Paul Van Haver — the son of a Belgian mother and a Rwandan father — was raised by his mother in a French-speaking suburb of Brussels. He rarely saw his father, and he struggled academically. When his mother insisted he take up an instrument, he chose the drums.
Today, Van Haver is known by fans as Stromae. He's a dance music superstar. His beats are played in homes and in dance clubs across Europe, and his viral videos have gotten tens of millions of views online.
On his song Papaoutai and growing up without his father who died in the Rwandan genocide
Actually when I was a teenager, I was maybe a little bit angry. And until before I created the song, I was still a little bit angry, but I decided to have less [anger] about my father, and just decided to say 'OK, I'm already 28, and I think I have to grow up.' Because he's not there anymore, and I think that I'm here, and I have to do my best for the next one, that's all.
On how the viral music video "Formidable" is a reflection of our humanity
We wanted to do this video and we didn't know what we could expect. And it was a big surprise to see that ... we had a policeman, we had three people who were filming me, somebody who was laughing about me, somebody who was trying to help me, somebody who was just ignoring me, and I think that's what we are.
On his voice as a songwriter
I'm just like a photographer, or a director. Of course, I have an opinion, but I don't think my opinion, or what I want to say ... is so obvious 'cause that's not my job. My job is just to give a point of view, not more than that.
On singing in French
I think it's about a feeling more than a language. And I think that we and every culture in the world has to keep their own language just to bring something else, something different, and show a different vision of the world.
Tell Me More is observing Black History Month by speaking to voices with roots in Africa who are making an impact around the world as part of a global diaspora.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This February we are honoring Black History Month by going global. We're hearing from exciting voices with roots somewhere in Africa, but who are citizens of the world - people who are making an impact as part of the global diaspora. Today, we meet one of the biggest names in dance music in Europe. Paul Van Haver was born and raised in his mother's native Belgium speaking French. His father, whom he saw rarely, growing up, was from Rwanda. Now the bare-bones of the story are that he was not an avid student but his mother insisted he choose an instrument, and chose the drums, which would seem to have absolutely nothing to do with how it is that Paul Van Haver has become a major star on the European pop music scene, where he is known as Stromae.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALORS ON DANCE")
MARTIN: And we were able to catch up with him on a brief visit to the U.S. after he attended the Grammys. He's with us now from our studios in Culver City, California. Welcome, thank you so much for coming.
STROMAE: Thank you for your time.
MARTIN: You know, your music has gotten a lot of attention for capturing kind of the mood of the continent. And a lot of the people who've written about your music, one of the reasons they say it really cuts through for people is that it really captures kind of where people are. And I wonder where that voice came from?
STROMAE: Actually I'm just like a photographer or like a director - of course, I have an opinion, but I don't think my opinion or what I want to say or what I want to give is so obvious 'cause that's not my job. My job is just to give a point of view not more than that.
MARTIN: You're like reporting, like reporting.
STROMAE: That's it.
MARTIN: You know how they used to say that rap is the CNN of the streets? You remember - did you hear that?
STROMAE: No, but that's true. That's so true, yeah.
MARTIN: Yeah. So that's how you feel? Like, you feel like you're reporting?
STROMAE: Yes, but not about a situation, it's about something that nobody cares about. For example, for "Formidable," this guy that I saw 10 years ago, which was a homeless, he was just asking to my girlfriend and me for coins or something to eat, and actually he was a little bit aggressive. And the problem is that this guy decided to say to us do you think you are beautiful, to my girlfriend and me, really aggressively.
And I wasn't really angry, I was just wondering why this guy decided to say it me at this moment. And later, like, 10 years later, I created the song "Formidable," which is like a mix between this guy, a friend of mine, which was a little bit drunk. And the drunk is not talking about drunk or drugs or stuff like - or marginal or, you know, somebody aggressive or - just sadness and loneliness. That's the meaning of my song actually.
MARTIN: Yeah, let's play a little bit for people who have not yet heard it. This is "Formidable." And I want to talk about the video, but let's play a little bit of it. Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FORMIDABLE")
MARTIN: It seems like a fellow after a bad breakup, and he's kind of reeling after a bad breakup. And there is that line that you mentioned from the encountered you had, where it says, hey, take a look at yourself, think your Mr. Handsome just 'cause you got married, this is but a ring, man, don't get carried away - she'll dump you like they always do - now about the other girl, did you tell her? So it goes on - it seems kind of - but the - a little intense. But the video...
MARTIN: Has had something - what - like 60 million views on YouTube to this point, probably more by now. And it is you kind of stumbling around on the street in Brussels, and you seem like you're drunk, and the cameras are - I think they're hidden, they seem hidden - are filming the encounters that various people have with you. And some people seem to know you, like they're taking your picture...
STROMAE: Yes, it is.
MARTIN: Some people try to help you...
MARTIN: And the police come at one point, and they seem kind of nice. Was this all a put on? You were pretending to be drunk, right? Just to see peoples' reactions, correct?
MARTIN: So how did that idea come about? It's very really interesting.
STROMAE: This kind of video - like, real videos in the street - are maybe more interesting for people then when I'm trying to work on, you know, real creative works. And I was a little bit sad to know that, but actually we are like that - I'm like that too, I'm human. So I decided to...
MARTIN: So the idea of sort of catching a star, a celebrity like yourself, drunk and in the street was kind of more entertaining for people - even though you weren't drunk, just to clarify...
MARTIN: ...Was more entertaining than actually watching you film like a performed piece?
MARTIN: How do people feel now that they know that it was really a performance, it was a performance? So are they OK with it or...
STROMAE: Actually I think that people were surprised. The only message is only that this video clip is a mirror of us. That's all.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FORMIDABLE")
STROMAE: We wanted to do this video and we didn't know what we could expect. And it was a big surprise to see that, yeah, we had, like, a policeman, we had three people who were, like, filming at me, somebody who was laughing about me, somebody who was trying to help me, somebody who was just ignoring me - and I think that's what we are.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FORMIDABLE")
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we are speaking with Stromae. He's become one of the biggest names in dance music in Europe. And we were actually able to catch up with him on a visit to the U.S. There's another song that I really want to talk with you about, and it's "Papaoutai."
STROMAE: Yes it is.
MARTIN: And I just want to play a little bit and then I'll ask you to translate a little bit. Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "PAPAOUTAI")
MARTIN: And, you know, the video is devastating, if you don't mind my saying. As a mother it is devastated because it's a little boy who's trying to get his father to react. And the father is kind of like a mannequin, so he's there but not there. And the boy's going through all these - trying to get him to play soccer and kind of engage with him and he can't, of course, because his mannequin. The lyrics - do you want to translate? Do you want to translate a little bit for us, from what we just heard?
STROMAE: I'm just trying to ask what's our father's job. And that's the question. And I don't have the answer actually. Of course, my personal life is that I didn't really know my father. I met him, like, sometimes and he died in the Rwandan genocide. So that's why I was educated by my mother only. And, of course, it's a question that I have, but it's not because I didn't grow up with my father that I have this kind of question, it's just because I'm a man. The question is what's a good father, what's a father, what's a bad father? And actually the answer is we're just trying to do our best.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PAPAOUTAI")
MARTIN: The chorus is where are you, papa, where are you?
STROMAE: Yes, that's it.
MARTIN: And one of the lyrics that I think really struck me is the, you know, come on, tell us who does, everyone knows how babies are made, but no one knows how fathers are made, Mr. Know-it-all - it's in our blood, that's it. And - it's, like I said, it's - how did your mother feel about it? If you don't mind my asking.
STROMAE: Actually, she was touched by the song, of course, because I'm his son. But she loved the song, yeah, she loved the song. She's a fan. I think she's my first fan.
MARTIN: Well, she's your mother, of course. You played the mannequin, just for people who haven't seen it yet.
STROMAE: Yes, yeah...
MARTIN: You play the mannequin - and quite a handsome one, if you don't mind my saying.
STROMAE: This kind of image of the father is beautiful because that's what we want of a father and that's what we don't want of a father. It's so paradoxal, of course, but I think we are paradoxal when we are children or teenagers. And actually that's the question that we ask always, all the time, to our father.
MARTIN: Did you ever ask him? Did you ever, before - you mentioned that, you know, your father was killed in the Rwandan genocide - did you ever have the opportunity to ask him why he wasn't more present in your life?
STROMAE: Maybe I asked the question, but I don't remember. He died when I was 9 so I don't have any precision in my souvenir? I'm sorry for my English, but...
MARTIN: No, no it's fine. I understand what you're saying.
STROMAE: You know, actually when I was a teenager, I was maybe a little bit angry. And until before I created the song I was still a little bit angry, but I decided to have less angry about my father and just decided to say, OK, I'm already 28 and I think I have to grow up because he's not there anymore. And I think that I'm and I have to do my best for the next one, that's all.
MARTIN: Well, what is next for you? I mean, as we mentioned, you are a very big star in Europe and, you know, as I said, not just millions - like, tens of millions of YouTube hits that your videos have been viewed, best-selling albums in, mainly, but not exclusively, French-speaking countries. I mean, in - you know, in France and Belgium, but also in, you know, the Netherlands and Israel, interestingly. So...
MARTIN: And Germany, yeah, as one would imagine. And so what's next for you? Are you hoping to record in English? Are you hoping to, you know, cross the pond and do something in the U.S.?
STROMAE: I think I can come in the U.S. even if I speak French. I hope. That's my big hope actually. So, yeah, just continue to sing in French and to be listened by non-French people.
MARTIN: So is that the goal then? You want to sing in French and let people figure it out? Is that the plan? Just deal with it, right?
STROMAE: I think it's about the feeling more than a language. And I think that we and every culture in the world has to keep their own language just to bring something else. something different and show a different vision of the world actually. And that's why I'm trying to keep my language.
MARTIN: And what about being a man of color? Has that played a role in your career?
STROMAE: What does that mean exactly, man of color?
MARTIN: Man of color?
MARTIN: Interestingly, in this country, we use that to mean people who are not white, basically. That's pretty much it - not white.
STROMAE: OK, color. OK.
MARTIN: That's kind of how we use it.
STROMAE: The thing is - I'm not brown or white, that's the thing, I'm just half-and-half. My father is black - was black - my mother is white. And I don't think it's about color or something, it's just about feelings. And the thing is we - everybody lives exactly the same things. We are all humans, even if you speak Spanish or whatever you speak. That's just - we are humans, and that's really interesting. And I'm sure that we can understand each other even if you don't understand my language.
MARTIN: Paul Van Haver, known as Stromae, is a Belgian singer, songwriter, dancer. And he was kind enough to join us in our studios at NPR West, which is in Culver City, California. Stromae, thank you so much for speaking with us.
STROMAE: Thank you for your inviting me - for votre invitation (ph), pardon me.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALORS ON DANCE")
MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.