With his tour of sub-Saharan Africa on the horizon, here’s a translation of selections from an interview Stromae did a year ago for Jeune Afrique (Young Africa). Jeune Afrique is a weekly French-language newsmagazine published in Paris that covers current events on the continent of Africa. Since he’s speaking in French here, Stromae can go deeper than he has in the typical recent American interview. “Rwanda, racism, African tour…the extraterrestrial from ‘Papaoutai’ expresses himself for the first time on the intimate part that links him to the continent,” writes the interviewer. Read the complete original interview in French here.
The interview was conducted on May 14, 2014 in Karlsruhe, Germany, on the sidelines of a concert. The interviewer expected to be received in the lounge of a luxury hotel. Instead, he was impressed with Stromae’s humbleness when he found him seated on a bench, waiting at a cafeteria table.
Jeune Afrique: What should I call you?
Paul Van Haver: I have a stage name, Stromae, and a name for real life, Paul Van Haver. In this interview with Jeune Afrique, which I sometimes read, and whose importance I know, I prefer that you call me Paul.
The concerts that you will give in a few days in Algiers and Rabat are expected. But you are even bigger in sub-Saharan Africa, where you’re considered as a star and a sort of prodigal son. And where your fans are desperate to see you…
I know this expectation, it makes me a little scared. How will I experience this shock that will also be a confrontation with a part of myself? I have learned to be wary, almost instinctively, of the image that the Western media pushes of Africa. At the same time, with great humility, I know that I still have everything to learn. I remember a trip to Abidjan a year ago to meet some of the musicians for my album Racine Carrée. I got off the plane thinking I was going to find a postcard with huts and palm trees and I found myself nose-to-nose with the buildings of the Plateau, this mini-Manhattan. I said to myself, Paul, you’re still so far off, come out of your lair. Another Africa exists, which is neither miserable nor pitiful.
So, this tour…
I’m preparing it, of course, for 2015. I’ll go to Dakar, Abidjan, Yaounde, Kinshasa, Johannesburg. And Kigali. How could I not go to Kigali?
Your hit “Papaoutai” generated many parodies on the Web, including the devastating “Boutefoutai” (the video parody criticizes the ill and often absent Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika – Stromaeometre), viewed by tens of thousands of Algerians. Does that bother you?
No. Satire does not bother me, by definition. And it’s good for a politician, wherever he’s located, to be questioned.
You speak little of the intimate and heartbreaking story that binds you to Rwanda. Why?
Out of a sense of propriety. I get this from my Belgian mother, my “madre,” the one who raised me.
In the beginning, there is also, however, a father. Rwandan. Tutsi. Architect.
Yes. He met my mother during his studies in Belgium: a love story that ended badly, an ordinary story. My brothers and I were born of this union. And then my father decided to go back to Kigali, without having acknowledged us. I didn’t see him often, but I have clear memories of him, images too. It’s crazy how much I look like him, a real photocopy.
The genocide occurred in April 1994. You’re 9 years old. When did you learn of the murder of your father?
Later, around 11, 12. I couldn’t stand the mystery of his absence anymore and I decided to lance the boil with a simple question: “So Mom, is he dead?” She answered me simply “Yes.” What? Where? By who? Where was he buried? I don’t know. I still have in memory those heavy nights, painful, tragic, in the Rwandan communities of Belgium. Nights on the phone trying to get news of loved ones. What I do know, from one of my Rwandan aunts who I consider my second mom, is that many members of my father’s side of my family disappeared during the genocide.
What is genocide, for you?
An atrocious lesson about humanity and an atrocious lesson in the excesses of sectarianism. Let me be clear. You just specified that my father was a Tutsi. If you had asked me the question: “Are you a Hutu or Tutsi,” I would not have answered you and, at the risk of being rude, I would have put an end to this interview. That is the question that the killers asked at the barricades.
Why have you not tried find out what happened to your father? Why have you never been to Rwanda?
I still wasn’t feeling legitimate for this trip. I suffered from the absence of my father, I didn’t suffer from genocide. I know that the transposition from one to the other, the contextualization, will occur only in that place, but I’m infinitely less qualified than others to speak of genocide.
Rwanda commemorated on April 7 the 20th anniversary of the genocide of Tutsis. Were you invited?
Indirectly, more or less, yes. I know I would have been welcome. But here’s the thing: this story is personal to me, and when I go in the footsteps of my disappeared father I would like to be alone, above all without being publicized. In the face of this, I’m nobody, I’m not Stromae, just little Paul in search of his dad, just a son who wants to renew dialogue with his dead father. That belongs only to me. I am neither a symbol nor a standard-bearer. When I say all that, it’s also out of respect for the million victims.
How much do you assess your share of Africanism?
Genetically, 50%. Culturally, 40%. Again, it’s a matter of decency. I don’t want to play the African, coming onstage with a “hey, my brothers and sisters,” to fall into “back to the roots” and “I love Africa” clichés, while all my education, my “making of,” I got in Belgium, between the northern districts of Brussels and a Jesuit boarding school in the Ardennes. Musically, it’s true, I’ve never been so close to Africa, but I am no more African than I am European. I am from nowhere.
How do you experience being mixed-race?
As an impossible balance and as an incredible wealth.
What are your African musical influences?
They are many. Papa Wemba, Koffi Olomide, the Zao of “Ancien combattant,” (“Veteran”) which is a great anti-war song, Salif Keita, Cesaria Evora for her haunting voice with waves of rum. I wrote a text on her, in which I say that all roads lead to dignity.
There is, in your compositions, a recurring theme: doubt, indecision, imbalance. “Are you Hutu or Tutsi? Flemish or Walloon? Dangling arm or long arms? You’re white or you’re brown?” you write in “Bâtard.” With this conclusion at the scalpel: “Neither one nor the other, bastard you are, you were and you remain.” Do you see yourself that way, really?
Yes, but I take care of myself. Being mixed-race and especially the absence of a father are there for many people. The fact of not having a paternal referent does not help to make choices. I must get past these permanent dichotomies that are a little schizophrenic, so that I accept them to make them into a strength. Ultimately, I would like to never be certain, to be sure of a single thing, which is that I’m not sure of anything.
However, you control your career, your appearance, your organization to the millimeter…
I am manically fastidious. That’s my way of compensating, to appease the anguish that grips me when I have to decide. You know, I’m not a hero, even if they stick the star label on me. I’m afraid of being wrong, afraid of displeasing, afraid of not living up to the image people have of me.
Do you experience racism?
Obviously, more than a white man (Stomae uses the word “toubab” here, a word used by black Africans to describe white Europeans – Stromaeometre) like yourself, no offense. In the working-class, mixed neighborhood where I spent my childhood, it was only prejudices, which were mitigated by the mixed community. Only later, at the Jesuit boarding school where the students came from affluent backgrounds, it hit me hard. I had a close friend, a confidante, who told me: “You, I like you a lot, it’s weird, because I hate black people.” When I heard that, then other phrases like it but even more violent, I could have reacted like a teenager often does: answer violence with violence. I preferred to think: what weakness, what pain leads to racism? How to combat ignorance? Can we talk with the enemy, as John Paul II did with Mehmet Ali Agca, who attempted to assassinate him?
What is your answer?
It’s yes, of course. The choice isn’t between fighting or dialogue. We must fight through dialogue.
Even with the militants of the National Front and Vlaams Belang?
They are men and women who listen to my songs, sometimes come to my concerts. Why exclude them, refuse to listen to them and not to try to convince them?
Does Stromae have something to say to the youth of Africa?
I am no one’s father, I’m neither a big brave person nor a big revolutionary. My texts carry, with a sense of propriety, opinions, perhaps messages, but don’t expect me to say to Africans “Yes, you can.” (Stromae says the phrase “yes, you can” in English, perhaps as a reference to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign slogan – Stromaeometre) Who am I to dare to say that? I’m not a messiah come to give renewed hope. The youth of Africa – extraordinarily simplistic term – doesn’t need my lessons to believe in itself, let alone my pity.
Paternalism bothers you?
I abhor it. I hate aid that enslaves you and makes you dependent. I do not believe the miserable cliché that the continent is an ocean of corruption. I know that bad governance exists, but I don’t think that it’s up to the West to take care of that. It’s not in a good position for it.
An odd effect. I saw the wax statue project, it’s the character from the “Papaoutai” video. It made me a little scared. At the same time, that makes sense: it’s me and not me.
What is the last book you read?
Belgian Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo offered your last album to Barack Obama a month ago. Has he listened to it?
Apparently, yes, aboard Air Force One. Kanye West has already remixed one of my tracks and I’ll be on tour in the United States and Canada from the end of June. I’ll try to verify the information for you.
Interview by François Soudan for Jeune Afrique
Cover photo credit: Vincent Fournier for Jeune Afrique