We talked to the popular Belgian artist about singing in French, the Brussels hip-hop scene, and killer penises.
Paul Van Haver is hardly packaged as the poet of a generation. His gawky frame is usually covered in checkered polos and a crisp bowtie. When he’s not feigning inebriation onstage, he's preening like a 1960s ad model. But Paul’s restless, beat-driven music under the name Stromae is authentic to the times. His music takes the ills of post-crisis Europe and resolves them by raising the volume. It’s a style he's dubbed “suicide dance”.
The Belgian hip-hop and electronic artist broke out with 2009’s “Alors On Danse (So We Dance)”. The disillusioned dance hit reached No.1 on the charts in 19 countries, and that was before Kanye West assisted on the remix. Stromae’s latest release, Racine Carree (Square Root) has sold 1.5 million copies in France since its release last August. The album draws upon Stromae’s vast musical interests: Congolese rumba, electronica, rap, salsa and French chanson. But true to form, each song is tinged with cynicism and despair. The album’s chart-topping single “Papaoutai” is about a child grappling with the loss of a father. “Carmen,” culled from George Bizet’s opera, espouses that “love is like Twitter” with its ephemeral smiles and fake intimacy.
Paul's personal identity is as mixed as his music. He was raised in a lower middle-class suburb of Brussels. His Flemish mother, once an avid world traveler, introduced him to the distant cultures of Bolivia, Mali, and Peru. She gave up traveling and worked as a single parent to put Paul through school. The soft-spoken singer told me: “I’m proud to sing in French because it is the language she taught me to speak”. Paul’s father was absent for most of his life because he was killed in the Rwandan genocide in 1994.
Stromae and I both dusted off our language skills, and with plenty of supportive nodding, spoke about Belgian rappers, Angel Haze, and giving Serge Gainsbourg his comeuppance.
Back to 2009, "Alors On Danse (So We Dance)" went platinum in three different countries. Were you surprised the version with Kanye West wasn't as popular as the version that's entirely in French?
The effect of that song was a surprise. It was the first time we knew it was possible to have French song in non-French speaking countries. But America is different because Americans can always understand the words [in their music]. There isn't a lot of French, or non-English popular music there. So for "Alors On Danse" we had to collaborate with somebody in English and had the chance with Kanye West, although we never got to meet. I've never even seen him. But I'm very proud of the collaboration because it was an example of two artists coming together who come from different styles of music but are open to breaking the rules.
Why did you choose to work with Angel Haze on "Papaoutai"?
Her work on Classick was really something. To me, she's the same as Kanye. She's not pretentious about the rules of hip-hop and is open to experimentation. It's just music, you know? No genre of music is better than another, whether it's country, hip-hop, trap, classical, whatever. It's all music. I never got the chance to meet her either, but I really want to. I missed her when she was in Belgium.
"Papaoutai" is pretty untraditional. The subject matter is heavy for a dance song. What interests you about the concept of fatherhood?
Everybody knows how to make babies, but nobody knows how to make a father. That’s what interests me, and that’s question of the song. It’s not only about my story. I think a lot of people want to blame their fathers for not being good enough when they were growing up. I think it can be an excuse for not coming to terms with your own problems. I lost my father in the Rwandan genocide—and of course that was hard— but I don’t know if it was any harder than, say, being the child of divorce, you know what I mean? I didn’t cry for my father, but of course I am really sad to know that I will never meet him in person.
How concerned are you about the French language barrier?
I don’t think that language is important. It's a fact that Anglo-Saxon supremacy impacts other cultures. That is plain and simple. But other artists have shown us proof—like [Edith] Piaf, like Jacques Brel, like Serge Gainsbourg—that language is not the problem. There are artists in Belgium who try to imitate American artists. But it’s like if you’re Belgian pretending to be American, you won’t be better than the American because you aren’t American. You have to do your own stuff. Our power is our culture and, for me, my culture is Belgium, and my language is French. And I don’t want to change that and pretend to be from anywhere else.
People compare you to Jacques Brel. I didn't understand the connection until I heard "Formidable," your second single. It sounds like one his lovelorn ballads.
Thank you, thank you very much. It’s always a big compliment, but it’s difficult for him more than me, because I’m only 28 and I’ve only done two albums. It’s horrible for him, with the amount of work he’s done, to be compared to me.
Have you ever been to the Jacques Brel Museum in Brussels?
No, not yet.
How is that possible? Brussels is tiny!
I did recently have a dream about him, where I was crying and I was hugging him very tightly and I said something like "you understand" (laughs). It's probably because of all these journalists.
When you were younger, you formed a rap group called Suspicion. Was there much of a rap/hip-hop scene in Brussels?
(Laughs) There were 10 of us, I think? If that many. In Belgium, the only people who listen to hip-hop are the rappers themselves, unfortunately. The problem is that they only try to copy American rappers. It's sad because we have so many other influences here, so many styles of music that are part of our natural culture that we don’t take advantage of—salsa, Congolese rumba, African percussion. But instead we imitate American rappers—“bling bling” and stuff like that—and that’s not our reality. It’s nice for one song, but it comes from people, an economy, and a style of life that is not Brussels. I like the music of those rappers, but I don't like the meaning. I try to criticize that kind of extravagance within the same style of music.
Why do you sing from a woman’s perspective, scorned by a man, in "Tous Les Memes"?
In the first verse, she's supposed to sound a little bitchy and nervous, but in the second verse, we understand that the guy she is with might be the one to blame. That is what’s beautiful in a relationship. Love is 'un connard et un conasse' (translation: two assholes). In my own life, it was difficult for me to understand that love requires both people being assholes and then getting over it. It doesn't seem to make sense, but it's the only way you build trust in the other person.
Do you have any regrets in love?
It’s not my time in life for regrets. If in five or ten years I don’t have kids I will regret that. Because at that point I’ll be too old to understand them and get to know them when they’re older.
What was the worst job you ever had?
Honestly, the worst was when I played electronic music for a hip-hop crowd. The song was called “Up Saw Liz", which literally means nothing. The title and chorus imitate the way English people talk.
Now, you always see people giving you the finger, mouthing 'fuck you', that happens all the time. But when I saw this one guy's face, he looked at me as if to say, 'What ... the … fuck … is … up … with … you?' And I just thought, 'That’s it, I’m done. I'm finished.' It was so hard. It was much worse than just a 'fuck you'.
What's up with the song "Moules Frites"? It sounds like a nursery rhyme about Belgian food. Who is Paulo?
(Laughs) Actually, did you understand the second layer of meaning? I’m not talking about mussels and French fries.
I’m talking about AIDS and sexual disease, and stuff like that. When I'm saying "Paulo likes mussels", I mean 'Paulo likes sex'. But, you know, maybe Paulo will die.
It's supposed to be a reversal of the Gainsbourg song “Les Sucettes." I wanted to make fun of how men love sex and say, like, pay attention to your penis, man! It could kill you! (Laughs) My song is a bit more rumba-influenced, but the melody is almost exactly the same. I always thought that Gainsbourg's song was unfair for her.
And you included Belgium's famous cuisine.
Of course! Mussels and fries. That’s all we have in Belgium. And beer and chocolate.
Sarah Grant likes beer and chocolate, but she lives in Brooklyn. She's on Twitter - @SarahGrant
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