With the close of the World Cup just behind us, we’re still congratulating modern times on its enlightened diversity. More Black players than ever ran up and down the fields, playing in a country that, despite its troubled racial history, is actively working toward equality for all its citizens. In fact, the World Cup’s star-studded opening ceremony featured a large number of artists of color, all centered around Shakira singing the official World Cup anthem “Waka Waka (This Time for Africa).” The beautiful Shakira gave the flawless performance we’ve come to expect from her. But after the applause died down, many wondered why an African wasn’t on that stage, “this time for Africa.”
Shakira’s fair skin and bottle-blond hair separated her from most of the people on the continent, but you can’t say homegirl isn’t trying. “Waka Waka” samples a 1986 song called “Zangaléwa” from the Cameroonian group Golden Sounds. Shakira undoubtedly heard it growing up, since it got all of Africa and parts of Latin American—including Colombia—dancing in the 80’s. She covered all bases by recording the song with the popular South African band Freshlyground. When she and Freshlyground took the stage a month ago to kick off the World Cup, Shakira donned an animal-print cutout leotard and grass skirt. Her dancers came in all shades, creating Bishop Tutu’s projection of a Rainbow Nation. The band, the outfit, the dancers, and the sample are all a nod to Africa and the diaspora; she wouldn’t have heard “Zangaléwa” in the first place if West African DJs hadn’t made their way to Colombia. Shakira’s no fool– a sugary pop confection simply won’t work when the World Cup is held on African soil for the first time.
But maybe her detractors have a reason to be upset. It’s no small thing that the World Cup finally came to Africa, and as one of the event’s many prominent faces, it would’ve felt like change had truly come if Shakira were African, or at least brown. The assumption seems to be that Africa provides great subject matter but Africans in and of themselves just aren’t interesting. Hollywood makes this mistake all the time; rarely are African actors used in movies about Africa. Once again, Africans are left out of their own representation. Her animal-print and grass skirt getup (designed by none other than Roberto Cavalli) is an obvious reference to where she is, but it’s blind to the fact that while many modern Africans incorporate traditional elements in their everyday wear, most save the head-to-toe ethnic outfits for special occasions. It came off as insensitive and dated, almost like the lily-white Bo Derek sporting cornrows thirty years ago.
The question “why Shakira?” usually comes with a second question: “why not K’naan?’ He’s a critical, if not a commercial success in his own right. Born in Somalia, K’naan is the artist some feel has more claim to the official anthem. He recorded his own song for the World Cup celebrations “Waving Flag.” His song is less popular than the upbeat “Waka Waka”, but it gets its share of play as the official song of the Coca-Cola’s World Cup program.
Many of the complaints against Shakira’s being chosen are valid, but they leave out her superstardom. It’s easy to notice the prominent African artists who got passed over for the job (Hugh Masekela, Meshell Ndegeocello) but it’s just as easy to see why she was chosen. The World Cup is a huge event that needs a huge star to get people excited and Shakira is just that big. She’s sold upwards of fifty million albums worldwide, sells out concerts and won heaps of awards. Add that to the fact that teams from Spanish-speaking countries tend to dominate the World Cup—only Latin American and European teams have ever won—and it’s not hard to see why she was picked. It’s up to us to decide if her contribution to the celebration is about disregard for African input or a tribute to what Africa has to offer to the rest of the world.