America Tonight

Stromae, Europe’s millennial maestro, takes on the US

The 30-year-old Belgian musician is hoping to win American audiences, while refusing to be a star

LOS ANGELES — Paul Van Haver isn't entirely comfortable with the role of global music star.

As the performer Stromae, Van Haver has seen his songs reach No. 1 in 19 countries and amass close to half a billion views on YouTube. His sophomore album, “Racine Carrée” (French for “Square Root”), catapulted to the top of the charts in 2013, selling more than 3 million copies worldwide. In France it easily outsold “Random Access Memories,” which features the megahit “Get Lucky,” by Daft Punk, the country’s reigning native sons turned musical superstars. 

And yet when “America Tonight” caught up with him before a concert in Los Angeles earlier this month, Van Haver appeared to relish his relative anonymity in America. He says he wants to connect with his listeners on an emotional level but is terrified that his inevitable fame will prevent him from doing so.

“Being on a stage like this just means that you’re a bit pretentious,” he said. “Not a bit, actually — really pretentious. Who do you think you are to be just one meter above everybody and saying something in the microphone?”

Tall, slender and unassuming, Van Haver is an energetic presence onstage, even as he mocks the idea of his stardom. Having grown up feeling insecure about his physical appearance, he makes silly faces and contorts his body into bizarre poses. He sometimes laughs or cries onstage, depending on the mood, and tells purposely bad jokes, such as “There are two kiwis in the fridge, one says to the other one, ‘Why don't you have any hair on your head?’ The other answers, ‘Because I’m an egg, asshole.’”

He says it’s his way of counteracting the pretension and letting the audience know “we are the same.”

He refers to Stromae as a project separate from himself. At the end of his L.A. show, he makes sure credit is shared. After he introduces the band, he proceeds to thank every member of the production team, from the lighting designer to the wardrobe assistant to his manager’s wife.

As Stromae, an inversion of “maestro,” Van Haver has become the poster boy for multicultural Europe — his mother is Flemish, his father Rwandan — and has turned his biography into a unique persona and sound. It captured the mood in Europe, where he fills major arenas.

‘You understand melancholy. You understand sadness. You understand happiness. You understand, and it’s enough.’

Paul Van Haver

Confined to far smaller venues here, Van Haver, 30, has a heady challenge to win over a U.S. audience that isn’t generally receptive to music not sung in English.

“The English-speaking audience is maybe less used to listen to non-English music, more than any other country, maybe,” he said. “Even today, I don’t understand any lyrics of a [Notorious] B.I.G. track, and it’s not a problem. I’m just dancing on it, and it’s enough to just enjoy and dance and cry.”

Van Haver’s fashion label, Mosaert, mixes English school cuts with Congolese wax prints. It has become his signature look, and he often wears his designs onstage.

Van Haver has no plan to stop recording in French. He doesn’t think he can sound authentic in English, and he likes the challenge of making music that transcends language.

“You understand melancholy. You understand sadness. You understand happiness. You understand, and it’s enough,” he said. “It’s not really important if you don’t get every word. It’s about groove. It’s about music, before the lyrics and the meaning.”

He maintains that his identity is firmly Belgian. But growing up, he says, his skin color was a constant reminder that he was an outsider. That uncertainty is no longer a source of anguish for him; it’s simply the way life is. Like many of his generation in Europe, his identity is informed by not having to pick just one.

“You can say that I am half white and half black,” he said. “But the only community I have is just my family. I have my mother. I have my brothers and my sister. I have my aunt. I have my friends. I think that’s my community.”

Van Haver notes, sadly, that he barely knew his father, whom he met only a few times before he was killed in the Rwandan genocide in 1994.

But his memory lingers in Van Haver’s music. He says the initial version of his recent hit “Papaoutai” (“Papa, Where Are You?”) was about his anger toward his father for being absent during his childhood. But he considered that draft “too personal and not really interesting.” Instead, the final version, he says, asks what makes a good or bad father.

“It’s just that before judging your father — saying that he wasn't really there for you or whatever, those cliché things that we say when we are a teenager — actually wait and see,” he said. “When you will have some children, you will understand that it’s not so easy. Life is not so easy.”

When Van Haver was 16, his mother sent him to a wealthy Jesuit boarding school. He says he learned to integrate by ditching his hip-hop-inspired wardrobe for more formal European clothing. Those influences have stuck with him: His fashion label, Mosaert, mixes English school cuts with Congolese wax prints, which has become his signature look.

His music, similarly, combines different styles, using elements of house, dance, hip-hop, chanson (traditional French songs) and Congolese rumba. (He cites Congolese musicians Franco Luambo Makiadi and Papa Wemba as influences.) Having grown up in Belgium, Van Haver recognizes that he knows Africa only through the prism of Europe and hopes to better understand his African roots. In June he will embark on a concert tour of Africa that will culminate in Rwanda, which he last visited when he was 5 years old. He expects the trip to be deeply meaningful.

“I will meet my family — family that I've never met and family that I met once or twice,” he said. “I can imagine it's going to be a lot of feelings, emotions, to discover again my country.”

Stromae’s message is global — and gender inclusive. In one of his videos, “Tous les Mêmes” (“All the Same”), he assumes an androgynous identity, alternating between male and female personae.

To many, Van Haver has come to personify the changing, multicultural Europe. The prolonged economic crisis in the eurozone has cast a shadow over the region. Fears of a lost generation regularly make headlines. And that generation needs an outlet.

Few songs provide that better than his “Alors On Danse” (“So We Dance”), a banger that’s equal parts danceable and doleful. The beat is up-tempo and hypnotic, while the lyrics are unmistakable melancholia. It’s the song the DJ plays to gently pull you out of your late-night club trance — a “Closing Time” for the rave scene.

And then you tell yourself that it’s over
Because any worse would be death.
When you finally think you’ll get through it,
When there’s none left,
Well, there comes some more.
Is it the music or the problems,
The problems or the music?
It’s gut wrenching, it’s nerve wracking,
And you pray for it to stop.
But it’s your body. It’s not heaven,
So you cover your ears even more.
And then you cry even louder,
But it goes on.
So we sing.

That note — recognizing despair but dancing anyway — has earned Stromae millions of fans in Europe and may help him become one of the few French-language singers to find American fame. He has already gained enthusiastic U.S. fans, including Kanye West, who remixed “Alors On Danse” and made a surprise appearance during one of Stromae’s sets at the Coachella music festival earlier this month.

But unlike Kanye, Stromae has cast himself as a reluctant star. To promote the release of his music video for “Carmen,” a song that questions the dangers of social media, he launched an official Instagram account. But in true Stromae fashion, his selfies are actually illustrations by French director Sylvain Chomet, best known for “The Triplets of Belleville,” who also directed the song’s music video. 

In May 2013, Van Haver played with the idea of online voyeurism in a real-life social experiment. Cellphone videos appeared on YouTube showing an apparently intoxicated Van Haver at a busy train station in Brussels, singing and stumbling. The videos went viral along with rumors about his mental state. A week later, he released a music video for “Formidable” (“Wonderful”), featuring hidden-camera footage from the station, including police questioning him, revealing that the experiment was his plan all along.

It was a very Stromae stunt. As a self-proclaimed noncelebrity, Van Haver is winking his way to becoming one of the hottest performers on the world stage.

“I'm just trying to avoid words like ‘stars,’ ‘artists,’ ‘genius.’ Those horrible names — which are compliments, I can understand — are really dangerous,” he said. “It’s not a job to be a star … To compose, to write songs, to sing — OK, that’s a job. But to be a star is just ridiculous.”

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