Viral Virtuoso Stromae Is Exactly What America’s Been Missing

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To the untrained eye, Stromae is an unlikely star. In Coachella’s lavish VIP section, tucked away from the fest’s stoned and costumed attendees, the 30-year-old man born Paul Van Haver sticks out like a sore thumb in the midst of fussy, flashy celebrity hubbub. Stromae—a Belgian-born Rwandan rapper, singer and songwriter with a French tongue—is a slender, towering man with glossy eyes, a neatly side-swept coif and taut bronzed skin over a sharp chin and cheekbones. He comes off as withdrawn at first, but he’s gentle, polite and smiles often. You can tell he’s the shy sort when he’s not elevated on a stage in front of thousands. Instead of donning the blinding jewelry, black-on-black garbs and trendy bowler hats paired with skinny jeans like many of the festival’s performers, he’s outfitted in a collared prep shirt with busy patterns, above-the-knee shorts and canvas loafers, all variations of the same orange hue. None of it screams “famous.”

Even though the trailer is a welcome refuge to Indio Valley’s 90-degree weather outside, he fiddles with the thermostat quietly before asking, “Do you know how to turn the air conditioning off?” When he can’t figure out how to work the dial, he waves a “nevermind” with his hand before plopping down on the couch. Adjusting to the West Coast temperature is the least of his concerns right now. After this interview, he’ll make his Coachella debut in front of thousands. The nerves are definitely there.

While it may be his first time touching down in Indio, Calif., he’s no stranger to performing in the States. Right after he’s done with his two-weekend Coachella duties, he’s scheduled for another big show in L.A. At the Staples Center? we ask. “No! No, no, no. It’s too big,” he replies with a laugh before revealing that it’s at Club Nokia. “Thank you, but no.”

Stromae is modest and humble about his exposure and the breadth of his fan base, but the numbers don’t lie. The YouTube flame ignited in 2010 with the video for his 2010 Cheese single, “Alors on Danse,” which amassed 68 million-plus views and spawned a remix with Kanye West and Gilbere Forte. As of right now, his Racine Carrée album singles “Tous Les Mêmes,” “Formidable,” and “Papaoutai” have all raked in 77 million views, 111 million views and 247 million views, respectively. The new animated video for “Carmen” dropped at the top of April and has over seven million views less than 30 days later.

Aside from the YouTube stats, it’s hard to pin down the sonic derivative of 2013’s Racine Carrée, which boasts songs with traces of folk, African and Caribbean sounds, pop, dance and the drama of Broadway. When it comes to global reach, the LP has been certified 12 times platinum by the Belgian Entertainment Association (BEA) and triple diamond in France by the National Syndicate of Phonographic Publishing (SNEP). All he’s got left to do is win over America.

Stromae was the unforeseen champion of ‘Chella. Watching his live show, you wouldn’t be able to tell that he’s the same shy man from the trailer. Any hint of introvert vanished with the switch of his hips in “Tous Les Mêmes” (he plays both a man and woman in the video) and dancing with a massive digital army in “Ta Fete.” He’s an actor of sorts, able to slip in and out of different characters—a flirtatious woman, a gruff man, a stumbling lush, a militant leader—toying with all these extreme and extravagant beings he claims to be naturally far from. It’s almost as if he slips on a new self before stepping foot on the stage.

The only English came during brief banter between songs, but judging by the roaring screams and applause, the diverse crowd felt and loved the live experience. “It’s not about a language,” he says. “If I do my job, I hope they will understand something.”

Before Stromae tore down the stage at the Mojave tent and a special appearance from Kanye West the second weekend, he tells VIBE of his hip-hop favorites, how music transcends language barriers and why you should pay more attention to Stromae, the artist, than Paul Van Haver, the person.—Stacy-Ann Ellis

VIBE: This year is your first Coachella. Are you nervous to share your gift with people who may have no idea who you are or what you’re saying?
Stromae: Of course I am. I am really nervous, but it’s a good energy. It’s a good stress. It’s going to be nice, I hope. I will try to do my best, and I hope that people will understand something even if it’s in French.

Are you previewing any new music or just oldies from Racine Carrée
No, I’m still promoting my second album. I’m not really composing now for the next one and I’m keeping the special [stuff] for after. But I’m trying some stuff in the lab; some ideas and when I’m in my shower. Just some melodies, but nothing really concrete.

Who would you like to work with on your next project?
Yes, Adele would be nice. Maybe Riff Raff? I don’t know why him. (Laughs) He’s funny and he’s not too serious, which is the most important thing I think. He’s never really serious, actually. He’s making fun of himself all the time and that’s the thing I’m doing as well. That’s the proof that you are a human as everyone is. And Lorde again. It’d be nice to collaborate on a new track. For hip-hop, I’m a huge fan of G. Dep.

How did you become such a G. Dep fan?
I don’t know, just because of “Special Delivery.” For me, that’s a classic. I don’t understand the words, but that’s not a problem. It makes me dance so it’s okay and it’s enough. Unfortunately G. Dep is in jail, but he’s one of my favorite ones.

I want to talk about the new video you put out for “Carmen.” Where did you come up with the idea? Did the Twitter theme stem from a personal experience?
Yeah, that’s the fight we had with my manager because he always wanted me to post some stuff—my meal, where I am, everything. Just those ridiculous things. I don’t want to judge anybody, but I think that’s my privacy and it has to stay my privacy. I just wanted to talk about the danger of loving yourself much more than Twitter or social media. I don’t think [the concept of] loving yourself too much exists since the creation of social media. I think Andy Warhol said that one day everyone will be famous, and he was true because we are exactly in this period. I think that it’s a bit dangerous – and I’m the worst person to talk about it because I’m always on stage, performing and showing my face. I’m trying to focus on my job. I don’t think that being famous is a job. My job is composing, singing, performing, but not being a star. Being a star is not a job and that’s really important for me say. This work is really cool to communicate, but it can be a bit dangerous.

In many of your videos like “Formidable,” “Papaoutai” and “Tous Les Mêmes,” you’re very much a performance artist, playing a live character. Why did you choose to go the animated route with this one?
I didn’t really want to be in front of [the video], maybe because of Europe. A lot of people saw my face and I don’t want them to get bored of my face. That’s my big fear. That’s maybe the reason I did that. At the same time, it was the easiest way to explain this little bird becoming completely dangerous and eating you. We had the chance to work with Sylvain Chomet and a French rapper, who helped me write the scenario. Actually, they wrote it together.

Which rapper?
His name is OrelSan. He’s really, really talented. He has so many ideas and gave me the idea of the blue birds. He gave me this image in the studio when we were writing the song, because he helped me with the songwriting, he said to me, ‘I see a race of a lot of people running on the blue bird.’ I was like that’s so true, that’s the vision of Twitter I have. So I called him two years after and we did the video.

Why did you include President Barack Obama in the video?
I think that’s one of the most famous presidents on Earth and maybe the one who has the most followers. That was the best example. England’s Queen, as well. I put the most famous ones and the most tweeted ones like Justin Bieber, Kanye West and Kim Kardashian. That’s the face of Twitter we have in our minds and it was important to take really important Twitter faces and at the same time, be at the same place to judge nobody. I’m judging you, me, everybody. Just our behavior in general.

How would you say you’ve evolved musically and artistically from your first album to where you are today?
I think I understood how to share music, not to compose alone. It’s important to be alone to find your sincerity and be spontaneous and everything, but at a certain point, you need somebody else to judge your work. Not judge but actually help you to go further. You need everyone and that’s something that I learned during the composition of the second [album]. Because in the first one, I was alone, like “no, I have to compose alone.” That’s just ridiculous. You need people to discover yourself. It’s so important.

How different is it performing in front of American fans versus internationally?
In America, it’s something positive in general. In Europe, the perception and approach is completely negative and when you come to the U.S., the approach is completely positive. That’s the feeling I have, but that’s just the cliché, of course. I think that there is good in both, but the crowd [in America] is usually screaming all the time and really positive like, ‘Okay, go on. We support you,’ even if they maybe don’t like it.

Who’s the last artist you played on your iPod?
I think the last person was Rihanna, “Bitch, Better Have My Money.” I think it’s a good track.

You should do a remix to it.
Yeah, maybe. (Laughs) There are so many good trap remixes, so I maybe need three months to get the good level.

Several artists have remixed your past work like Kanye West, Angel Haze and others. Have you connected with them since?
The last one is Lorde, and we met after she made the track. She’s really interesting and human. It’s not a compliment, it’s a fact. Her team and my team went out, and we just chilled out. She asked me my opinion about a track, about the collaborations, Q-Tip and Haim, and the people she wanted to work with. She had a pretty good sensibility to know who has to be on the track and stuff, so I agreed a lot. She was listening to me and that’s important. I was pretty honored to be listened to by Lorde.

What do you think people should know about Paul the person versus Stromae the artist?
I think you should know more about Stromae than Paul. If you know Stromae then of course you know a part of Paul, because that’s a part of me. I can’t say it’s completely two different persons. I think that they need to know that socially, I’m really shy in real life. When I’m on stage, that’s a job. It’s acting, it’s faking, just making fun of yourself, telling bad jokes—I’m pretty good in this—dancing, just to entertain. I’m really shy and it has to be like this because otherwise, I couldn’t be on the stage, you know. It’s because I’m so shy, I can be on stage, so pretentious, like, ‘Okay, who do you think you are to be on the stage in front of thousands of people?’ I’m a bit crazy, yes. Maybe you have to know that I’m a bit crazy.

Photo Credit: Stacy-Ann Ellis