On a Sunday chat show called Vivement dimanche, a staple of French television since the late 1990s, Belgian-Rwandan singer Stromae drifts and staggers onstage. He’s performing ‘Formidable’, a song of regret and disappointment – disappointment funnelled into aggression aimed at the happiness and hopes of passers-by. He makes an unnervingly convincing show of drunkenness: the aimlessness punctuated by sudden jerky purpose; the precarious centre of gravity; the grand, wobbling gestures; the slightly rolling eyes.

He stumbles down the stage steps, into the studio audience, and fixes on the two men watching from the sofas: Michel Drucker, the show’s long-time presenter, and his guest, the French-Algerian actor Dany Boon. Zeroing in on them, just as an agitated drunk latches on to whoever swims into view, he addresses the song to them, mocking their optimism, their luck, and reminding them of the truth: that love dies, that life is suffering.

He lunges over to sit down next to Drucker, who shifts slightly in his seat, alarmed. Dany Boon, on the other hand, is mouthing the words of the song, tears in his eyes. Speaking his lessons of pessimism to the men at his side, Stromae then registers the audience – and stands up, defiant but unsteady on his feet. He reproaches them for staring at him like he’s a monkey – Et qu’est-ce que vous avez tous à m’regarder comme un singe, bande de macaques vous – ‘you bunch of apes, you’ – and mocks them for what he takes to be their pose of saintliness. He’s distressed, his face contorted, on the verge of tears – his voice a grainy, growling howl. The song ends with a strangulated whoop and a disintegration; he falls back onto the sofa, weeping.

It’s painful to watch. There’s a lull. Stromae composes himself; the audience is on its feet; there’s a standing ovation. Stromae is a huge star in Europe, though he is far less well known in the UK. His music bounces with the insistent drive of house music, but is woven through with French chanson (there are endless comparisons to Jacques Brel in the press), American hip-hop, Cape Verdean morna and Congolese rumba. He is a formidable and unusual dancer; he hints towards breakdancing and body-popping, but doesn’t fully inhabit these; his dancing is more strange and idiosyncratic. It feels informed by the mime tradition of Marcel Marceau – for instance, in the video for ‘Papaoutai’, a song about fathers, Stromae is an eerie, doll-like figure, an immobile, wooden stand-in for a real-life, flesh-and-blood father. A young boy dances inventively, in frustration, in front of this ersatz father, and eventually, in resignation, also takes on his rigid, wide-eyed stance. When performing the song live, Stromae begins in this mannequin pose (sometimes he gets carried onstage in this stance), later moving into his jerky yet controlled, warped robotic dancing – with grimaces, uncomfortable contortions, a strange painful twisting of himself.

The comparisons to Brel are not wrong. Like Brel’s, Stromae’s songs are often an intoxicating mix of absurdity and tragedy, of play and mourning. And like Brel he uses his entire self – every inch of his body, every joint, muscle, facial expression – to inhabit the song. Tiny details speak volumes. In live versions of ‘Papaoutai’, Stromae ornaments his vocal line, tapping into the intricate wavering of Algerian rai, the music that became a vehicle for political protest in French-colonised Algeria.

Algerian singers Rachid Taha and Khaled have had huge success in Europe, as has Turkish singer Tarkan; his 1997 hit ‘Şımarık’ featured in Claire Denis’s 1999 film Beau Travail, an exploration of the erotics of colonial power, through a depiction of the French Foreign Legion’s presence in Djibouti. Rachid Taha’s music was deeply infused with rai, and chaabi, popular folk music. But he mixed these up with pop and rock, singing in both Arabic and French. With his band Carte de Séjour (‘green card’ or ‘residence permit’), in 1987 he covered legendary French crooner Charles Trenet’s ‘Douce France’, a tribute to a picture-postcard, deeply French France, with its villages and its church bells, its meadows and its rivers. This annoyed a lot of people – what was an Arab doing singing this treasure of Frenchness? – and the song was banned from some radio stations. The band’s records were not sold in shops reluctant to have Arabs as customers. The mingling of genres in the work of these musicians reveals the traces of colonial power, while simultaneously talking back to that power in an assertion of hybridity, of history’s material legacy.

When I was growing up in Brussels, where I was born after my father got a teaching job there in 1976, we would sometimes take the trams – wheezing and whistling through the streets – right out of town to Tervuren, a leafy, grand suburb. The number 81 would trundle from Ixelles where we lived, an area both shabby and elegant, through Montgomery, a monumental, portentous part of the city dominated by the Cinquantenaire, a park built by Leopold II in the 1880s to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the revolutions that led to the creation of Belgium. The museums in the Cinquantenaire were to bring together and exhibit the nation’s knowledge, and were a crucial component of the 1897 International Exposition. Knowledge of Africa was displayed in the Palace of the Colonies, located further out in Tervuren. The palace was designed to exhibit the riches of the Free State of the Congo, as it was then known, despite being in fact the personal property of Leopold II until 1908, after which it became a Belgian colony. A ‘human zoo’ graced the Palace during the Exposition, displaying 267 Congolese people; many became ill and died, and the fate of others is unknown. At Montgomery, we would change over to the 44 tram, would weave through the streets and out of the city, into the Forêt de Soignes – a magical forest of beech and oak trees stretching like long tapered fingers to the sky. Each time the tram reached the forest and penetrated its silky quiet, a spell was cast. We were crossing a threshold, entering a strange new world.

That strange new world was a monument to, and an unintentionally horrifying record of, the colonialist mindset. Meant to provide a window onto the Congo, and an insight into ‘the African’, it instead unwittingly held up a light to the systematic condescension, acquisitiveness and violence of nineteenth-century imperialism. The tram would emerge from the forest and set us down opposite the museum, where a car park positioned itself around a sculpture of an elephant, the emblem of the Africa Belgium colonised so viciously, its trunk raised triumphantly. The elephant is also the iconic image of Belgium’s Côte d’Or chocolate, made from cocoa beans in what is now Ghana, then a British colony called the Gold Coast, by a company founded in the 1880s. In Stromae’s video for ‘Humain à l’eau’ (Person Overboard) – a terse, unforgiving poem of a song about environmentalism, globalisation and race – Stromae dances in a supermarket aisle accompanied by lurid hologram versions of himself; an elephant trumpets periodically.

The main hall of the Congo museum, housed in an imposing neoclassical structure overlooking a glorious lake and parkland, was graced by a more defeated and mournful, though huge, taxidermied elephant. We spent hours, as kids, lolloping around that creature, marvelling at its huge ears, its dejected trunk, its terrifying testicles. I can still smell the museum: an odour of institutions, of polished floors, of musty display cases and of decay. I knew the rooms by heart; the cases to linger over, the ones to avoid. The stuffed animals were fascinating; the pinned insects horrifying. I skipped past the moths, the spiders, the creatures I almost didn’t dare examine. There were mocked-up humans holding spears. There were countless photos of ‘natives’. There were tired dioramas. There was a great deal to feel uncomfortable about. I remember my mother saying: ‘It’s stuck in time; it’s a museum of a museum.’

Visiting it was to observe colonialism set in stone, embalmed, slowly gathering dust. Yet there was not much at stake for us, for a white family visiting on a day from the city, living a life among the bricks and mortar that were the riches of atrocity. It was not I who was being humiliated by the museum’s images, its objects, its very rationale. Eventually, some recognition of this – of the fossilised museum’s fundamental partiality – filtered through, and in 2013 it closed for several years, undergoing a substantial reorganisation in the knowledge, finally, that it could no longer fail to critique the colonialism that was once its raison d’être.

In the sparse music of ‘Humain à l’eau’, Stromae speaks in a sort of pidgin French – the kind that French speakers sometimes use when imitating Africans: unconjugated verbs, the language stripped down to its bare, unelaborated components. You no understand; me explain – that sort of thing. This naive Afro-French speak is a familiar feature from European caricatures of Africa, not least in the famous Tintin books of cartoonist Hergé – a staple of Belgian childhoods. Also peppered into the iconography of Stromae’s act (which is a highly polished, thought-through aesthetic) are the two gormless, neurotic detectives of the Tintin series, Dupont et Dupond (Thomson and Thompson). The two musicians behind Stromae in his live performances wear bowler hats and an identical get-up – half smart, half boyish – that cannot fail to trigger associations with the lovable fools in the comic books. Stromae plays with a sense of himself as a cartoon character, a cardboard cut-out standing in for the immobile, absent father in ‘Papaoutai’. His own Rwandan father was killed in the Tutsi genocide in 1994.

On Vivement dimanche, the host Drucker, moved by Stromae’s performance, says to him: ‘I’ve been doing this job for fifty years – and I’ve never experienced that, I’ve never experienced a moment like that.’ He doesn’t elaborate; what is it that he’s never experienced? Stromae has enjoyed huge praise in Belgium and beyond, and has also endured some formidable projections, by virtue of his history, his skin and his act. He became an emblem of a Europe that would refuse austerity’s sectarian hardening; his first big hit, ‘Alors on danse’, which came out hard on the heels of the 2008 global recession, was a melancholy celebration of music and dance as a retreat from the grinding cycle of unfulfilling work and crippling debt. In his stage shows, Stromae addresses audiences in Belgium – a country which, for all its associations in the English mind with federalism, is painfully, dysfunctionally split along factional lines of language, religion and politics – in both French and Flemish. That this simple gesture is worth noting reveals how deep the linguistic fissures go. Journalists were keen to claim him as their own, a Belgian ‘melting pot’ encapsulating ‘everything of our era’. He became, for a while, a container for all of Belgium’s confusion about race and nation; a symbol of the virtues of multiplicity, connection and mixedness against the rise of far-right nationalism in Europe. Commentators, in their exaltation of him, also at times indulged in a fetishisation of his features, of this ‘beautiful hybrid’. And yet he looks like the kind of young man that the Belgian police have routinely harassed, the kind that shopkeepers would casually insult to white customers like me.

One can sense, in the adulation of him, the praise upon praise upon praise, a confused mix of feelings. There is a pride about him – and yet pride is often about the person feeling the pride; commentators are implicitly lauding themselves for embracing their mixed progeny. There is also a sense of relief and wonder that a young man, raised by a single mother, with a murdered father, in a riven country beleaguered by its own racism, could rise above the violence or vindictiveness that all this might have engendered. White admiration for him – for his art, for his nuance in the face of political questions – sits troublingly close to a worrying congratulation of him for having turned out so well; for having surprised the gatekeepers. A white audience which praises him, which is tearful as he performs for it, is moved for good reasons – he really is remarkable – but also for dubious ones. Stromae confounds the audience’s low expectations of him, an audience that is moved by his reaching the high standards of a culture imagined as white. Stromae, for his part, has in the last few years taken a step back from performing.

I went back to the museum when it reopened to fanfare and scrutiny in December 2018 – its name now the Royal Museum of Central Africa (known locally as AfricaMuseum). A sleek glass building had been constructed to the side of the main neoclassical edifice, within the imposing grounds. This new structure, shimmering and atmospheric, sat atop elegant, minimalist concrete conference and event spaces, deep in the ground. It was linked to the original building by a tunnel, in which one extended stretch was starkly dominated by a pirogue, the long canoe I remembered from my childhood hours in the museum.

At the press conference, the museum’s enduring director, Guido Gryseels, spoke of the museum’s need to reckon with the past. Journalists asked difficult questions: how exactly has the museum been decolonised? Why not a change of directorship? Why so late, this reckoning?

Tom McCarthy | On Europe
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