The hits don't lie: Why Shakira is living proof that pop and politics can mix

You know Shakira for those steamy videos. But did you also know that she has the ear of the global political elite? Craig McLean asks her how she balances battling poverty with squeezing into sequinned bikinis
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The Independent Culture

Day three of the Clinton Global Initiative's Annual Meeting, and the lobby of the Sheraton New York Hotel & Towers is teeming. Men and women in suits confer in huddles. Clean-cut young workers from NGOs chat with berobed African delegates. The wi-fi-enabled coffee shop is doing brisk business. Avril Lavigne – or someone very like her – strides purposefully towards a conference-room. But the afternoon's biggest, brightest pop star has yet to enter the building. Shakira, we are assured, will be here soon.

Reporters peer into the glass exhibit cases holding examples of the innovations supported by this foundation established by former President Bill Clinton: an eco-friendly "miracle stove" that is saving lives in earthquake-devastated Haiti; solar and wind-up lights and radios helping women and girls in Rwanda to work and study after dark; a "lab in a backpack" being used in Ecuador; "Solazyme fuel, cooking oil and personal-care products made from algae".

"These are The Adventures of Kami and Big Bird," says a twentysomething US activist to a man in a turban, gesturing to a display case holding brightly coloured schoolbooks. "It's an HIV-positive Muppet from Sesame Street that we're using in schools in Nigeria."

As beefy security guards with earpieces hulk through the corridors, we await the arrival of the afternoon's VIPs. The 2pm plenary session in the hotel's Metropolitan Ballroom – an hour-long discussion titled "Harnessing Human Potential" – is headed by Michael Bloomberg, mayor of the City of New York. On the panel is Barbara Bush, the president of Global Health Corps and wife of the former US president. She's joined by her daughter-in-law, Laura Bush, billed today as the "Former First Lady of the United States". Clinton's worldwide philanthropic organisation is a big tent; big enough to encompass the wife of the second President Bush.

And big enough to encompass Shakira, who is scheduled to speechify on the panel alongside Mayor Bloomberg and the Bush First Ladies. This is the kind of environment in which the Colombian pop star, activist, philanthropist and Unicef goodwill ambassador feels at home. "I was born and raised in a developing country, and I grew up seeing so much inequality. A part of me is very intolerant of this brutal contrast, to so much injustice," she will tell me in her fluid (in every sense), Spanish-accented English. "A part of me was never satisfied. I always felt there had to be a way to make things better." So, in 1995, Shakira founded the Pies Descalzos (Barefoot) Foundation, named after her third album and which provides schools for the poor across Colombia.

A confidante of both Colombian and American presidents (she has held meetings – proper meetings, not celebby meet'n'greets – with both), Shakira is as comfortable mingling with political heavyweights as she was last night, when she performed a sold-out concert at Madison Square Garden. Small but perfectly sinuously formed, Shakira had approached the stage from the back of the arena, singing as she worked her way through the crowd, shaking hands with delirious fans and waving gaily to the evening's celebrity guests: Hollywood actor Jim Carrey, the recently elected Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos, a former president of Chile and Queen Rania of Jordan.

She may be the sexually provocative singer of the global hits "Hips Don't Lie", "Whenever, Wherever" (including the lines "Lucky that my breasts are small and humble/ So you don't confuse them with mountains"), "She Wolf" (complete with groin-centric video, more on which later), and this month's dizzy, fizzy single collaboration with Dizzee Rascal, "Loca" ("That girl is a nuttah!" yelps Rascal). But Shakira has interests that lie beyond the global superstar's normal frame of reference – brand-extending forays into perfume and the like (though Shakira has a perfume, too: S by Shakira).

"It was about time, you know?" she says by way of explaining her push into the lucrative world of scents. "The perfume world was flirting with me for a while, and I wasn't ready, I didn't have the time. Like with every project, I had

to really submerge myself in it," she says, adding that as well as designing the scent, she designed the bottle. "Then I met the right people, the people from [Spanish company] Puig; I really liked them, the way they deal with the business, and how we connected." After throwing herself into research, she found scent notes that spoke to her: "Jasmine, sandalwood and vanilla. I'm very particular with fragrances. I wanted something feminine and sensual."

Her other recent project: "I was trying to learn Catalan. I bought a little Catalan book to practise but I can only speak Catalan in Barcelona, so I don't know if it makes much sense! But I like things that don't make sense but expand my brain."

This 33-year-old, 60-million-album-selling girl might indeed be a nuttah. One with an apartment in Miami, a home and studio on a private estate in the Bahamas, a pied-à-terre in her hometown of Barranquilla, and a farm in Punta del Este, Uruguay. And a fiancé, Antonio de la Rua, a lawyer and the son of the former president of Argentina. But she's also a fully engaged, boots-on-the-ground charitable entrepreneur.

She is, then, the perfect delegate for a session about Harnessing Human Potential which will discuss "how to create a macro environment that fosters entrepreneurship and job creation across the globe; how to broaden access to knowledge and training in order to build a global workforce that meets the needs of the 21st-century economy; and how to link efforts between government, business, civil society and academic institutions in support of these goals".

Except, at the last minute, Shakira doesn't show for the speech. She stands up the Bushes, the mayor and, by extension, the Clintons. Part of me isn't surprised: over the course of three days in New York, the time and location of our interview will change six times.

When I finally do catch up with her, just before she has to leave to catch a flight to Florida (she has a rare night off, and is going to Miami, where her parents live), I ask her what happened. "I was sick," she says, as bright and perky and smiley as can be. "I was actually writing my speech till 8.30 in the morning. I stayed up all night. I was awake all night after Madison Square Garden, writing the speech!"

And that made you ill?

"I think so. I've been rehearsing this tour for 30 days, and I didn't have one day off. I guess my defences were weak. I hope it didn't show on stage!" It didn't – she was a pocket dynamo, flitting between her own high-energy singles, a surprisingly effective cover of Metallica's "Nothing Else Matters", and an awful lot of dancing, mostly based on the crowd-wowing deployment of hips, belly and hair.

"The people really lifted my spirits and my energy," she continues. "It makes a huge difference to come out through the audience as opposed to coming out from the stage. So by the time I get to the stage I'm like, 'Oh, this is home...' So far on tour it's been great, and I leave every night so energised. And sometimes I think I can be without sleep. And," she concludes, finally pausing for breath, "I think my defences just crashed down. I couldn't do it. I couldn't get up all day!"

But she's confident that she'll be able to use the speech somewhere, somehow. "I'm sure, because this is part of my job too. This is what I do: I advocate. I advocate for universal education, for kids, for early childhood development. And basically for those kids who don't have a voice, I wanna be able to lend my voice to them – especially because, in my daily travels and my social life, I have so many encounters with political leaders and people from all sorts of angles and jobs from society. People who determine the destinies of our nations. And I have that amazing gift, that opportunity to be close to them and discuss the issues, maybe plant ' a little seed here and there, and share these thoughts on things that I've learnt over the years – because I've been working with education for almost 14 years."

Shakira Isabel Mebarak Ripoll is the only child of a Colombian mother and Lebanese father – though she has eight half-siblings from her father's previous marriage. She grew up in the coastal town of Barranquilla, where her father's jewellery business gave the family a comfortable, small-town, middle-class life. "Barranquilla is the kind of place that, if your car breaks down, you won't have one person helping you out, you'll have five or 10 guys helping push your car," she gushes. "It's the kind of place that makes you feel that you're in the right spot, the best place in the world."

What do people who live in the capital, Bogota, think of Barranquillans? "They probably think we're lazier than they are – because it's so hot they feel we don't work as hard. But in Barranquilla, people make buildings in six months. So I don't know what they're talking about!"

Aged eight, Shakira wrote her first song, "Tus Gafas Oscuras" (Your Dark Glasses), about her father's sunglasses. "People are gonna think I have an Oedipus complex!" she told me when I interviewed her in the Bahamas in 2005 – typical of her occasionally eyebrow-raising, English-as-second language straight-talking (see also: that lyric about the small and humble breasts). Then, aged nine, the family's financial fortunes collapsed.

"My father lost his jewellery business and it was complicated for me to accept these changes. That's why, one day, my mom took me out into the street and showed me how other kids lived – kids who really had nothing. And I had been upset because we had to go from a big TV to a smaller black-and-white TV. Or losing the air-conditioning in a place as hot as Barranquilla. I couldn't understand why I was going through all these changes, until my mom took me to that part of town and showed me the little kids who sniffed glue so they could bear the hunger and cold. From that moment on I wanted to do good. And create my own business. I dreamt about buying my own car when I was 15 and I did – even though it was illegal; you had to be older than 16."

This loss of status was, she says, a wake-up call to her pre-adolescent self. Within three years she had written 40 songs. She signed a record deal in Bogota and released her first album at 13. A second followed within a year (and two more Spanish-language albums followed those), with Shakira simultaneously maintaining her education at a convent school. "I went to school with girls who were three years older than I was, and I graduated from high school when I was 15. So I was always a kid in this environment of adults. I was always spoiled. The only child, and also very young."

When she was 15, she and her parents relocated to the capital. Her music career was taking off, as was a sideline in acting – Shakira had a recurring part in the Colombian soap opera El Oasis. In 1997, during the first stage of her assault on the English-speaking musical world, the family moved to Miami. She had sold 12 million copies of her four Spanish-language albums. Laundry Service, her debut English-language album, featuring the international hits "Whenever, Wherever" and "Underneath Your Clothes", was released in 2001. It sold 13 million copies worldwide.

Last year, Shakira released She Wolf. It followed 2005's Fijació* Oral Vol 1 and Oral Fixation Vol 2, a two-volume album, one in Spanish, one in English – a strategy designed to keep happy her Latin American audience and her newer fanbase. It's a tactic she repeated this month, with the release of Sale el Sol, which contains songs in both Spanish and English. Her global fame, meanwhile, was underlined by the success of "Waka Waka (This Time For Africa)", which this summer became the most successful official World Cup song ever.

Typically for the one-time precociously gifted teenager, there seemed to be more canny strategising behind She Wolf. It was a more directly poppy, electronic album, in keeping with the current dancefloor-friendly sounds of Rihanna, Lady Gaga and Beyoncé (with whom Shakira collaborated on the 2007 single "Beautiful Liar"). The title track, the first single from the album, was accompanied by a voguishly full-on video. Or, as KT Tunstall said to me earlier this year, "There were a couple of scenes from the 'She Wolf' video that I was quite surprised by, because they were so explicit – eg, 'Sorry, I'm just going to have to wipe a bit of fanny off the lens there!'"

While the Scottish singer-songwriter was keen to hymn the praises of this "talented, genuine, beautiful and graceful artist [who has] a career through talent and hard work", she was perplexed as to why "Shakira would go that far. She's got a lot of young fans. And from a feminist standpoint, I think it's pretty confusing for a little girl to see that... And for me as a female artist, I don't like the fact that there's never a cross-gender comparison. I mean, if a guy did those scenes that Shakira did, the video would be banned. If a guy was wearing a skin-tight, flesh-coloured pair of pants and shoving his penis in the camera, I don't think it would be allowed out. Why is it all right for a woman to do it?"

During our interview in the New York offices of her record company, I read these quotes to Shakira. What, I ask her, does she think of Tunstall's points? She is, uncharacteristically, lost for words.

"Um. Well, obviously, l respect her opinion," she eventually beams, as smooth as any of the politicians she's encountered. "The video... I find it sensual. I don't find it offensive. I don't find it dirty. I find it, ah, just feminine and sexy and sensual. And... that's it."

Before our interview – which eventually happened the day after her no-show at the Clinton Global Initiative – I went to the midtown Manhattan set of The David Letterman Show. Shakira and two slinky dancers were due to perform, barefoot, on the talk show, backed by her live band, who were wearing shoes.

The actor James Franco was on before her, promoting his role as the poet Allen Ginsberg in the biopic Howl. Also on before her (in a humorous "Colombian" tribute): alpacas. Backstage, TeamShak bustled around the dressing-room, ferrying itsy-bitsy sequinned bikinis and pairs of gold sandals back and forth amid cries of "I have pins!"

Finally, showtime. Shakira (5ft-odd in her stocking feet; an assistant is carrying the gold sandals) is hustled in a huddle towards the elevator. Another assistant holds a water bottle from which the singer is drinking through a straw. They all press into the elevator and descend into the theatre. "Shakira has released a scent," Letterman says to the studio audience. "Earlier, one of the alpacas released a scent too..."

She hits the stage for a grinning, hip-waggling, scantily clad performance of "Loca" (without Dizzee Rascal). The audience roar their approval. There were not quite, to paraphrase Tunstall, any fannies being shoved in cameras, but it wasn't far off. "Now," chuckles Letterman, "if you could turn to page 65 in your hymnals..."

But for Shakira, all that stuff is just showbiz. Fluffy, exciting, crowd-pleasing showbiz. She enjoys it, and she's good at it, but give her half a chance and she'd much rather talk about her Foundation. It's a passion she dates back to the wake-up call she received aged nine. Being confronted with street poverty in Barranquilla "created tremendous consciousness about how kids in my country live. That's why it went so deep in my subconscious mind that I always ' wanted to succeed. I always hoped to be able to give something to those kids. It became another motivation. And that's when I started with this idea of my Foundation."

During this week in New York, she had a private meeting with President Santos of Colombia. "I met him before, of course, a few times. And we had an encounter in London a few days ago – we were discussing working together on early child-development strategies." Earlier today, the president and the pop star had announced the formation of a fund to help children aged up to six. "We're going to start with $25m, investing in early childhood education, nutrition and stimulation. This is a continuation of some work that I've been doing with the former president, which was a new concept in Latin America. We got to cover 1.6 million kids. And now Santos is also very receptive – he's making it a priority within his whole political agenda. Which is quite remarkable, because he's a little bit to the right."

Shakira also raised these topics during a recent meeting with President Obama in the Oval Office. "We discussed how we can improve access to education for Latinos within the US," says the woman who is the biggest Latino music star in the world. "And we're still developing this conversation with the White House to do things along the way for the US Latino community."

Did they also discuss the fact that America spends $600m a year on the war on drugs in Colombia? A "war" that, via crop-eradication policies, also hurts ordinary farmers?

"The thing about the drug business is that so many innocent people end up being involved," she replies. Shakira is clearly happier, more confident, geo-politicking than talking about her own sexual politics. "Innocent people who never had an opportunity," she continues. "People who grow up really vulnerable, really exposed to violence. And to violent groups as well. When you live in a tiny little village in Colombia, very close to the jungle, and you have no access to school or proper nutrition, you have no hopes. No hopes to be someone successful in life. And you can only live a day at a time, and so you're a kid who is completely vulnerable to being recruited by the militia, the paramilitary, the guerilla."

"But if that kid instead goes to school," she adds – and if there was a table between us rather than a comfy sofa, she'd be thumping it, "he remains safe in school. There's no kid in the world who's planning right now to become a drug dealer when he grows up. An eight-year-old will always tell you, 'I wanna be a doctor, a teacher, a goalkeeper...' They never dream about becoming a drug trafficker or a guerrilla!"

Shakira knows this not because she's a pop star who's travelled the world, staying in fine hotels and filling auditoria – "and it's not because I've met Jeffrey Sachs," she says name-dropping the renowned economist. "I'm convinced about this because I've seen it with my own eyes. I've seen kids who come to our schools, who are the children of internally displaced families, who've been obliged to flee the towns and they arrive, malnourished..."

How does Shakira know this? Because she's out there, doing good. And because she's in there, in her dressing-room, being fitted for a sequinned bikini while brushing up on her Catalan, on US drug policy, and on the great political-philosophical works.

"Like Rousseau once said," she smiles, as sagacious as she is glam, "the man is born good, but society corrupts him. And I think that society corrupts a man when it denies that man the opportunity to achieve his or her goals in life."

She might be a nuttah. But she's a clevah one.

'Sale el Sol' is out now on RCA Records

Give pop a chance: The all-singing activists

John Lennon

Lennon wrote "Give Peace a Chance" – an anthem for the anti-Vietnam War movement – in 1969. He then spent his honeymoon in bed at the Amsterdam Hilton as a way of promoting peace.

Bob Marley

In 1976, days before a free concert organised by Prime Minister Michael Manley, Marley was wounded by gunmen. Undaunted, he was instrumental in trying to reconcile the warring factions of Jamaican politics, eventually bringing Manley and his rival Edward Seaga together on stage in 1978.

Billy Bragg

Bragg's broadly left-wing political views led him to back the 1984 miners' strike and recommend tactical voting as a way to keep the Conservative Party out of power. In January 2010, he threatened not to pay tax to protest against bank bonuses.

Wyclef Jean

Following the earthquake that killed more than 200,000, Jean announced that he'd be running for Haiti's presidency until an elections board said he did not meet the requirement needed.

Lady Gaga

Gaga spoke at a rally in Maine this year urging the Senate to repeal the policy restricting the US military from revealing closeted gay and lesbian service members, while barring those who are openly gay.

George Michael

In 2004, Michael released the the anti-Iraq war song "Shoot the Dog", but it was the video that attracted controversy: it depicted President Bush behaving like a child and Tony Blair as Bush's poodle.

Bob Geldof

Geldof has campaigned for fathers' rights and against the European single currency, but he changed the face of pop protest with his 1984 Band Aid and Live Aid project to aid African famine relief.

Bono

For his activism on behalf of African causes, Bono has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. His band U2 performed at both Band Aid and Live Aid and collaborated with Geldof to organise 2005's Live 8 project. Morgan Durno and Lorenzo Spoerry

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