounded like a goat,” Shakira continued to write her music and sing; never giving up on her determination to become an international star. “I knew I had to work real hard to conquer my dreams and make them tangible,” the singer said in an interview for .bio, “And that’s what I’ve done my entire life – work real hard to accomplish those goals.”

Her first milestone was reached in 1990 when, at age 13, she signed a contract with Sony Music Colombia. But her debut album, Magia (Majic), was anything but and sold only 1,200 copies. However, the album did expose the fledgling singer to the world of the recording studio and got some good play on Colombian radio. Her sophomore effort, Peligro (Danger) didn’t fare much better, in great part because of Shakira’s dissatisfaction with the production. After that, the singer took a break from recording to finish high school and was also cast in a Colombian telenovela.

But the lure of the studio called her back soon enough, but this time on her terms. Still signed with Sony Music Colombia, Shakira took control of production and when Pies Descalzos (Bare Feet) was released in 1996, the world heard for the first time what is now her signature sound. A powerful vibrato, passionate lyrics, pulsating beats that blend rousing rock, Latin rhythms, and melodic Arabic strains. And international audiences also caught a glimpse of her unique hip thrusting belly dancing that pays homage to her Middle Eastern roots in videos like the reggae infused Un Poco de Amor. Two years later, Shakira released Dónde Están Los Ladrones? (Where are the Thieves?) and the album skyrocketed to the top of Billboard’s Latin charts. A star was born, but her success was limited to the Spanish speaking world, and the girl from Barranquilla had much bigger goals than that.

A New World

Even though she enjoyed fame in much of the Spanish speaking world, Shakira felt a driving need to breakthrough to English speaking audiences.  Her always supportive parents moved with the singer to Miami where she taught herself to write in English.  Enlisting the help of music producer Emilio Estefan, Shakira recorded her first English language album, Laundry Service, in 2001. With cuts like the ballad “Underneath Your Clothes” and the rousing “Whenever, Wherever,” album reached number three on the charts and sold over 200,000 copies in the first week, and over 15,000,000 copies worldwide.  Shakira was on her way to superstardom.

Responding to her Latin American fans concerns that she was moving away from them, in June 2005 the pop princess took a strategic decision and released Fijación Oral, Vol. 1 which was followed by the English language Oral Fixation, Vol. 2 in November of the same year.  This proved to be a winning combination and Shakira won the coveted Grammy Award for Best Latin Rock/Alternative Album for Fijación Oral, Vol. 1, a perfect follow-up to her Shakira: MTV Unplugged which won Best Latin Pop Album in 2000. But it was “Hips Don’t Lie” from Oral Fixation, Vol. 2 that she recorded with musician Wyclef Jean that would catapult Shakira into the homes and heads of an untold number of fans.

The She Wolf Reigns

In 2009 with the release She Wolf, Shakira mashed up electro, disco, Latin, Middle Eastern beats to create a highly danceable album that ramped up her sex appeal and proved once again that she had a true talent for wordplay, and not taking herself too seriously. “It’s designed for people to have fun and enjoy themselves and forget about their troubles and the crisis,” she said at the time. Despite her tense relationship with Epic Records who failed to promote the album, She Wolf earned gold and platinum certification in several countries and sold over 2,000,000 copies worldwide.

Pulling back a little and returning to her Latin roots, Shakira worked with multiple producers and artists and recorded in several studios throughout the world to create Sale el Sol (Sunrise) which was released in 2010.  Taking a more personal approach, and a chance to reconnect with herself, the artist considered this the best album of her career.  “We all go through hard moments. Whatever happened, it’s right there in the songs,” she said during an interview with The New York Times, “I’ve decided that I’m not going to explain every song this time. It’s hard to explain a song. These songs explain me better than I can explain them.” Apparently no explanation was needed, and the album was nominated for several awards and won the Latin Grammy for Album of the Year – Best Female Pop Vocal Album.

One song that was included on the album had already received international acclaim, “Waka Waka (This Time for Africa)” was the official anthem for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, which became the biggest selling World Cup song of all time, and garnered over 5,000,000 views on YouTube. However, it was a song that she composed with a feeling of responsibility. “I realized the weight that I carry with a song like that one, that so many people are going to make it part of their lives. So it had better send a message that is positive, that is optimistic, that brings a healthy state of mind to people’s lives,” she said in the same interview.

Behaving Responsibly

Long before she reached superstardom, Shakira fulfilled a promise to herself and to her nation of Colombia when she founded the Fundación Pies Descalzos in 1997, to provide educational and nutritional services to thousands of Colombian families throughout the country. Since then, she has performed in major international benefit concerts ranging from Live Earth in Germany to the Clinton Global Initiative. Her involvement in these, and other charitable organizations, is not a cosmetic one – on the contrary – she has been able to raise millions of dollars worldwide. The singer also founded Fundacion América Latina en Acción Solidaria (ALAS) focused on early childhood development in Latin America.

Shakira was also was very vocal against the illegal immigration initiative Arizona statute SB 1070, arguing that it went against civil rights. Shakira is also a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, and as part of this role made a trip to Bangladesh after Cyclone Sidr, spending three days distributing emergency kits and clothes to the victims, and visiting children who took refuge in schools built by UNICEF.

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Personal Trials and Triumphs

After an eleven year relationship with Argentine attorney Antonio de la Rúa (son of former Argentine President Fernando de la Rúa), the couple broke it off in 2011, and Rúa filed a lawsuit against Shakira in California seeking $100 million he believes he is entitled to as her former business manager and the one responsible for her sultry image and record sales. She, in turn, filed a countersuit, alleging misappropriation of funds by de la Rúa.  And just today, the star asked that a New York judge throw out de la Rúa’s suit there for $250,000,000.

In the midst of all the legal wrangling, Shakira began seeing Spanish soccer player Gerard Piqué and by all accounts the couple is extremely happy together. On January 22, 2013, she gave birth to their son Milan Piqué Mebarak, in Barcelona, Spain.

In 2013 Shakira also became one of the mentors on the singing competition show, The Voice, earning good reviews for the new energy and enthusiasm she injects into the program, which is courting new viewers. Part of that energy spiked when she introduced Milan as the “fifth judge” last week. And perhaps he is her greatest hit yet.




Kirk Laughlin

Kirk Laughlin is an award-winning editor and subject expert in information technology and offshore BPO/ contact center strategies.

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