Thursday, August 6, 2015

Singing Our Selves: Stromae and the Case for Afro-European Music

Something that I've been thinking about a lot lately is how we don't have ways to talk specifically about a distinct Afro-European culture. We don't have (or we haven't recognized) markers for Afro-European identity in the way that we do for things like Afro-Cuban music, African American poetry, and the like. Our understanding of black diasporic cultures tends to come from more well-trodden locales such as the Caribbean and the Americas.

In a really smart piece in the New York Times recently called "Being African in Europe,"Afro-Italian journalist and activist Vittorio Longhi reflected on this dilemma: "In the United States, there has been a comprehensive cultural construction of African-American identity, and a movement that responds when there is injustice or violence. We Euro-Africans still lack our own positive, inspiring symbols and leaders, our Martin Luther Kings, our Rosa Parkses, our Barack Obamas."

Some would ask, do we really need to carve out an Afro-European identity anyway? Why can't we just embrace a more universalistic approach to all races and accept everyone as "equals"? The advantage to thinking about Europeans of African descent as a collective identity, though, is that we're more able to make them visible on a continent that has rendered them invisible for centuries. In making Afro-Europeans more visible, we can highlight the ways in which they're marginalized and discriminated against by their fellow citizens.

Moreover, weaving together an Afro-European culture makes it more possible to see that Afro-Europeans have had their own longer history. Far too often, we assume again and again that black people in Europe are a new phenomenon. They must be "fresh off the boat" (literally) from a war-torn country, a refugee of some sort, or an immigrant coming over here for work. True, that is a good percentage of the black population in Europe today. But they represent only a portion of the black experience in Europe. To reduce our understanding of blackness in Europe to the most recent wave of African migrants coming off of a ship is, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warns us, only telling one story. But Afro-Europeans (like everyone else) are comprised of many stories.

Take Vittorio Longhi, the author of the NYT piece. He identifies as Italian because his parents also identify as Italian. His father was born in Asmara, Eritrea during Italian occupation yet he rarely thinks of his ties to Africa. There have been three generations of my family in Vienna, Austria. I grew up around the corner from my grandparents' house. Clearly our ties to Vienna are old, spanning several decades.

And I haven't even touched on historical figures that we hold up as examples of Afro-Europeans in the past:
Philosopher Anton Wilhelm Amo (1703-1759) might be the most recognizable example. But others like British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) are also good entryways into the history of blacks in Europe.
But I'm still struck by how fragmented and isolated our stories are. Is it possible to create a collective identity formed out of shared experiences and expressed in a creative manner? Is it possible to create, in other words, a sense of a distinct "culture"?

Because I think about everything musically, I've been pondering lately how the crazy-popular musician, Stromae, might actually point us in that direction.

Born to a Rwandan father and Flemish mother, Stromae first became popular in 2009 with his hit song, "Alors On Danse":
But it's his big hit song, "Papaoutai" that I'd like to think about right now. It is such a great song. It has a wonderful pace to it, really great lyrics, and fun musical moments for your ear to get into.
Stromae wrote it as a way to come to terms with the absence and eventual loss of his father, who was killed during the Rwandan genocide of 1994. In the refrain, Stromae asks, "Where are you? Papa, where are you?" repeatedly. The inspiration for this song apparently came from a line in his previous hit song, "Alors On Danse": [a loose translation] "Whoever says love says kids... Whoever says love says mourning." To love, in other words, is to mourn.

Lots of people have picked up on the fact that Stromae's song is a song of mourning to his father. If his childhood was anything like Ika Hügel-Marshall's or other Afro-Europeans raised in single-parent households, he also experienced the pain of being different without the parent who looked like him to help him navigate through that. Growing up as an insider/outsider, whose visible difference in Belgium was tied to a man he rarely saw and who later died, it's understandable that he'd sing about longing for this absent father. That he'd reflect on all the ways in which the loss of his father shaped his life. Stromae's story is a pretty resonant story for many Afro-Europeans in this way.

The music video itself also narrates Stromae's attempts to come to terms with the absence of his father. The young boy in the video pleads with his father - who looks like a plastic ken doll - to interact with him. He watches as the other dancers in the video - all biracial or Afro-European like him - interact with their parents or siblings, and he tries to cajole his dad into dancing with him, too. He wants what the other dancers have. But by the end of the music video, he has become like his father - frozen, plastic, empty.

But Stromae's song, "Papaoutai" also gives us a really fascinating musical expression of Afro-European identity that I don't think anyone has picked up on yet. In many ways, it sounds like a really awesome French pop song. In fact, the beat reminds me a lot of the music of French pop musician, Yelle. Songs like "Je Veux Te Voir" and "A Cause Des Garcons" might be good places to start for those who aren't familiar with her work.

It sounds like a European pop song, yes. But something really remarkable happens around the 2:28 minute in Stromae's song, "Papaoutai." And if you're not listening for it, you might not even notice that it's there. He introduces an instrument that sounds like an African mbira:
The mbira or "thumb piano" here gets plucked in a way that's immediately recognizable if you've had much exposure to it. Here's a really great demo of the mbira that I love. It's a song called "Zambezi" by a Zimbabwean musician named Tinashé and it is beautiful and heartbreaking. 
Back to Stromae: I'm not sure what instrument he's using in the song, "Papaoutai" and googling around didn't provide that much information on the instrumentation for his song (if anyone figures it out, let me know!). But I think it's striking that this instrument plays in the background throughout the end of the song. It gives the French pop song an anchor in an African musical style that's all the more meaningful when you understand Stromae's story.

I think that "Papaoutai" is a creative cultural expression of a distinctly Afro-European experience. Stromae integrated or blended different musical styles and heritages in order to give listeners a unique perspective on his life. It's one song. It's one story. But I'm hoping there's more like this (past and present) for us to discover.


  1. Great article, but the sounds that you refer to as mbira is most likely an electric guitar that is played in the very distinctive Congolese rumba style (or soukous). In the guitar playing style are certain similarities to how mbira-type instruments are used, but this style of guitar playing has a long history in Congo and the style is well-known and very popular almost all over Africa, expecially in East Africa. So I think this is actually a very direct reference to the type of music his father might have been listening to, or just generally to African pop music. Zimbabwe is quite far away from Rwanda after all.

    I'm not an expert of Congolese music and cannot name the most famous artists representing this style, but check e.g. this song or others from Pepe Kallé on YouTube:

    1. Dear Elina,
      Thank you so much for lending your critical ear to this essay! I will revise the piece to reflect your contributions to it. I'm so thankful that you and other people from different disciplines have been willing to respond to this. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

    2. I just came across this blog accidentally, the title with Afro-European and music caught my eye, because I have been working on something related. Anyway, I found it very well written and interesting (and I love Papaoutai and some other songs by Stromae, especially the video is really fascinating).

  2. Oh, by the way, this is definitely a topic "scholarly enough" for scholarship, something that myself and others are dealing with all the time...

    1. I agree. It's just not in my or Zoe's wheelhouse. I can claim the title of "honorary musicologist" but I'm very much a historian. So we write in some ways as "amateurs."