The echoes of power drills and clinking stage metal ring in the background as final preparations resume for Belgian-born pop star Stromae's inaugural stop of the African leg of his Racine Carree tour at a remote location near Dakar, Senegal. With less than six hours till show time, the socially conscious multi-talent takes a 20-minute break to chat. Just two weeks prior, the unconventional musician, birth name Paul van Haver, staked his claim on American soil after jaw-dropping performances at his late night television debut on Jimmy Kimmel Live! and standout set at Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival where cultural icon Kanye West surprised the international star for their remix collaboration of "Alors on Danse." Or as Stromae calls it: "A really really good souvenir for all the members of the team." The multifarious artist identifies with West's artistic and personal voyage to uncover truth, even in the piercing face of public adversity. "I admire the fact that he has no barriers. Especially no barriers with the community in general," he declares. "That was the most important thing I was inspired by some years ago. I agree with him completely. There is no community- just your family and a lot of influences, that's it. It's important to have that in your music and your life."
Born to a Flemish mother and Rwandan father, who was killed during the country's tragic 1994 genocide, Paul grew up with four siblings in a single parent household outside of Brussels, Belgium where, thanks to his mom's encouragement, he was prompted to study percussion. With school clearly not his primary passion, Stromae's formative teen years saw him grow his love for the arts while also developing a mental disconnect with those around him, and more importantly, himself. "Since I was a teenager it was important for me to wear what I wanted to wear," divulges Stromae of his early experiences feeling like an outsider. "I was wearing larger, more baggy stuff back then in more of the hip hop style. I thought maybe I was too skinny to wear this so that's why I prefer to wear something skinnier now closer to my body. I look really ridiculous in large pants." His humor a pained artist's defense mechanism.
C'EST LA VIE
The deeply rooted issues he conveys through his music are in some form or another reflective of his life experiences or of the world that surrounds him. Music connects him to that spiritual journey. Stromae's bizarrely intelligent music videos for tracks "ta fete", "Papatouai" and "Tous Les Memes" depict morose issues like fathers physically or psychologically abusing and abandoning their families and social identity construction. "I talked with a friend of mine about this the other day and he told me to create music that is good but to be able to tell a story and explain what you think and your convictions- that's what's important to do," he notes. "It's possible to still entertain even with songs that aren't happy. I think life is not just black or white, it's something more melancholic and complicated."
His eerily captivating cartoon music video for "Carmen," the most recent single off his multi-platinum selling 2013 album Racine Carree, opens a dialogue about the Millennial generation's state of conscience becoming afflicted by social media consumption. A small blue bird signifying Twitter's mascot grows into a gluttonous beast the protagonist subconsciously feeds. So what is an artist with over 10 million social followers trying to convey? "Social media can be dangerous but we're not saying that's what it is either," affirms Stromae. "That's the message I wanted to get across- I'm not judging and pointing the finger at social media, I'm pointing out our behavior and obsession with social media. I think that we are dangerous to us, we can be dangerous to ourselves. That's the story I wanted to tell- Twitter, Facebook, whatever it is isn't bad but it's what we want to do with it and what we want to tell. I think the thing that is dangerous is the fake sincerity that we are trying to tell on those social sites and that's not real life. It has to stay in our minds."
Much of Stromae's musical influence comes from a mixture of American hip hop, French pop, African rhythm and Congolese rumba- the special attraction to his African roots lingering since childhood, as if a means to continue discovering what his father couldn't show him. Legendary Cape Verde artist Cesaria Evora, who he mentions as only one of two bucket list collaborations (the other being Adele), left an indelible imprint on the topical significance behind his artistry. He even penned a song in her memory titled "Ave Cesaria" honoring the deceased "Barefoot Diva", nicknamed for often performing shoeless. Although much older, her story was similar: father died when she was young, six siblings and also inclined to express herself musically as a teenager. "That was a dream of mine to sing with her," Paul somberly expresses.
HOW TO MAKE IT IN AMERICA
After striking fame with global audiences on his breakout Eurodance single "Alors on Danse" in 2009, later remixed and made even more famous to American audiences by Kanye, the revolutionary singer-rapper-dancer has developed legions of devout fan bases in Europe and Africa with his eyes set next on America. That pilgrimage coming in the form of a highly publicized fall tour across the United States taking him to prestigious venues such as DC's Echo Stage and New York City's Madison Square Garden- a career make or break of sorts. But Stromae isn't a victim of pressure. "The feelings I had when I came to America is the positive approach. In Europe it was more of a negative approach," describes Paul. "In America it's like 'OK, I believe in you, let's try something new.' Of course I'm anxious and stressed sometimes when I go on stage but I feel like because I'm really really shy in my real life when I'm not Stromae, that's why I can perform on stage without any doubt. The moment I'm on stage it's like this is my time. This is not the time to remain shy, you have to be whatever you want to be in that moment. For me it's like therapy because I'm too shy in my real life."
If all goes according to plan for the triple threat during his visually stunning US run, fame is sure to evolve into that vicious consumerist bird but Stromae has drawn a very clear line in the sand for his seemingly double life. The level-headed 30-year-old reveals: "Sometimes it takes a big part of my privacy and sometimes I have to say no and either people understand or they don't. I have to eventually say stop when I'm with my family. Like if I'm with my cousin for his birthday, I'm not the star of the day. I am the cousin of my cousin. Sometimes you have to know when to stay in the shadows." It's hard to imagine after only three decades of living to have a proposed legacy but this is Stromae- a young man whose artistic brilliance is corroborated by his mature intellect, organic selflessness and multi-cultural world view. "One year ago from today I would tell you that it was my job that is most important but today it's more about keeping balance between everything," he confesses. "My family, my friends, hobbies, life. Right now I can't even begin to realize. It is just a dream coming true."
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