This Pop Star Is Selling Out Entire Stadiums in Europe, But You Probably Haven't Heard of Him
Stromae stumbles about a busy gloomy square in Brussels, mumbling and shouting about his broken heart. It's hard to miss the 6-foot 5-inch black Belgian who's maybe 150 pounds and currently soaking wet. For one, he's 6 foot 5 inches, black and Belgian. Second, he's sold more than eight million albums and swept the Victoires de la Musique, the French equivalent of the Grammys. He's screaming because he's on hidden camera, filming a music video for his wildly successful single "Formidable." Since, the video has been viewed more than 75 million times.
In Europe, Stromae can stand alone in a Belgian square and know that the world is watching. All the Western world, in fact, except the United States.
Son of a Rwandan father, killed in the Tutsi genocide, and a Belgian mother, Stromae (né Paul Van Haver) has been crowned the voice of the dejected youth of Europe. That's another way of saying all the youth in Europe. The Eurozone crisis that began in 2009 hit young adults throughout the continent the hardest, with unemployment as high as 50% in some countries. In Spain, more than half of young adults under 25 were jobless in 2012. The country found itself in deep recession during the Eurozone crisis and lost more than 5 million jobs over the next few years. Austere governing resulted in frustrations that became violent protests in places like Belgium, Spain and Greece. And through it all, Stromae's voice began to rise powerfully above the noise.
Stromae unflinchingly criticizes the economic landscape, gender politics and race relations of Europe with ridiculously catchy pop music. Millions of young adults cram the dance floor singing along to his call to arms. On his debut track, "Alors On Danse," he sings, "When we say family, we say grief, because misfortune never comes alone / When we say crisis / we talk about the world, famine and then Third World / When we say tiredness / we talk about waking up still deaf from sleepless night / So we just go out to forget all our problems."
Like a man standing ominously drunk in the middle of an abandoned square, Stromae doesn't have to shout to bring about this sort of revolution. His lyrics are frequently explicitly political, but his mere presence is revolutionary. His politics are grounded in multi-layered identity. That's partially racial: You can hear the cultural clash of Europe in his mix of white club culture, hip-hop and African musical influences. But he's also a strikingly honest representative of gender fluidity.
In his famous "Tous Les Meme" (all the same) video, he dons cute flipped curls, a pearl earring and light makeup on the left side of his face, while the right remains untouched, slim and chiseled. The song is a duet between his female and male side. The characters have intersecting storylines about hetero relationship clichés. During the dance breaks, he gracefully alternates between man and woman.
But he's as elusive as he is iconoclastic. He isn't a self-proclaimed advocate for the LGBTQ community, but his willingness to be playful about his own androgynous beauty as a black pop artist is revolutionary in itself. At the most, it creates a sense of ally-ship, and he shows he isn't squeamish about gender queerness and identity. His unspoken boldness is why young people of all identities flock towards him.
That's why these videos total almost a quarter billion views. Because Stromae has captured the zeitgeist of European — and global — dissatisfaction. But like great protest singers before him, he refuses all political mantles. In an interview for his cover story with Time Out, he completely disregarded his revolutionary status: "Before music there was just art, and actually art is just bullshit. It's so useless, you know? And next to a father, next to a baker, next to necessary jobs, you see that art isn't really a necessity. That was a big lesson for me."
While the utility of art is debatable, Stromae's influence is not. He may be reluctant to be the mouthpiece of a generation, but he is the maestro of a massive dispirited chorus.
In one of his most successful videos — a collaboration with the Red Devils, the Belgian national football team — Stromae harrasses the players with his grand vision for a World Cup anthem. He pitches them an idea for the music video. It's a joke, but it has Stromae's anarchic glee coursing through it. Like anything he does, it's destabilizing and impossible to ignore. It looks like entertainment, but it feels like revolution. He corners the team and forces them to listen as he pitches:
"The idea is a kind of sport where reality is mixed up with football," he explains. "We're in a football stadium. It looks like a totally regular football pitch ... [But] basically, it's a huge maze. [The team Captain] runs out of the stadium, and the maze starts up again. In fact, the world is just one huge maze. But of course, no one knows that — only him."