Two years ago, when Shakira was looking for songs for her 2017 Spanish-language album, El Dorado, Sony Music Latin chief Afo Verde had a suggestion: How about going into the studio for a writing session with a fellow Colombian, the red-hot up-and-comer Maluma? Shakira, 41, Latin music’s most bankable and best-known female star, was open to the idea. She had paired up with newcomers many times before, and while Maluma had yet to land a No. 1 single on Billboard’s Hot Latin Songs chart, his Instagram and YouTube accounts were exploding, and she was intrigued by his sinuous 2015 pop-reggaetón hit, “Borro Casette.”

The collaboration “turned out to be one of the most brilliant ideas Afo Verde has had — and mind you, he has had several,” Shakira says now with a laugh. Says Verde, who also suggested Shakira’s collaborations with Prince Royce, Carlos Vives and Nicky Jam: “I was fascinated with her evolution from a global sensation to recording again as a mom. What was going to happen with all that sensuality? I thought those two together could do amazing things.”

“When I meet with a producer in the studio, it’s a bit like a blind date. But what I found [with Maluma] was absolute chemistry,” confirms Shakira. “The moment the creative energy started to flow, it never stopped.”

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The meeting evolved into a joint recording session of two tracks, “Chantaje” and “Trap.” The former debuted at No. 1 on Hot Latin Songs in November 2016, where it ruled for 11 weeks. Even without a bilingual remix, it climbed to No. 51 on the Billboard Hot 100. Maluma, a star on the brink, finally exploded. Today, the 24-year-old is Latin pop’s new worldwide superstar, with seven No. 1s on the Latin Airplay chart, over 1 million tickets sold on his first world tour in 2017 and more Instagram followers (32.1 million) than any other male Latin star. He’s currently touring U.S. arenas for the first time, having sold out New York’s Madison Square Garden in March; promoting the Spanish-language version of Coca-Cola’s World Cup song by Jason Derulo, “Colors”; and prepping the May 18 release of his third studio album, F.A.M.E.

Shakira, meanwhile, will embark on her first world tour in seven years, in June, after sweeping the nominations for the 2018 Billboard Latin Music Awards with 12, including four for “Chantaje.” (Maluma has 10 nods.)

But the two have more than singles in common. Maluma (real name Juan Luis Londoño) grew up listening to Shakira and feels a deep artistic connection with her. “One of the things that has influenced me the most is the folkloric elements she has incorporated [into her music] since she was very young,” he says. “To be part of that group that has been influenced by the sounds that identify a country has definitely had a bearing on me and my musical career.”

Shakira and Maluma photographed on April 2, 2018 at Torre Bellesguard Antoni Gaudi in Barcelona, Spain. 

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Whatever the parallels, Maluma’s rise reflects just how much popular music has changed over the last two decades. While Shakira relied on the traditional crossover to English and her World Cup anthems to gain global recognition, Maluma has recorded mainly in Spanish (he sings in English for the first time on the new Burns single, “Hands on Me”), focusing on social media and YouTube views to find international fame.

In early April, the two friends met up in Barcelona, where Shakira lives with her partner and their two young boys, for a photo shoot and an intimate conversation in Spanish on what it means to be a Colombian superstar.

Maluma, how was it to meet Shakira?
Maluma: I felt very proud because this was an opportunity for me to learn. I’m a new talent. My musical career is 6 years old. That’s nothing. And to go to Barcelona and meet with her, it was a beautiful experience. There was incredible chemistry.
Shakira: Thank you, Juan. I’m being very honest here — Maluma is one of the most talented people I’ve met. He has this mental agility to write lyrics, melodies, and the best thing is, we always agree. [Laughs.]

You’re both Colombian. What bearing does that have on your work together?
I miss working with more Colombians in the studio. There’s an irreplaceable closeness to the culture. It’s something I can’t find with any other musician or artist. It’s reflected in the good vibe and what a good time we have. Sometimes the creative process can be as painful as giving birth. But when it’s with Maluma, it can even be pleasant.
Maluma: Ha! It can “even be pleasant.”

Shakira wears a Dolce & Gabbana dress and a Vex Clothing bodysuit. Maluma wears a Stetson hat and Dolce & Gabbana shirt and jeans. 
Ruven Afanador
Shakira wears a Dolce & Gabbana dress and a Vex Clothing bodysuit. Maluma wears a Stetson hat and Dolce & Gabbana shirt and jeans.

Maluma, what do you do to make her so happy?
First of all, he calls me reina [queen] all the time. Reina here, reina there.
Maluma: [Laughs.] That’s the truth.
Shakira: When he called me reina the first time, I said, “We’re off to a good start.”
Maluma: I’ve always said that there’s one thing that differentiates us Colombians on a global scale: berraquera [loosely translated: grit, or guts]. Even if we’re not great musicians, we find the people who know how to make the songs great.
Shakira: When a Colombian gets obsessed with something, watch out. Our history and the social factors we’ve been submitted to have turned us into resourceful people who had to survive and find their way in life.

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You both grew up during Colombia’s long rebel insurgency.
We come from a history where we’ve had to look for our bread, you understand me? And we’ve had that hunger to forge ahead due to everything we’ve lived though. And in the studio, we’re the same way. “I can’t play that chord. OK, who knows how?” When you put together discipline and perseverance, you get beautiful careers, thank God.

Have you encountered barriers in the industry as Latin artists?
The path to success has been longer, steeper, with more obstacles than if I had been born in Florida or New York City. To be born in Barranquilla and start a career at a time when the pop music scene was almost nonexistent in Colombia … When I began with my ballads and my rock songs, it was a very hostile environment. And there was no social media back then. I had to travel the entire length of Latin America to make my music known in the beginning, going from radio station to radio station. Sometimes we were in three countries in the same day.

Shakira wears a Rag & Bone T-shirt, Adrienne Landau vest and Elena Estaun cuffs.
Ruven Afanador
Shakira wears a Rag & Bone T-shirt, Adrienne Landau vest and Elena Estaun cuffs.

Maluma, you had social media…
From the onset. So there was a way to share my music around the world. But that didn’t mean that they were going to like my music in the U.S. I always say with a lot of pride that Latins have something in our blood that can’t be found everywhere, and that is fashionable around the world now. I grew up listening to and seeing American products. My friends and I would go onto all these platforms, and all we saw or heard was American hip-hop. They weren’t looking at the music we were making in Latin America, but Latin America was always heavily influenced by the music that Americans made. When we get on an American stage, when we have the opportunity to be on the Grammy stage, we enjoy it that much more, because we know how hard the work was.
Shakira: Latinos in general and Colombians in particular have had a hard history. A history where we’ve eaten dirt. We know what conflict is, and we know what it is to have nothing and to fight to get it. That, in a way, defines you as a human being and as an artist. What we’ve inherited and what we carry in our blood — that’s our raw material. That’s what we work with.

Are you surprised when you see several Latin music videos among the top 10 on YouTube in a given week?
For a long time, the Americas looked at Anglo product. Now, the rest of the world is looking toward Latin America. And it’s more than a fad. It’s here to stay.

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You don’t think this is like the so-called Latin explosion of the 1990s, which faded?
Shakira: I might consider myself debris from the Latin explosion. There are people who stay and people who disappear. It depends on us as artists and what we have to offer. It’s hard to generalize, but music is at a point where it increasingly has a more sophisticated sound that’s attractive to a global fan. Many Latin artists understand this universality well, and they know how to attract global tastes.
Maluma: As artists, if a door opens, it’s our job to make sure it stays open. One of the most beautiful experiences I had was in Israel last year, where I played for 17,000 people. I couldn’t believe it. I think the best is yet to come, and being part of this movement is an opportunity and an honor. What can be better for us than to sing in Spanish everywhere we go?

A still from the “Chantaje” music video. “My body begins to show me the way” to interpret a song, says Shakira.
Courtesy Photo
A still from the “Chantaje” music video. “My body begins to show me the way” to interpret a song, says Shakira.

The two songs you’ve done together are very sexy but also tasteful. How do you strike that balance?
Shakira: It’s not premeditated or calculated. I connect with a song through dance and movement. Generally speaking, that’s why I don’t work with choreographers. My own artistic interpretation of the music I create is very important to me. We had a script for the “Chantaje” video, but it stemmed from what I was doing with the dance portion. Even the outfits depended on the dancing. There’s never a premeditated effort at shock value. “Chantaje” is a super sexy song, but there’s nothing erotic in the lyrical content.

Maluma, songs of yours like “4 Babys” [Sample lyric: “They always give me what I want, fuck when I say so, never give me a problem”] have triggered a lot of criticism. What is your response to it?
Maluma: I say what I think because that’s the way I am. I don’t like to do music thinking about what’s working in radio at the moment. I don’t like to deal with taboos. At a cultural level, Latin music hasn’t developed like American music. If you listen to American radio, the top songs deal with all kinds of dirty stuff, and [my song] “Felices los 4” doesn’t even come close. In Latin America, to see an artist who’s not trap or underground do a song like “4 Babys” is a culture shock. But it also opened the door for other [Latin] artists to go further. I was the one who got the criticism, who had to deal with the whole problem so those other artists wouldn’t be judged the way I was.

Your fan base is largely female, yet your music is provocative. At your shows, you perform with a troupe of sexy female dancers. How did you decide that?
Maluma: It’s my idea. I like to always be involved in every production aspect of my career. A lot of women come to my shows, but there are also men who come. My eight dancers are spectacular. And the male fans who come to my show come to see beautiful female dancers.

Maluma performed in Israel last December: “I’m fortunate to belong to a generation taking music in Spanish to the world.”
Idan Horta
Maluma performed in Israel last December: “I’m fortunate to belong to a generation taking music in Spanish to the world.”

Shakira, are you planning on having beautiful male dancers in your shows?
Shakira: [Laughs.] Eh, no. Not me. I’m not having beautiful male dancers. This time, I’m practically carrying the entire weight of the show.

You’re both sex symbols. What kind of pressure does that put on you?
I don’t feel like a sex symbol. It’s possible many people see me as a sex symbol and others do not. Other people see me as a person that has kept them company through their lives with music, someone who they’re fond of. Some days I’ll say, “Wow, I’m hot.” And I have many sweatpants-and-bun days in my life. And I suppose all women have that chameleonic side to them. We’re a little bit mothers, a little bit professionals, we’re sexy … all women have that balance at any age.
Maluma: I don’t wake up in the morning, look at myself in the mirror and say, “I’m a sex symbol.” I go to the gym because I like to work out, not to have my dancers touch me onstage. I think I’m reaching an incredible moment in my musical career where I’m looking for something more spiritual. And when you don’t want to look like a sex symbol but as a more interesting person, women are attracted to that.

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Maluma, you were a talented junior soccer player who almost went pro. Would you play with Gerard Piqué [Shakira’s companion and Barcelona star]?
Maluma: I’m like a fan in love. I’m going to create a fan club for Gerard in Medellín. They invited me to see a match, but hopefully they’ll invite me to train!

Maluma wears a Dolce & Gabbana shirt and jeans.
Ruven Afanador
Maluma wears a Dolce & Gabbana shirt and jeans.

Shakira, you’re touring after having two children. How has that changed the way you work?
I’m exhausted all day long, truth be told. It’s not easy, continuing a career with intensity and commitment and also being the kind of mother I want to be. But I’m discovering it step by step. They’re at a spectacular age — 3 and 5 years old. I’m enjoying them tremendously, and they’re eager to share my life on the road. I’m taking them with me, but without letting that absorb them too much. You have to find a balance — to allow them to live their lives and not be absorbed by their mother’s celebrity.

What does family mean to you, Maluma?
Maluma: Everything. They’re my motor, my motivation. That’s why they’re with me all the time, even when I’m on tour. Sometimes my dad, or my mother or my sister, but I always try to have them. I feel at home when I’m close to them. An artist without family doesn’t reach heaven.