L’Hebdo, a francophone newsweekly based in Switzerland, has just published an article by their correspondent Sophie Rader, of Los Angeles, that traces Stromae’s ascension in the United States so far. Here’s our translation; we added links and photos. Click here to read the original article in L’Hebdo.
Stromae Brings America to its knees
Saga. The Belgian maestro has just completed a second tour in the western US before his expected return to the East Coast in September. Immersed in the heart of a meteoric rise. Last June, Stromae explodes the screen on the set of NBC’s “Late Night.” He’s just launched a charm offensive from the American press, followed by a series of fall concerts. The United States discovered then, for the first time, the one that the host of the show, Seth Meyers, presented as “the global phenomenon of hip-hop and dance music, straight from Belgium.” The gateway to America opened a little earlier, with Christian Bernhardt, Vice President of The Agency Group. He hears Stromae for the first time with a friend. The businessman devours the album and is immediately hooked. “I listened to everything I found online, I also watched the videos, which literally amazed me. So I directly contacted Clementine Bunel, his producer, in France.” Smiling, he adds,”Two weeks later, I was in Paris to propose a collaboration.” The man, who manages one of the most renowned talent agencies, has flair. He decides to organize the North American tour of the Belgian star, who was still completely unknown in the States at that time. From east to west, north to south, from Boston to San Francisco, by way of Chicago, Stromae lines up his first dates, a dozen, before a predominantly French-speaking audience. Expatriates show up in force and support, with fervor, the Brussels revelation. Even though he’s then virtually unknown in the US, let’s not forget that he’s off to a strong start there with three million copies of Racine Carrée sold. Some of the earliest US fans are at these concerts and will not abandon him. The buzz on the Internet and media coverage will do the rest.
Cathy, 47, of Buffalo, follows all the dates of the tour from the beginning. In Los Angeles two weeks ago, she arrived at Club Nokia for her twenty-fourth concert. The singer inspired her to realize a dream: traveling. Stromae has also been a catalyst for Nyasa, a young 23-year-old Japanese woman living in the City of Angels. As a mentor, he allowed her to reveal her gifts as a drawing artist. “Before, I scribbled to kill time; today, I take out my pencils and watercolors with great joy.” The artist timidly shows her sketchbooks: impressive drawings of Paul Van Haver (Stromae’s real name) in over five hundred different worlds, including that of Magritte, for example.
Cathy, Nyasa, and over a thousand other fans regularly follow the torrent of documentation offered by Stromae USA Fans, “the only American Facebook fan page,” says Paule-Sylvie Yonké, its founder, cheerfully. This American of Cameroonian origins spends hours in New York to fuel this page for insiders. “We are a rallying point for Americans. As part of its show 50 Minutes Inside, TF1 even contacted me to guide them in creating their story.”
Across the country, in Colorado, Amy Van Vranken returns home from the Oakland concert. The American, editor-in-chief of the site stromaeometre.com, didn’t hesitate to travel 2,000 kilometers to attend her idol’s concert. Since she heard him in 2013 on NRJ France, at age 45, she hasn’t stopped making his work more accessible to English speakers.
She has published, notably, a guide to understanding the Racine Carrée album. “When I understood the subtlety of the wordplay in ‘Formidable,’ I needed to understand all the words in his songs. I began a veritable quest to learn more. For a year, I couldn’t think about anything else!”
“Who the hell is Stromae?”
Christian Bernhardt immediately sensed the potential of the Belgian artist. “I had a vision of the relative success he’s experiencing now and I hope, in the future, to lead him to mainstream exposure, but I did not think it would go so fast.” Since the beginning of the American adventure, The Agency Group and Stromae’s team applied an organic outreach strategy without a marketing plan. “We wanted him to be discovered through his fans.” During his second tour, which began in March, the singer started out with remarkable performances at the prestigious South by Southwest in Austin. Before an audience of professionals from the press and music, his takeoff gained its full power. The media coverage commands admiration and social networks explode! That’s when Republic Records, his label, a subsidiary of the major label Universal Music, launched a campaign of posters bearing the image of the maestro with the heading “Who the hell is Stromae?”. Pictures evoking his eccentric and ingenious universe were plastered all over the Texas city. You could also see them two weeks ago in Indio, California, where the talented singer-songwriter was appearing on the stage of the famous Coachella festival.
Among a dozen other independent tour organizers or industry leaders like Live Nation, Elliott Lefko, vice president of Goldenvoice, promotes the Belgian’s concerts in Southern California. Responsible for this musical gathering that attracts 150,000 people over two weekends, he explains: “At Coachella, we welcome more than 135 groups. We have the best artists in the world, and Stromae took part.” He’s also excited about his immense talent. “We immediately agreed to collaborate in his US breakthrough. Everything happened very quickly, which is rare. People love him. He will continue to get bigger and become more and more popular. The difference from others? His naturalness. It’s very difficult for European artists to succeed in the US, but he’s the exception to the rule.”
Journalists won over
The journalist Salima Koroma doesn’t hesitate to call him a genius. She made a video for the Time magazine website. Before filming, Paul apologized for his low level of English. Salima thought him very brave to make himself vulnerable with humility and authenticity. “He’s wonderful, really nice and funny. Like a kid, mischievous. Completely at ease, he truly takes pleasure in everything he does. I admire him because he sings in French, the language he feels comfortable in.”
Guy Trebay also interviewed the Belgian phenomenon, for the New York Times. “I got to know him with ‘Tous les mêmes.’ I was fascinated by the gender ambiguity, but mostly by the striking eccentricity of his movements: a fusion of ‘Thriller’ and an Apache dance. I asked myself what I was watching.” At Rolling Stone magazine, Brittany Spanos expresses the same excitement. “He’s stirring and universal. You connect to him emotionally, it’s easy to identify with him.” According to the New York journalist, Stromae will continue his ascent, and will be filling stadiums soon. “I am very excited to see how far his career will take him.” The craze is general and contagious. Viral, the “stromaesque” phenomenon spreads across the country. According to national public radio NPR, the singer’s lyrics offer a different worldview.
The day after his concert in Los Angeles, the thirty-year-old continued to promote himself as a guest on Jimmy Kimmel Live! The popular show, recorded in Hollywood, welcomes stars who are currently in the news. Impressive, from the west coast perspective! Christian Bernhardt wasn’t mistaken. “My greatest joy,” he confesses, “is to create something unique with this artist who comes from Belgium and sings in French. When we began our collaboration, the people around didn’t think it would work, because of the language difference. I encourage him to continue in French and to remain authentic, because that’s always worked for him!”
Stromae as French teacher
At the concert last October in Los Angeles, Fataneh, a French teacher, exclaimed: “We start each day by listening to Stromae!” And she’s not alone: many teachers are among the first to have spoken of the singer’s talent through the themes touched on in his subtle and searching texts. “If my teacher was not as obsessed with him, the course wouldn’t be much fun,” says Charlie Weiss, a student at La Cañada High School. Merissa Sadler teaches in this high school, near Pasadena: “I’m a little crazy, I make my students laugh with Stromae stagings. He opened my class up to another world and made my classes more exciting through his profound and relevant words. The hardest part is always getting the students interested.” For Fadhima Thiam, mother of Aïda, 13, the songs contain thoughtful messages. Her daughter learned “Papaoutai” in her New York School. “I love that song about his dad. The lyrics are strong. He’s brilliant and very inspiring! In ‘Formidable,’ I feel that he has lost someone he loves. I understand his pain,” the young teen shyly breathes.
Further north, in Minnesota, Kendra Waldauer gives French lessons to beginners at Richfield High School. “He is a master of the French language. Very impressive! A gifted artist, really like no other.” She has long used music to convey her love for our language. First Jacques Brel or Francis Cabrel, today Indila or Christophe Maé. But Stromae is the darling. “First I show them the videos. They talk about what they understood from the images, but also about the emotions felt. Then they fill in the missing text with vocabulary words. Every day at home they listen to the song. With ‘Ta fête,’ we studied the near future tense; with ‘Formidable,’ the imperfect tense. Stromae does all the work for me!”
“Craziness is always waiting for you”
He comes out of the concert at Club Nokia in Los Angeles with his childhood friend. Both proudly wear the Mosaert No. 5 polo shirt and socks, the brand created by Stromae with stylist Coralie Barbier. Residents of Estavayer-le-Lac, Switzerland, Steeve Silva and Marcelo Reis, 23, made their California road trip dream come true thanks to their admiration for the man they affectionately call Paul. As if they spoke of a friend, a brother.
“He remains humble and is accessible, that’s what is beautiful. And that won’t change!” they confide. The two friends have been following Stromae since late 2013. Steeve discovers him first, by attending a concert in Geneva. Touched by the world of the multicolored dandy, he sends Marcelo into an enthusiastic spiral. They attend other concerts, at the Paleo Festival then in Zurich. Steeve, administrator of the stromaeometre official forum, travels alone to Rome to attend another show. “The craziness and energy are always waiting for you.” In Italy, the fan also realizes the international popularity of the brilliant performer.
Steeve and Marcelo finished their two-week trip to the west coast, between San Francisco, Los Angeles and Las Vegas, to experience, once again, the magic of the Belgian genius. “He doesn’t fit neatly into a style of music. He makes Stromae music.” The two French-speaking Swiss are convinced: “He’s going to influence music, like Michael Jackson revolutionized it!”
Cover photo: Stromae at Club Nokia in Los Angeles, April 14, 2015. Photo credit: Richard Dalton for L’Hebdo.