What’s the most beloved, most streamed World Cup song of all time? If your first guesses were Ricky Martin or Pitbull, you’re way off — the honor belongs to Shakira, whose 2010 anthem “Waka Waka (Song for Africa) handily beats them all. The track, recorded with the Cape Town, South Africa fusion band, Freshlyground, went to No. 1 in 15 countries and is one of the best-selling singles of all time, with over 15 million downloads worldwide. It’s on best World Cup song lists from sites as diverse as Billboard, MLS Soccer, Remezcla, and the Washington Post. And it keeps coming back each time there’s a World Cup, with replays and endurance driving YouTube views and pushing it to become Sharika’s second video to break two billion streams in 2018.
Why does “Waka Waka” stand out? How did it get so popular and why do soccer fans keep coming back to it?
The first thing you need to know about World Cup anthems is that they are selected by Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), the organization behind the quadrennial event. Before the 2000s, the World Cup song frequently coordinated to its host country and featured an eclectic list of artists, from the Buenos Aires Municipal Symphony when Argentina hosted in 1978 to Daryl Hall (of Hall & Oates) when the U.S. hosted in 1994.
They began a shift to massive artists with global appeal, with Ricky Martin in 1998, who recorded the Official Song just as his international star was rising. Something about the success of Martin’s “Cup of Live” must have resonated, because after him, FIFA steered hard into choosing international stars, starting with the Europop singer Anastasia who worked with the-superproducer Glen Ballard (Alanis Morrissette, Dave Matthews Band) on the 2000 song, “Boom.” They tapped Ill Divo and Toni Braxton in 2006 and, of course, Shakira in 2010. Pitbull with Jennifer Lopez and Claudia Leitte took it in 2014, and in 2018 it was Nicky Jam on a track featuring Will Smith and Era Istrefi and produced by Diplo. FIFA’s aim: yielding an official anthem that players and the audience will dance and react to, with a performer to build a pre-tournament kick-off event around, dominating global charts from radio to streaming. They want to be everywhere during the World Cup and having an official song that’s well-liked helps them do it.
In the leadup to the 2010 game, Shakira was asked by her record label, then Sony Music, if she’d consider recording a song for the World Cup. She said in a press conference before the event, that it came to her one day while she was on her farm in Uruguay. “I walked from the barn to the house and on that walk, boom! It came to me,” Shakira said with a laugh, explaining that she immediately recorded it using an acoustic guitar. “That’s how I realized that the song was strong, when a song sounds good just with a plain guitar and vocals, you know that there’s something there.”
FreshlyGround, the South African band who bring the African instrumental elements to “Waka Waka,” were brought in while the song’s production was still in process, thanks to a chance meeting between them and producer John Hill in a New York City recording studio. Drummer Pete Cohen told Cape Town Magazine that being on the song “change[d] the of our career.”
Waka waka is a slang phrase from Cameroon that means “do it,” and Shakira based elements of the song on the marching chant that sprung from an ‘80s song by Camaroon band Golden Sounds. It’s part of the African and Carribean influence Shakira tried to infuse into the song. “I decided to bring a little bit of my culture too which is attached to Africa with an umbilical cord,” she said in a 2010 interview with YouTube. “I was raised listening to music that was heavily influenced by African music.”
The choice to have her perform was met with protest. It was the first year that the World Cup was ever held in Africa, with South Africa serving as host. The South African artist’s union called for a boycott of the opening concert where Shakira performed, and after much outrage and conversations with FIFA officials, several African artists, including FreshlyGround, were added to the concert’s lineup. Shakira addressed the controversy in an interview, saying, “I thought that in that way we could create a song that’s more emblematic of what the World Cup spirit is — that spirit of tolerance, integration, and that melting pot that South Africa is right now.”
For Shakira, the opportunity presented more than just a global platform — something she’d already earned for herself with smash singles like “Whenever, Wherever” (2001) and “Hips Don’t Lie” (2005). It also gave her the chance to partner her Barefoot Foundation, which is focused on universal education, with FIFA’s One Goal, and bring more educational opportunities to South Africa.
Shakira also started a campaign during the World Cup, with UNICEF, to sell “Waka Waka” t-shirts in Mango stores around the world, with a majority going to fund the South Africa East Observatory School, 60% of whose students were orphaned or displaced by war and 20% of whom had lost a parent to AIDS. The rest of the funds were given to various South African schools through the Barefoot Foundation.
There was one other significant World Cup takeaway for Shakira. On the set for the “Waka Waka” video, she met her partner and the father of her two children, footballer Gerard Pique. She told the Associated Press ahead of an appearance at the 2014 tournament that she would “ never forget that I met the love of my life at the World Cup.”