Is Music Globalized? The Case Of Stromae
At the extravagant Royal Mansour Hotel in Marrakech, inside a hand-carved silver casing lies the spiritual home of the latest release by the nine-person rapping collective, Wu-Tang Clan, The Wu – Once Upon A Time In Shaolin. Recorded in Staten Island, NY, and produced in Marrakech by Tarik Azzougarh (a.k.a. Cilvaringz), there exists only one copy of the album.
For many, this cross-border collaboration – wrapped in the guise of a marketing ploy – comes as no surprise. After all, cultural consumption has showed little problem crossing borders, driven by a thirst for discovery and made possible by technology.
American pop stars have long enjoyed enormous success abroad, yet there remains a major corollary to this happy globalization story: the relative obscurity of non-English singers in the U.S.
The enormous success of Brussels-based singer Paul Van Haver – better known as Stromae – is a perfect example of a global star without a sizable U.S. audience. As the 6’5” Stromae limbers across stages and computer screens, he casts a shadow over much of Europe and Africa. Because he sings in French, however, the United States is largely still in the dark.
Born to a Rwandan father and Belgian mother, Stromae took his name from “Maestro” in Verlan, an inverted version of French where syllables are rearranged to create new words. And if Verlan is traditionally spoken as a sort of code language and an act of rebellion from social control, Stromae’s lyrics don’t hold back either.
Stromae’s songs channel serious social issues through an electronic sound pieced together like a quilt of hip-hop, salsa and Congolese rumba. Through his words, Stromae plucks at the nerves underlying the collective malaise gripping an ailing Europe, and he resonates equally with the denied opportunities of youth across Francophone Africa.
His music videos have been seen by hundreds of millions and his songs top charts across Europe, enjoying enormous success even in non-Francophone countries like Germany, Netherlands and Israel.
With his massive following, piercing lyrics and on-stage theatrics, Stromae represents one of the clearest challenges to music’s ability to cross borders. But with so much of the global music industry based in the U.S., language still remains a seemingly impassable barrier.
Non-English speaking groups and singers can make it in the States but they need to play by the rules; namely, sing in English. French groups like Phoenix have amassed large followings in the U.S. (in some cases more so than back home) by opting for English. Their provenance takes a back seat to the language they sing in.
Stromae, for his part, paired up with Kanye back in 2010 to remix his first big hit Alors On Dance (“So we dance”), giving permission to American audiences to indulge. As far as future English endeavors, Stromae seems somewhat reserved, recently telling NPR, “I think it’s about a feeling more than a language. And I think that we and every culture in the world has to keep their own language just to bring something else, something different, and show a different vision of the world.”
This week Stromae arrives in U.S. for his first ever New York performance. Moving forward, will Stromae seek to reach out to a broader American audience in English or will he stay true to convictions of building cultural meaning through language? Therein lies the greatest test for the power of linguistic hegemony underpinning the globalization of music.
Article by James Liddell
Photo courtesy of Policymic.com