Belgian music star, Stromae

Oh so Belgian

Stromae, who won best male artist at the French music awards over the weekend, is not only the most successful musician in the French-speaking world. He's also the epitome of modern Belgium.

When Paul Van Haver, walks in, boyish, thin and neat in a green and yellow-checked cardigan, yellow shirt and yellow socks you can hardly help thinking of that other Belgian hero - Tintin.

Unlike the comic-book adventurer, though, Van Haver, more commonly known as Stromae, slang for 'maestro,' has a backstory. A tragic one. His Rwandan father abandoned his Belgian mother when he was a baby. And was later killed in the Rwandan genocide. "C'est pas gai," as Belgians are wont to say.

Legendary chanson singer Jacques Brel, with whom Stromae is ceaselessly compared, wasn't one for always looking on the bright side of life either. Indeed, avoiding the emotional crusher of Jacques Brel's songs has long been one of the best reasons not to learn French.

Stromae, like his great Belgian predecessor, pours emotion into his words. "I let Brel into my world," Stromae told DW. "What I like about him is the simplicity of his language. It's not so simple to be simple."

Stromae in Brussels
Stromae during the filming of 'Formidable' in Brusselsnull Benjamin Brolet

When Stromae was getting into music he filled his world with American and French rap and a kind of Belgian electronic music called "New Beat."

In the video of his song "Formidable," watched by 60 million people online so far, Stromae had hidden cameras filming him on a grey morning in Brussels, apparently drunk after a long night out, bothering people on their way to work before being moved on by some gentle police. The rain drizzles, the trams roll by: It's all very Belgian.

Thierry Coljean, music editor of Belgium's biggest French-language newspaper, Le Soir, says Stromae is particularly Belgian because, like Brel, he echoes the country around him.

"Jacques Brel was talking about Belgium, about Brussels," Coljean says. The landscape - or lack of it - and the people with their dreams and their pretentions, their weaknesses and their miseries.

"Most of Brel's songs are really realistic. For Stromae it's the same thing," Coljean adds. "He's talking about cancer, about drunks, about depression. 'Alors on danse' [Stromae's first song] is perhaps the most depressed song with a dance beat!"

A new Belgian identity?

Veteran Belgian sociologist and author Claude Javeau gives another take on Belgium's new star. At his age, Javeau says, he really can't be bothered with Stromae's music. But as a phenomenon, he's fascinating.

Fans celebrate the new Belgian King Philippe in 2013
Stromae is a product of a boom in Belgian nationalismnull Getty Images

"Stromae came up during the wave of Belgian chauvinism last year," says Javeau. "With the new king, a new, glamorous queen and especially the Belgian national soccer team, the so-called Red Devils."

It was surprising, he says, because it was looking as if Belgium was going to disappear altogether, vanishing down the rift between its French and Dutch-speaking halves.

"But then something happened and now we have Stromae," he says. "He looks like a new Belgian, like Obama is a new American and the story's about the same: a white mother, a black father."

"It's a new Belgium, it's multi-ethnic," Javeau continues. "We have to get used to that and surely Stromae helped us to accept it."

Integration through music

Stromae is an interesting case of integration through music. And in his music he is a master of unlikely combinations.

Like in the song "Papaoutai," which translates to 'Where are you, Dad?') and contains the memorable line: "Everyone knows how to make babies, nobody knows how to make fathers."

In the video he plays a sort of blow-up doll or tailor's dummy of a dad that his little kid is trying to play with. The music is an extraordinary combination of electro and the Congolese rumba his parents used to dance to. These mixes are very Belgian, Stromae says.

Stromae album cover
Stromae's second album "Racine Carrée" was released in Augustnull Dati Bendo

"The way we always want to compromise between everything, I think that's really Belgian," the 28-year-old says. "I think I'm really Belgian for that, because I never make choices. That's my problem actually."

"I have crazy, different influences in my songs. I want rap music, I want Congolese rumba, I want salsa, I want dance music, I want hip-hop music, all mixed into one!"

"If it sounds really bad, it sounds really bad but that's my way of creating. We just take things that cannot match in theory and do our best to make it work."

It sounds a bit like Belgium itself.