“Who the hell is Stromae?” That’s what dozens of posters plastered around Austin asked the hordes in town for SXSW this past spring. To a Belgian, the question is ludicrous; at home Stromae is a megastar. Over the past six years, the 30-year-old Brussels-born maestro—his stage name is a French variation of the term—has gone from struggling rapper to a European sensation swarmed by fans wherever he goes, even as US audiences have lagged behind. Still, on YouTube, his videos have amassed more than half a billion views. None of that mattered to Stromae, though, because in a situation like SXSW he’d rather be treated like just another face in the crowd, another potential next-big-thing among the circus of emerging acts. Some time after the festival, I met him at his label Republic Records’ midtown offices in New York City, and I reminded the tall, lanky singer dressed in his usual pastel-colored sweater and slacks that, despite what the signs said, he had likely been the most famous artist in Austin. Humbly, he countered: “But, actually, Wiz Khalifa was there!”
Stromae’s breakthrough was 2010’s “Alors on Danse,” a dance track that, at the height of global financial crisis, discouraged listeners from trying to escape their problems by just dancing. Though Stromae sings and raps in French, the song invaded clubs stateside in 2010 with the help of an unexpected remix from Kanye West. At the time, Stromae says he put Kanye’s name first on a wish list of collaborators for his label, Mercury Music Group France, to consider, never thinking it a legitimate possibility. Practically overnight, to his surprise, Kanye was on the track, bragging of meals of filet mignon and creatively mispronouncing Ray Bans. For some, a guest verse from Kanye has helped build major buzz in the US (just ask Chief Keef), but it has taken a few years for Stromae to gather steam here; his debut album, 2010’s Cheese, wasn’t even released in the States. But back home in Belgium, the LP hit #1, and his star had only grown by the release of 2013’s Racine Carrée.
That album came with a streak of striking, unconventional videos for his French-language dance sonnets, most recognizably “Formidable,” wherein he pretended to be a disoriented drunk and recorded peoples’ reactions on hidden cameras. Both the video and song were inspired by a homeless man who once accosted Stromae and a friend. “This guy said to me, ‘You could be in this same difficult situation as me, so don’t judge me,’” Stromae remembers. “And that’s the meaning of the song: we could be so alone.”
“Our ambition isn’t just to be big, it’s to be listened to and supported by people.” —Stromae
It’s with music videos that Stromae truly sets himself apart from other artists, either global or domestic. When he was on the cover of Time Out New York last year, above a headline asking the same “Who the hell is Stromae?” question as those SXSW posters, he answered it with his very image: for the cover shot, he appeared as the gender-ambiguous character from his “Tous Les Mêmes” video. In the clip, Stromae plays both the man and woman in a comically toxic relationship by creating a visual illusion with half his face done up in makeup and the other plainly masculine. “It’s my job to be ridiculous,” he says of his provocative visuals. For as long as Stromae can remember, he’s always composed music in-character, telling stories about extreme human behavior through the multiple personalities he incarnates in his videos.
The costumes, choreography, and vaudeville-style performances aside, Stromae’s music isn’t just for show. As with “Alors on Danse,” his songs, while layered with party rhythms rooted in Congolese rumba and “Gypsy Woman,” are also each a serious dissection of societal flaws. One of his most popular tracks, 2013’s “Papaoutai,” finds him debating what good parenting looks like, in a song he wrote to make peace with his own father’s absence. (He was killed in the 1994 Rwandan Genocide). “Like Freud said, you’ll be an adult when you forgive your father,” Stromae tells me. “I thought about him a lot during the composition of this song, and when I have a baby I’m sure I’m gonna miss him.”
His next video might be his most personal yet: For “Quand c’est?” he’ll capture his fear of cancer by dancing alone in a single shot. It’s a setup that’s resonated with American audiences most recently with two other international artists, Sia and Kiesza. Stromae knows that his penchant for theater coupled with a language barrier might be an obstacle in his crossover, but it’s the least of his concern. “Our ambition isn’t just to be big, it’s to be listened to and supported by people,” he says. “And to have the success—if we deserve it, of course.”
Stromae will tour the US this summer and fall
He will play Lollapalooza on August 2nd, kicking off an east coast tour that includes a Madison Square Garden show on October 1st. Full dates and tickets can be found here.