Swaying into action

Shakira's Masterpiece


Last October, on the plane from Miami to San Salvador, Shakira stared into her MacBook, pondering. The next morning, she was to give a speech on the importance of early-childhood development to an Ibero-American summit meeting that would gather most of the heads of state of Latin America as well as the Prime Minister and King of Spain, the Prime Minister of Portugal and a select group of somewhat lesser dignitaries.

This was not the usual venue for Shakira Mebarak Ripoll of Barranquilla, Colombia. That would be stadium-size, and could be anywhere in the world, filled with thousands and thousands of fans, the people who have made her among the biggest-selling female vocalists on the planet. But Shakira has this other side — she began charitable work right after she had her first big hit, at 18 — and two years ago she, her longtime boyfriend, Antonio de la Rua, and some of their friends conceived the idea of a loose union of Ibero-American singers, called ALAS (wings in Spanish), which would use the power of their fame to mobilise fans, and the politicians fans vote for, to advance the cause of early-childhood development.

Since then they had rallied most of the biggest pop stars in the Spanish-speaking and Portuguese-speaking worlds; held enormous concerts in Mexico and Argentina; gained the philanthropic support of some of Latin America’s richest families (as well as Warren Buffett’s son Howard); and captured the attention of a good number of heads of state. Now, flying down to El Salvador, staring at her Mac, she was, perhaps, approaching her moment of political breakthrough.

Celebrity philanthropy, rock ‘n’ roll philanthropy, is no longer a novelty, but what Shakira and ALAS were trying was indeed new. They were looking to use the power of pop to help the populations not of distant impoverished lands but of the Ibero-American world from which they come. They have a policy focus — early-childhood nutrition, education and medical care — that is on a scale beyond the reach of private charity. It requires the steady effort of the state. It cannot be addressed by rich countries’ check-writing. So the trick is to take pop celebrity, marry it to big business and permanently alter the way Latin American governments help care for the young and the poor.

What the golden-haired young woman staring at her laptop was trying to do was a tall order, given the fragility of celebrity influence, the dubious track record of Latin American governments in providing social services and the lengthening shadow of a global recession that was straitening everyone’s budget. But she is not someone whom it would be reasonable to underestimate.

Shakira’s normal manner is intense and preoccupied, with interruptions of bright enthusiasm; but with fans she is all attentive patience. As she prepared to exit the plane in San Salvador, she kept her back to the small crowd of airport employees, adjusted her hair and composed her features. Then she flipped the charisma switch, turned, released the full wattage of her brilliant smile and descended the stairs.

Once we were in the SUV’s, the pace quickened. We had an armed escort, sirens blared and we moved very fast along a narrow road past brightly coloured hammocks strung up inside fruit and vegetable stands made of boards and rusting tin. She told me in English that she had been here before, “many times.” She said that with her first and second albums — actually her third and fourth, but she doesn’t like to speak of the first two — she toured constantly through Latin America, “to every radio station, even the smallest,” slowly building an audience. Her theory, which would have meshed well with her somewhat extreme work ethic, was that the hard effort would pay off in loyalty.

“All an artist needs,” she added, by way of explanation, “is her fans.” The odd thing was that she looked so sad when she said it.

That third album, Pies Descalzos (Barefoot), came out when Shakira was 18. It was a huge hit, and she quickly took some of the profits and put them into projects for feeding and educating children in Colombia. The chorus of the title track begins, “You are part of an ancient race/With bare feet and blank dreams/You were dust, you will be dust.” Not all her songs have this kind of melancholy, but a lot of them do. While her high-energy, hip-slinging persona has taken her fame to the heights, it is this very intimate, often suffering, sometimes insecure and wised-up voice that won her fans as she trooped along the byways of Central and South America, one radio station at a time.

Speeding along in the SUV past the rickety roadside stalls of San Salvador, Shakira kept her focus on practical policy: “It has been scientifically proven,” Shakira said — as Bono told me in an e-mail message, “When she gets going on the subject of child poverty she can be pretty scary” — “that a kid that receives proper stimulation and nutrition during these early years will develop all their potential in life: Intellectual skills, learning abilities, social and emotional abilities... So many other countries in Asia or in Europe are already putting early-childhood development at the top of their agendas, and we want our heads of state to do the same.” To that end, she told me she would insist on obtaining promises of action and the establishment of an early-childhood working group at this year’s Ibero-American Summit.

In private or public, Shakira often uses the sound bites of the expert social entrepreneur. “I grew up in the developing world, I grew up seeing injustice,” she told me. “I grew up in the middle of a severe social crisis, left and right wings fighting with each other, people in the middle caught in the crossfire. I’ve seen millions of people displaced in Colombia. But I’ve also seen that, in countries like mine, when a child is born poor, he will die poor, unless he receives an opportunity. That opportunity is education. It’s that helping hand that they’re looking for. Latin America is a young continent, it’s malleable, it’s flexible. We still can change.”

Over the past decade, Latin American governments have increased their spending on primary and secondary education, which have improved significantly. But early childhood was much less of a priority, and according to Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) figures, 46 million children in Latin America under the age of six are going without basic health care and education.

Latin America is far from the fire zone it once was. There are young adults now who don’t really remember the civil wars. Yet it took a tremendous political heave to bring many Latin American countries out of the serial miseries of the late cold war and into some semi-peace with themselves. And if it was so immensely difficult to do that, might it be all too easy to slip back? This, as the economic skies darkened, was the unofficial theme of the meeting. It preoccupied Shakira, of course: Just as she was getting the attention of this powerful audience, they might be newly able to plead poverty!

With her Lebanese ancestry and English-language songs — with her huge bilingual hit ‘Hips Don’t Lie,’ done with the Haitian-American singer Wyclef Jean, for example — Shakira showed how universal a Latin artist could be. At the same time, in a difficult balance, she has tried to stay Latin American. “When you compare everything that everybody has done — Bono and others — toward Africa, it has been largely G8-type artists, or from G8 countries rather, looking to Africa,” Luis Alberto Moreno, president of the IDB, explained. In the case of ALAS: “Latino artists are looking to Latin America, and I think that is unique. And I think that is extremely powerful, because their relationship is deeper as a consequence.”

In her songs and videos the repertory is wide: Rage and hunger; sheer athletic joy; easygoing, self-confident lust; physical insecurity (one of her English lyrics memorably makes use of the phrase “lose those pounds,” and elsewhere she sings of her “humble breasts”); and an acute sense of the physical and mental pain of attraction. In an essay written when Shakira was 22, Gabriel García Márquez remarked not just on Shakira’s “will of granite” but on an “innocent sensuality that she seems to have invented by herself.”
She got there by stages: A child prodigy, she recorded two albums she did not like for Sony, and acted in a soap opera, and won the ‘Best Bottom in Colombia’ contest, all by age 17. This hot-teenager period ended in some kind of crisis; she emerged from it a mix of dark spirits and high energy. She became a pop star, with a particularly strong following among young women and girls. By her mid-20s she was changing again, blonder now, not quite so innocent, the rhythms more adventurous: Still danceable, but less poppy. This was the persona that went into the two-album ‘Oral Fixation’ series, which made her more famous still, and rich, and took her to the point where she could aspire to influence the public policies of an entire region.

The presidential meeting appeared to require subdued glamour, and for her late-morning speech Shakira wore a light gray dress with her hair down. At her entrance, diplomats discreetly took photos from their chairs, while a Salvadoran military officer strode up, cellphone before him like a prow, until he nearly collided with her.

The President of El Salvador welcomed her, Sanz and Fher, the lead singer of the hugely successful Mexican rock band Maná. Then Shakira began: “We are here to initiate the creation of a grand alliance, between the public sector and civil society, to protect the most fragile people in our population, the children.” She noted the economic crisis — “We realise that the coming period will be a difficult one” — but moved on to her talking points. She cited research to the effect that “for each dollar invested in the early education of a child, this child will eventually return to the state $17” (an IDB figure). She spoke of the “regional working group” that would be set up as a result of this meeting, describing its structure and goals, then concluded, “Let us find the strength to defend the very youngest in these difficult times.”

This is Shakira’s difficult dance: To be close enough to the politicians to move them, but not so close that you become their tool and their enemies become your enemies.
One lyric Shakira takes special pride in is from ‘Hips Don’t Lie,’ when she sings, “En Barranquilla se baila así” — “In Barranquilla they dance like this.” A Caribbean port town, notable in Colombia for its ethnic mix (Basques and Arabs, in particular), Barranquilla is not a thriving place these days. You can occasionally still spot a horse-drawn cart clopping through town. But it has a highly engaged citizenry, an exuberant annual carnival and a tradition of achievement in the arts.

This is where Shakira’s story began. Her father’s marriage was falling apart when he met her mother, Nidia Ripoll. Their only child, Shakira, captivated them. She was intellectually and artistically precocious, reading and writing and singing and dancing. Her father lobbied the nuns at Colegio La Enseñanza to admit her early, and when he later had trouble making the school payments — his jewellery business was going through hard times — he told the sisters: “Don’t worry about the money. Shakira is going to be famous. I will pay.” She sang at birthday parties; she won all the local talent shows (and there were many). In talking to her childhood friends and former schoolteachers, I found myself almost laughing at the sheer consistency of the story: The extremely intelligent, limitlessly ambitious girl, a natural leader, whose little body emitted a sound you could hear across town.

Barranquilla is also where her charity began. The Colegio La Enseñanza required students to help teach reading and writing to poor kids. This took young Shakira to La Playa (‘the Beach’), a neighborhood of squatters, mostly, next to a band of swamp where the Magdalena River reaches the sea. It is among the most desperate sections of greater Barranquilla, which is saying something. Shakira formed the idea of helping the children of La Playa once she had fulfilled her father’s vision of global fame and fortune. And now here she was back, 15 or so years later, two days after her 32nd birthday, to dedicate what one member of her entourage called “her masterpiece”: A pre-K-through-high-school colegio in minimalist exposed-cement style, complete with a dance studio, a lovely pond and an artificial-turf soccer field.

Near dusk, on her way to a photo shoot, Shakira climbed the school’s central staircase with some difficulty, using the railing and gently lifting her hips up at each stair. (“On various occasions she has had an irregular heartbeat, inflammation of the colon and skin allergies,” García Márquez wrote 10 years ago, noting that toward the end of one tour she had to be carried from the stage once the performance ended.) After the photo shoot she asked to be left alone before beginning a round of news conferences.
The sun was setting. She sat at the top of the stairs for some time, looking to the northwest, across the pretty new quadrangle with its blocks of sod, then the rusting rooftops of La Playa, and on to the breakwater at the mouth of the Magdalena. When the sun had gone she strode in heels to a room crowded with journalists, smiled convincingly and gave interviews until well past 10 o’clock.

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