My high school French teacher was an interesting woman. At the time I knew her, she had beaten cancer no fewer than three times, claimed to have a gift in palm reading, and had an almost uncomfortable obsession cats. She only gave her students one rule: No Bleeding. I learned much from Mrs. Gallagher, though I don’t hesitate to admit that most of what I remember learning didn’t have much to do with our French curriculum. I do however recall a specific lesson about francophone music in which she cooed over a catchy club song called “Alors on Danse” by Stromae (Stroh-my, French slang for maestro), an up and coming Belgian artist she just knew would make it big. I would, years later, come to have almost the same obsession with Stromae as Mrs. Gallagher did with her cats.
I forgot about Stromae until the summer of 2013 when I interned and studied in Brussels, Belgium for the summer. I worked for a fashion and lifestyle magazine and once had the assignment of interviewing a young DJ for an article to be published in the next issue. One of my questions for Pierre, said DJ, focused on his favorite artists. Voilà, Stromae was at the top of his list. Remembering the name and the catchy tune my teacher showed my French class, I started asking Pierre about Stromae, and at the end of the interview I had a few song recommendations included in my notes.
So, who is this Stromae? His real name is Paul Van Haver, and is part Rwandan, part Belgian. In 2009 he released his first single “Alors on Danse,” which was soon after remixed by Kanye West. Stromae’s sophomore album, Racine Carée, French for square root, “went platinum eight times in Belgium went platinum eight times in Belgium, held the No. 1 chart spot for several weeks in countries throughout Europe and sold 1.5 million copies in France alone,” according to Time Out Magazine. His song, “Ta Fête,” was the Belgian National Team’s anthem for the 2014 World Cup and was played over and over again at the public match viewings I attended in Brussels this past summer. If you have the time, I also recommend watching this video of Stromae’s quest of having his song selected to be the Red Devil’s anthem. It’s pretty entertaining.
Not only is Stromae a talented performer, but his lyrics are incredibly deep. “Papaoutai,” Belgian slang for “Dad, where are you?” is about his own father who left his family when Stromae was young. He discusses illnesses like alcoholism, AIDS and cancer in a way that somehow still makes the listener want to dance around. He also has a thing for stereotypes. In a live performance of his hit, “Tous Les Memes,” Stromae transformed the left side of his face into that of a woman (quite successfully, if I may). The video for his song “Formidable” was filmed by hidden cameras as he stumbled through the streets of downtown Brussels, apparently drunk and worrying several onlookers. The video now has more than 100 million views on YouTube. Not bad, Stromae.
Slowly, very slowly Stromae is working his way to becoming a household name in the United States. This move was helped when it was announced that he would collaborate with the musician Lorde among others for a track in The Hungergames: Mocking Jay Part I. I can only dream that one day I might see him in concert. Until then, Spotify will have to do.