Stromae, a Belgian Success Story in America

A few months ago, after performing 27 dates in the United States, Canada, France, and Belgium, Stromae suddenly called off his international tour due to “health problems.” In the wake of this surprise decision, a documentary now available on TV5MONDEplus looks back at the “fabulous destiny” of Paul van Haver, the Belgian kid who became a French chanson sensation. We spoke with producer Philippe Henry and journalist Thierry Coljon, a music critic at Le Soir and the author of several books about the artist.
© Michael Ferire

France-Amérique: The question is on everyone’s lips. How is Stromae since his burnout?

Thierry Coljon: They say he’s okay, but I don’t think we’ll be seeing him on stage anytime soon. He has been spotted at restaurants in Brussels and on the Belgian coast, and has even accepted selfies with store clerks. So, apparently, he’s fine. His health problems began in 2015, at the end of the Racine carrée tour. He was on his knees. He later said it had been more serious than he thought, that he had relapsed and even spent time at the hospital. When I saw him again in 2022, for the release of Multitude, he seemed to be doing very well. I never imagined that the sickness inside him would come back. I’m not going to say what it is because I’m not his doctor and he’s never spoken about it publicly. We can only guess. He’s the king of surprises, and more than capable of spontaneously revealing a video or a new track. But when it comes to his health, he’s a closed book.

What inspired this new documentary, Le fabuleux destin de Stromae?

Philippe Henry: I had already produced Qui es-tu Stromae ? in 2015, which closed out what had been Stromae’s wildest year. I sent a crew to Rwanda to film his climactic concert. We recorded his press conference, the schoolchildren in Kigali singing along to his songs, and the incredible moment when he performed “Papaoutai” in front of his family… His father was killed during the genocide and the song had a very special resonance. It was an extraordinary moment. The documentary was the RTL TVI network’s second most-watched show in 2015! In 2022, this time for RTBF, I retraced the history of Stromae and his album Multitude. After he canceled the rest of his tour [last April], the network asked me to update the documentary and include his relapse and his fans’ questions about his health.

In your first novel, in 2016, you described Stromae’s suicide in a Manhattan apartment, three days after a triumphant concert at Madison Square Garden. Was this a morbid work of fiction?

Thierry Coljon: That was an unfortunate case of Belgian humor! In fact, publishers have long been asking me for an American-style biography including interviews with him, his close friends, and collaborators. But Stromae has never agreed to it. He told me: “Of everyone in the media, you know me best, but I refuse to have anything like that published while I’m alive.” So I took him at his word, and my book became a novel inspired by the American tour I attended. My latest book about him, Stromae : Les dessous d’un phénomène (2023), is not a biography, either. Instead, it offers an analysis of his lyrics, his success, and his place in the world of Francophone and particularly Belgian music.

It has often been said that Stromae has had a “very Belgian” form of success. What do you think that means?

Philippe Henry: Like Brussels, the city where he grew up, Stromae is at the crossroads of all cultures and influences. There’s Africa in him, but also Jacques Brel, Buena Vista Social Club, Cesária Evora, and more. He also has a very Belgian sense of self-deprecation.

Thierry Coljon: Belgian artists understand that, to succeed in France and make it internationally, you have to stand out from the crowd. And they don’t think twice about it. Jacques Brel once sang that he was “handsome and dumb all at once,” while Annie Cordy makes fun of herself by dressing up. I can’t imagine Mylène Farmer or Céline Dion doing the same thing anytime soon! Belgium is so tiny compared to France that our artists can’t show off. So they do other things. Stromae was the first to mix the rap, electro, and chanson genres in such an original way. Listen again to “Alors on danse” and you’ll see. Then he made his comeback with Multitude, an album of world music at a time when nobody was doing that anymore. And it worked!

How do you explain the global success of this approach, particularly in the United States?

Thierry Coljon: Stromae is convinced that you can be a global success while singing in French, and he’s an intriguing character. Late-night shows love him. He was invited to the 2022 Met Gala by Cartier and arrived in an outfit of his own design! He’s different from the artists that the Francophone world usually sends across the Atlantic. When Patrick Bruel performs in the U.S., it’s in a few small clubs for a French audience. Stromae is a true American success – mainly in big venues and online. None of his albums made Billboard’s Top 200, but he sells out – or almost – wherever he goes. More than 20,000 people came to see him in New York City in 2015! Outside Madison Square Garden, I interviewed several Black teenagers who didn’t speak a word of French, but who loved translating his lyrics on Google! They all knew what he was talking about. In fact, they identified with this young Black singer who had come to talk to them about roots and gender – subjects that resonate with Americans. Madonna, Kanye West,, and the Coachella festival have also contributed to his success in the United States.

Philippe Henry: Today, Stromae is a major reference for many artists. And they’re not wrong! Aside from his songs, Stromae embodies a global aesthetic. Each of his shows and music videos, like the one for “Quand c’est ?,” co-directed by his brother Luc, is a comprehensive work of art. Whether fashion, videography, dancers, or even robots, nothing is left to chance. It’s meticulous, universal, and intergenerational, from A to Z. Without realizing it, we find ourselves dancing to music that is extremely serious, which looks critically at our society, social media, relationships, and our indifference to the world’s misfortunes. It’s anything but superficial.

Le fabuleux destin de Stromae
is currently available on TV5MONDEplus.