I first heard the Belgian musician Stromae around 2012 when I was working at the Electric Fetus, a record store in South Minneapolis. The new album at the time was Racine Carrée, which translates from French as Square Root. My manager at the time told us her daughter’s French class had presented a performance piece for the parents at the end of the school year which featured a couple songs from this album, and while I still don’t really know much French (I instead took Japanese in high school), I was drawn to the overall feeling of the album. I bought it at the end of my shift and listened to it for weeks, looking up the translation of the lyrics to understand the language behind the emotions and complexities of his work.
Stromae is a Belgian national of Belgian and Rwandan descent. His father Pierre Rutare was killed during the Rwandan Genocide in 1994, and the subject of his song “Papaoutai” (Dad, Where Are You?) is about the heartbreaking perspective of a child questioning the implications of losing his father, and what the fate of himself and others becoming fathers one day will be.
As someone who works in the human services field, I often think of the resilience theory; it’s not about the nature of adversity that is most important, but how each one of us deals with it. There are seemingly infinite examples of the resiliency theory in art and in music, and I am often drawn to narratives that express one’s own adverse experiences through these mediums. These are common themes in many of his songs.
I found Stromae’s new album “Multitude” on Tidal after one of his songs came up on my “suggested” playlists, and I realized I hadn’t thought about him and his music in depth for ten years now. I hadn’t noticed his absence that other fans and music critics did, and now there has been much to read about his return to music.
Something I found out while reading about his new album is the reason for his absence from the public eye; in 2015, he had taken an anti-malarial drug called Lariam, which caused him deep depression and debilitating panic attacks. In 2018, he began appearing in public more and talked about his experience with suicidal ideations, and the support system he had through his wife Coralie Barbier, who is also his stylist.
After listening to Multiverse the first time last week, I became more curious about the experiences he went through since I first heard Racine Carrée, and because I still don’t know French I wanted to look up the translation of his lyrics.
“Fils de Joie” (Son of Joy) struck me as being painful and heartfelt like Papaoutai before, and so when I saw the English lyrics in the music video for this song, I could see that he was singing from the perspective of a child again. I admire his capacity to connect with others who are often forgotten about, such as the children of sex workers, and to create art through music with those narratives. Perhaps it is because of the tragedies and threats to his own mental health he went through that he is able to empathize with these children, but it cannot be overlooked that he is also incredibly talented musically.
I am looking forward to hearing more of his work in the future, and in the meantime will be reading about his experiences and projects he continues to work on – and will not be waiting 10 years again to do so!