Magazine article The New Yorker

Ridiculous

Magazine article The New Yorker

Ridiculous

Article excerpt

RIDICULOUS

The Sunday before last, Paul Van Haver, the Belgian dance-music star who, as Stromae, plays to multitudes in Europe but is largely unknown here, was in a taxi, passing through Times Square on his way to watch a World Cup soccer match between Belgium and Russia. At a red light, one of Van Haver's countrymen, whose fright wig was dyed black, yellow, and red, the colors of the Belgian flag, crossed in front of the cab, and Van Haver--a tall, slender, unassuming twenty-nine-year-old, of half-Rwandan descent, dressed in a pastel-blue cardigan and what he called "grandfather moccasins"--recalled that, two days earlier, midway through his first New York concert, he had jokingly described Belgium as "a really small country just next to France--like, a ridiculous country." From the stage, he had detected a moment of Belgian hurt in the audience, and he now regretted his words. But he added, "We are proud of our ridiculousness. That's what made our Surrealism. Proud and ashamed of everything at the same time. I think that's my definition of Belgium."

Van Haver's father, an architect, returned to Rwanda not long after his son was born, and was killed in the genocide of 1994. Van Haver grew up in Brussels with his mother and four siblings. In 2010, "Alors On Danse," a buoyant song with melancholy lyrics about divorce and debt, was a No. 1 hit in nineteen countries. (When Kanye West remixed it, his rap referred to various luxury goods, and he made the case that he was "way better than the best of all." Van Haver, who drives a Fiat 500, said that while he admires West, this spirit "is totally the opposite of me.")

The taxi dropped him at a sports bar on West Fourth Street; Van Haver joined Belgian friends, ordered a beer, and began to worry that Belgium, although not a tournament favorite, might actually win the World Cup. A peak of joy would be followed by a trough of despair, he said, sketching this national disaster in the air with a long finger. "It won't be good for us."

In Rio, the teams took the field. Van Haver described the wordplay in his song "Ta Fete," which is the official anthem of the Belgian team, and whose wry video includes Vincent Kompany, the team captain, whose family knows Van Haver's family, and whose father was born in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. At a time of rising political discord between Belgium's Dutch-speaking north and French-speaking south, it is sometimes half seriously suggested that this team and Stromae's charm are the only forces holding Belgium together. …

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