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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

One of the hottest new musical stars in Europe is crossing the Atlantic to try his luck here, in America. 29-year-old Paul Van Haver goes by the stage name Stromae. That's the word, maestro, rearranged. His songs are booming out in dance clubs across Europe. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley even heard his music in a pizzeria in the conflict zone of eastern Ukraine. But, she reports, while his music has a very danceable sound, his lyrics may come as a surprise.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PAPAOUTAI")

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Stromae's current hit, "Papaoutai," went to the top of the iTunes singles charts in more than a dozen countries, and its video has been seen more than 150 million times.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PAPAOUTAI")

STROMAE: (Singing in French).

BEARDSLEY: Not bad for a cheery little song whose title translates as, Papa, where are you? It's about a boy's emptiness growing up without his father.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PAPAOUTAI")

STROMAE: (Singing in French).

STROMAE: I didn't know him very well. My suffering is to know that I will never know who he was. It was difficult to know - OK, he's dead, but what's a father because I don't know what's a father.

BEARDSLEY: His father was a Rwandan architect who wasn't around much. In 1994, he was killed in that country's genocide.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PAPAOUTAI")

STROMAE: (Singing in French).

BEARDSLEY: Stromae and his four siblings were raised by their Belgian mother in a working-class Brussels neighborhood. He says he grew up listening to American rappers. He was inspired by their rhymes and flow, but not their vision of life.

STROMAE: I am a big fan of them, but I didn't understand this kind of fake, dreamlike - OK, life is, like, big swimming pools, limousines, girl - naked and stuff. And I was just - no. My mother told me that happiness is not that, you know?

BEARDSLEY: Stromae's mother sent him to a Jesuit school after he failed out of the public system at age 16. He says that was when he decided to get serious about his life and his music. Stromae sings about the world he grew up in.

STROMAE: Yeah, I prefer to talk about our problems in place of hide it because you can't hide it. And I prefer to dance - to smile on it, to laugh on it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALORS ON DANSE")

STROMAE: (Singing in French).

BEARDSLEY: Stromae began composing on his computer. His first hit, "Alors On Danse," "So We Dance," took Europe by storm in 2009. It's about unemployment, divorce and debt, and it makes you want to dance.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALORS ON DANSE")

STROMAE: (Singing in French).

STROMAE: I decided to tell a story about the problems and the stuff and the reason why we dance, actually, because I was in clubs and - OK, I love clubs but there is so much melancholy in clubs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALORS ON DANSE")

STROMAE: (Singing in French).

BEARDSLEY: His follow-up hit with its guttural R's and raw emotion has earned Stromae comparisons to iconic Belgian singer Jacques Brel.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FORMIDABLE")

STROMAE: (Singing in French).

BEARDSLEY: "Formidable" is a bitter breakup ballad. In the video, Stromae emerges from a Brussels subway station in morning rush-hour. He staggers through the streets, as if drunk.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FORMIDABLE")

STROMAE: (Singing in French).

BEARDSLEY: In the clip, some people help Stromae, others ignore him. It was inspired by a homeless man who once yelled at him and his girlfriend, so you think you're beautiful?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FORMIDABLE")

STROMAE: (Singing in French).

STROMAE: I'll never forget this sentence, and I put it in my song, actually. Tu te crois beaux, actually, because for me it was like, even if this guy is drunk or whatever, (French spoken) or aggressive, this guy is just alone and he needs - that you listen to him.

BEARDSLEY: Despite his superstar status, Stromae meets me for an interview in a cafe - no entourage, just him and his manager. As he walks in, several young people, agog, ask for autographs.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (French spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (French spoken).

MAN: (French spoken).

BEARDSLEY: Van Haver is soft-spoken with a shy smile and stunning pale green eyes. His fans come in all ages and colors.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

BEARDSLEY: At a sold-out concert in Brussels, 45-year-old Philip Parius says Stromae's music even bridges the country's divide between French and Flemish.

PHILIP PARIUS: Most (unintelligible) hates Belgium. And he's representing Belgium. And so, that's great. That's the most important. Not the language - but Belgium attitude.

BEARDSLEY: Stromae says he never aspired to sing for non-French audiences, but when his first song became a hit in Germany, he realized it didn't matter if people understood all his words.

STROMAE: If we can listen to English music without understanding no - nothing, and dance on it and feel the groove in the feelings, I'm sure everybody can do exactly the same for each languages.

BEARDSLEY: All right, so you want to go to America, and you want to sing in French?

STROMAE: Yes. When I listen to an American singer, I want to listen to his music in his language because he's more spontaneous. He's more natural, and I need his point of view. And our point of view, here in Brussels, is French and Flemish. And it's important to keep this patchwork, because sometimes it's a trend that everybody wants to sing in English and - because it's more musical or more international. But I think it's about just a patchwork - different visions.

BEARDSLEY: Belgium's Prime Minister recently gave President Obama a Stromae CD. The Brussels star will bring his music and message to New York City this Friday and will play a host of American cities this Fall. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FORMIDABLE")

STROMAE: (Singing in French).

WERTHEIMER: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

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