Stringbean-skinny, androgynous, and biracial, Paul Van Haver is one of Europe’s biggest music sensations. Known as Stromae, the Belgian-Rwandan artist’s hip-hop-infused dance album Racine Carrée (Square Root) has sold nearly 3 million copies since it was released last year. The explosive lead single “Papaoutai,” about absent fathers (Van Haver’s was killed in the 1994 Rwandan genocide), went to No. 1 in 16 countries and now has 188 million views on YouTube. Hardly a manufactured pop star, Stromae financed his first hit by working at a fast-food restaurant. That cathartic dance-floor banger, “Alors On Danse,” became the most-played French-language single of 2010 and was remixed to new acclaim in the English-speaking world by Kanye West. In the midst of his U.S. tour, Van Haver spoke with Vulture about the alienation of clubbing, his first impressions of the U.S., and how desperate he was for President Obama to listen to his CD.
Is it fair to say that you make kind of depressing dance music? Your song “Alors On Danse” (So We Dance) is considered the anthem of the Euro crisis.
It’s not depressed music. It’s half and half, because life is like that. I just want to be realistic. I want to have not only the good side of life, but the bad side of life. And the both combined is just my music. It’s funny at the same time as it’s sad.
Before you, many people might have believed that deep or serious dance music was an oxymoron. But you’ve created a style of dance music that isn’t just escapism.
Who decided that when you dance you don’t have to think? If you want to think at the same time, it’s your choice! I’m not making music for intelligent people or dumb people. I’m just making music for people. If you want to dance to it, dance, if you want to think about it, think. Or you can think and dance at the same time.
So what are you like when you’re in the club?
It depends on my mood. Most of the time I prefer to just escape, forget my problems. To me, “Alors On Danse” is the definition of clubbing. Because everyone is just trying to forget their problems but actually it’s so sad, clubbing. We try to sell happiness in clubs, but you can’t. Because life is life, and even if you try to hide it, you can read on different faces that they have problems. It’s not possible to plan the moment you will be happy.
When’s the saddest time to be at a club?
When you’re trying to meet somebody and you have nobody by 6 a.m., and you just have to go back home. When you’re jealous, and you’re in a relationship. Or you’re so drunk that you’re so ridiculous and you know it. You know when you have these feelings about the day after, but at the moment you are in the club? So you have the two moods at the same time. You know that you are ridiculous, and you’re trying to hide it, but you can’t. So you just want to cry. There are so many reasons to be sad in the club. [Starts laughing.]
Do you think it’s possible for non-French speakers to fully appreciate your music?
Yes, I think it’s possible. The proof is that we do exactly the same all the time in Europe. We don’t understand any words of English music, but it’s not a problem to understand the feeling, and to love it. I’m sure it’s possible the other way around. Of course, America is different. You’re less used to listening to non-English music than we are to listening to non-French music.
Your lyrics — about alienation, absent fathers, AIDs, discrimination — are pretty deep, though.
I’m surprised to hear that some people think they’re complex lyrics. It’s not complex at all. It’s like, “Formidable, Formidable, Formidable.” (Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful.) “Papaoutai, Papaoutai, Papaoutai.” (Dad, where are you?) It’s not really difficult, you know? But there are different layers. I want to be understood by a child, and at the same time, by an old man. I don’t want my music to be too complicated or philosophical.
President Obama has a CD of yours. How did that happen?
The prime minister of my country gave it to him. So it’s a nice compliment, but I don’t know if he’s had the time to listen to it. It’s funny because we went to see the White House. I screamed, “Obama, did you have the time to listen to my CD?” but nobody answered … Bad joke.
I think he’d enjoy it. He actually has pretty good taste in media. He reads good literature, he watches good cable dramas. He’s friends with Jay Z and Beyoncé.
Really? Well, I don’t have the same aura as Beyoncé and Jay Z. But maybe because we have the same face, that’s a reason he could listen to it. I hope he could love it, but we’ll never know. Of course he’s welcome to come to my concert. President Obama, you’re welcome to come to my concert! And you already have the CD …
Are you wearing your own fashion line, Mosaert, right now?
Yes. The jacket print is an impossible labyrinth. It’s the pattern we designed for the video of “Ta Fête.” It was inspired by M.C. Escher and African wax prints.
Has anything surprised you about the U.S.?
I’m just now discovering the real U.S. In Belgium we know the U.S. culture through the television, but it’s not the truth. It’s interesting to see that Philadelphia is really industrial. I love industrial cities. Everybody hates them, but I think they’re the best places to be creative. The more gritty it is, the more I love it.
Have you explored New York at all?
I went to the Empire State Building, which was not too original, but it was really interesting. I heard that they put my picture on the Wall of Fame. I went to Queens, and it was exciting for me to see the black community in New York. The only black community that I really know is the African community. It’s so different for me to see a black community that speaks English.
I’ve heard that your hometown, Brussels, has a large African population.
It’s a mix between Cameroon, Congo, Rwanda, and every African country. The Moroccan community is really important in Brussels. It’s like 30 percent of the population. You can speak Arabic, French, Flemish, and Congolese words. There are family parties with African music. It was so obvious for me to have this influence in my album.
Have you been to Africa?
I’ve only been to Africa for one month in my life. At the same time, I was raised in Brussels, so how can I say I’m African? The only vision I have about Africa is the vision of Africa through Europe, which is completely changed. Of course I’m African, but I have this European vision. I used to say, “I’m 40 percent African and 60 percent European,” even if genetically I’m half and half.
Outside the French-speaking world, many of the articles about you start in a similar way: “Stromae is the biggest megastar you’ve never heard of.”
I love that title. It’s so funny. I think I’m still anonymous even if the concerts here are sold out. It’s just the beginning. A good beginning, but let’s try to do better and better.