Who the hell is Stromae? asked Time Out New York magazine last April, in a cover story exploring whether or not “Europe’s hottest, darkest pop star” could take the U.S. by storm. With an American tour (including appearances at SXSW and Coachella) now behind him—plus his “Meltdown” collaboration with Pusha T, Q-Tip and Lorde late last year—millennial music lovers would have to answer yes.
But really: who is Stromae? Born Paul Van Haver in Belgium of Rwandan and Flemish descent, this tall, thin 30-year-old won a slew of European music awards and hipster accolades galore for his sophomore album, 2013’s Racine Carrée (French for Square Root). Beginning his career as an MC named Opsmaestro, Haver soon chopped and screwed the name into Stromae in the French slang tradition of verlan (reversing syllables like pig Latin) and began a whole new career in electronic dance-pop.
Kanye West remixed Stromae’s first single, “Alors On Danse” (“So We Dance”), from his 2009 debut, Cheese. But by then, the track had already dominated the charts of 19 European countries, spawning cover versions and cementing him as an international superstar. Clever videos for crafty, catchy singles like “Papaoutai,” “Formidable” and “Ta Fête” made Stromae one of the Francophone world’s most hot-to-death exports, a 21st century Serge Gainsbourg for diehard American music lovers who can’t even understand French.
Have a look at Stromae’s latest vid-clip “Carmen”—his cover of that famous opera’s most famous song, “L’amour Est un Oiseau Rebelle”—as a biting critique of social media. (Oiseau rebelle means rebellious bird, and speaking of which, you won’t be able to unsee the animated blue Twitter bird chewing up and pooping out the masses in the “Carmen” video.) Have a read, as Stromae meets EBONY in Manhattan’s Republic Records before a local New York City show to talk about his invasion of America. And if at all possible, have an experience of Stromae live on his upcoming tour of the east coast in September. (For dates, see Facebook.com/Stromae.)
EBONY: Do you have any plans to record an album in English?
Stromae: I’m not fighting against that, but I think it’s important to be sincere. And I could be the most sincere just staying in [my] mother language actually. And that’s the reason why I stay composing and writing in French. ’Cause I’m sure that a U.S. citizen, if I try to sing in English, he can feel that I’m not really sincere, there is something wrong. And I’m sure that even in French, they could feel the sincerity more than in English. Maybe in 10 years, if I live here for 10 years or something, and it could come to be my mother language or something, maybe yes.
EBONY: There are many covers of “Formidable.” If you would cover someone else’s song, what would it be?
Stromae: Gotye, “Somebody That I Used to Know.” Or Adele, “Hometown Glory.”
EBONY: Your father was Rwandan. Are there African influences in your music?
Stromae: I think the Congolese music is more important in the African community that Rwandan. You know, Rwanda is not musically really important in Africa. It’s interesting, of course. But Congolese rumba was so huge in Africa that everybody was inspired by it. But my African roots brought me this music. In every African family, parties in Brussels, we used to listen to this kind of music. And salsa music as well. And zouk music as well, which is not from Africa. But it’s so natural to listen to all those kinds of music—you know, zouk, salsa, rumba and so on. It’s so obvious.
And actually, this album Racine Carrée, was a kind of c’était comme le fait de renouer avec la culture, avec mes influences mais quand j’étais beaucoup plus jeune [to reconnect with my influences from when I was much younger], before you’re a teenager, before you decide to choose your own music. Because that was my parents’ music. And you hate that when you are children, but you understand when you grow up.
EBONY: Michael Jackson had such a hold on kids, largely because of his videos. Is it a compliment for children especially to love your music?
Stromae: That’s the same compliment as an old man. Quand tu es soutenu par des gens, tu imagines que ce sont toujours des gens de ton age qui vont te soutenir. C’est pour que c’est encore un plus beau compliment quand tu es soutenu par des plus jeunes et par des plus vieux car c’est plus inattendu en fait. C’est plus surprenant mais pour moi c’est le plus beau des compliment en fait.[When you’re supported by people, you always imagine it’s people your age who will support you. It’s still a compliment when you’re backed by younger and older, but it’s actually unexpected. It’s surprising, but for me it’s in fact the most beautiful compliment.]
I’m not making music for old people or young people. [It’s] for everybody that wants to listen to it. So that’s a beautiful compliment, but yeah. I want to be simple. I think that we try—and we think when we grow up—that we have the truth, because we experience and stuff. But that bullsh*t actually. We have such complicated things in our lives, and children could help us in so many situations, I’m sure. And that’s the reason why I try to have two layers: this kind of simple layer. But life is so simple at the same time.
EBONY: Why did you abandon your hiphop career?
Stromae: It’s an important school for me, hiphop music, and still today. But I had this problem, the meaning problem of hiphop music. In the music that we know in Europe is mostly this kind of bling-bling hiphop, with naked women and limousines and stuff. And even if I was a big fan of the rhythm, the groove, I had a problem with the meaning. So all the time, I was criticizing this style. So my manager said to me, “OK, why are you all the time criticizing the music and talking about only the music? If you are not happy actually, just change.” [laughter]
And he was so true. So I was like, “OK, maybe.” It’s a good inspiration for me, the groove and stuff, but maybe I have to talk about something, real life actually. And he told me like, “Why you don’t try just to explain something about the real life?” And I was like, no, it’s gonna sound cliché. Talk about love, it’s always the same kind of… And actually, I discovered it’s not the way.
C’est pas le sujet qui fait que c’est cliché; c’est ou pas cliché. Mais en fait, c’est la façon dont tu le racontes. Et je me suis rendu compte, et c’est comme ça que “Alors On Danse” est né. C’est que en fait mon manager me disait, “Pourquoi tu parles pas de la vrai vie?” Et finalement, je me suis dit “pourquoi pas?” et finalement ça a fait “Alors On Danse.”[It’s not the subject that’s cliché; it’s cliché or not. But in fact, this is the way you’re talking about it, and I’ve realized, that’s how “Alors On Danse” was born. My manager told me, “Why don’t you talk about real life?” And finally I thought “why not?” and finally made it “Alors On Danse.”]
EBONY: What French MCs and albums did you love? Booba?
Stromae: Yeah, Booba. Temps Mort, I’m a fan of this album. The first EP of Sinik [Artiste Triste]. NTM because of my kid brother, because I was too young to listen to this. But I was a fan and I’m still a fan of B.I.G. or Black Robb or G. Dep. I was a big fan of G. Dep!
EBONY: You worked at NRG radio station once. What do you think of the diversity of music that gets played on European radio? Is there Clear Channel syndrome?
Stromae: I don’t know about Clear Channel, but today, you have this feeling that today the radio is more to listen just to some tracks of course, like 50 times a day. And I don’t think it’s cool for certain people, but not for everybody. When I’m in Brussels, I used to listen to FM Brussels, which is a small radio [station] in Brussels. But it’s so interesting to listen, ’cause la programmation it’s like, you can listen to, for example, the Black Eyed Peas, because they are a fan of Black Eyed Peas. It’s not about snobbism, like, “It’s too famous, so we don’t want to play it.” It’s more clever. Just: you’re a fan of, and it’s a good track whatever the success it has, it’s just a good track. And that’s the reason why I listen to this radio.
I can discover something from Brazil which is not really famous at all, but at the same, I can listen to a Rick Ross track, because the groove is just magnifique. I prefer this kind of radio actually. And it’s a pity that sometimes most of the radio are just playing… But I think people discover music on the Internet as well, and there are so many platforms to discover music.
Miles Marshall Lewis is the Arts & Culture Editor of EBONY.com. He’s also the Harlem-based author of Scars of the Soul Are Why Kids Wear Bandages When They Don’t Have Bruises, There’s a Riot Goin’ On and Irrésistible. Follow MML on Twitter and Instagram at @furthermucker, and visit his personal blog, Furthermucker.