I’m a huge fan of Shakira. Since I began listening to her music, I’ve connected with her idiosyncratic lyricism, powerful ballads and euphoric, genre-blending pop masterpieces. I even taught myself Spanish through translating her 1998 “Dónde están los ladrones?” But I’ve always been bothered by the way English-speaking audiences perceive and misrepresent Latina artists like Shakira.
Shakira, along with Jennifer Lopez, took the stage at the Super Bowl halftime show Feb. 2. In less than four days, the already iconic performance received over 100 million views on YouTube. It featured Shakira and J-Lo’s megahits, odes to Shakira’s Colombian and Lebanese roots and symbols of protest against President Donald Trump’s child separation at the U.S.-Mexico border and his repeated neglect of Puerto Rico. Yet many non-Spanish speaking audiences hyperfocused on Shakira’s hips and J-Lo’s pole dance. This obsession highlights a common theme: oversexualizing Latina performers and ignoring their overall contributions to music, their activism, their philanthropy and their importance on the world stage. Non-Spanish speaking Americans have a responsibility to stop trivializing, patronizing and minimizing Latina artists and instead view them in their entirety.
As “She Wolf” began blaring in Hard Rock Stadium, Shakira opened the halftime show with a simple “Hola Miami.” It may have seemed insignificant to some, but Miami is roughly 70 percent Hispanic. With over 41 million Spanish speakers in the US, opening the Super Bowl — usually the most-watched event in the United States — in Spanish signals the shifting demographics of the U.S. It also represents a subtle act of resistance in the Trump era, when 4 in 10 Latinx people report having experienced discrimination in the past year.
Following a nod to one of her most iconic pre-crossover hits, “Inevitable,” Shakira dedicated much of her time to paying homage to her multicultural background. She sang “Ojos Así,” a song with both Spanish and Arabic lyrics, followed by her signature belly dance and the Afro-Colombian dance Champeta. A few seconds into “Hips Don’t Lie,” Shakira let out a zaghrouta — a traditional expression of celebration or joy primarily performed by women in the Middle East and North Africa. Rather than recognizing the moment as a celebration of Shakira’s Lebanese heritage, it became an instant meme on social media. One publication went so far as to call Shakira’s tongue the “MVP” of the halftime show itself. Herein lies the problem: people consistently reduce Shakira’s multicultural background to her tongue and hips. It ignores her non-English discography and trivializes acts of cultural significance.
Then came Jennifer Lopez, who included underlying political statements about the current state of affairs for Latinx people under the Trump administration. J-Lo’s 11-year-old daughter Emme performed her mom’s 1999 hit “Let’s Get Loud” while children surrounded the stage in stylized cages, alluding to Trump’s immigration policies at the U.S.-Mexico border which have left young children in literal cages. J-Lo came back on stage draped in a giant Puerto Rican flag as she and Emme belted out Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA,” yet another jab at Trump and his continued attacks on Puerto Rico. The performance sent a signal of affirmation that Puerto Rico, too, is part of the U.S. and ought to be treated as such — not as an “other.”
I had heard speculation online that the show would feature some social and political undertones, which I was excited to see. Much of Shakira’s older Spanish music is political in nature, like when she used her “Octavo Día” as an anti-war song as the U.S. came closer to invading Iraq in early 2003. It is disrespectful that those in the English-speaking media only focused on — and freaked out about — Shakira and J-Lo’s bodies. While some moaned about feeling “personally judged” by J-Lo’s body, others called for the performance to come with a parental warning, likening it to “softcore porn,” while others simply dismissed the show as “inappropriate.”
I wasn’t surprised by any of this. Reducing Shakira to just her hips and other Latina artists to sexual objects isn’t anything new. In Shakira’s case, her hips have become her defining characteristic in the minds of non-Spanish speaking American audiences, who have overlooked her earlier work. Non-Spanish speakers are shocked to learn of a Shakira that English-speaking American journalists, music critics and audiences don’t seem to know or care about. This feeds into a pervasive problem of misunderstanding and misrepresenting Latina artists on the world stage, portraying them as stereotypes without depth.
By closing the show with “muchas gracias,” Shakira and Jennifer Lopez signaled that the U.S. landscape is changing demographically and culturally. The Super Bowl halftime show was so much more than hips and pole dances. It was an unforgettable display of decades of hits and cultural references — it ought to be seen as such. The inclusion of reggaeton stars J Balvin and Bad Bunny emphasized that non-Spanish speaking Americans are opening up to new genres and music in other languages. But it’s imperative that non-Spanish speaking American journalists, music critics and listeners stop reducing Latina artists to their tongues or their hips and recognize their artistry, talent and activism.
Garrett Richardson is an undeclared first year. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.