It’s not hyperbole to say that Belgian singer-songwriter Paul van Haver writes the world’s most depressing party songs. As the electronic-dance-music artist called Stromae, he crafts ecstatic beats that have packed dance floors from Europe to Israel to Australia, but a close listen to his tightly packed French raps reveals stories of economic ruin, class conflict and a father who disappeared in the Rwandan genocide.
The dark themes haven’t kept Stromae, 29, from success. His first hit, 2009’s “Alors On Danse” (So We Dance), shot to No. 1 in 19 countries despite its bitter commentary about the stunted lives of a recession-hit generation. Words like “So we go out to forget all our problems” turned him into an icon for millions of European youth languishing through the deepest economic crisis in decades.
The attention has made him uncomfortable. “It is not Belgian to be a star,” he tells TIME, sitting in a Brussels café. “That is not a job. I am a writer and a composer.” All the same, Stromae–the name is an anagram of maestro–may be about to become a bigger star. He’s now on a 13-city tour in the U.S., where his music is not a pop staple. In April, Time Out New York featured him on its cover with the headline Who the hell is stromae?
The quick answer: He was born in 1985 to a Belgian mother and a Rwandan architect who returned to Africa when Stromae was a small child, while his mother raised five children on a public-service salary. In 1994 his father vanished during Rwanda’s horrific genocide, which inspired another massive hit, “Papaoutai” (which means “Dad, where are you?”).
His latest album, Racine Carrée (Square Root), has sold nearly 3 million copies, and at least one important American has it: Barack Obama, who received a copy from Belgium’s Prime Minister in May. Finding a U.S. audience is important to the musician whose mom took him to see James Brown when he was 12 and who grew up worshipping hip-hop. As his heroes did for him, he hopes to overcome the language barrier with an American audience. “It’s a challenge to do exactly the same as English lyrics do [with foreign audiences]–to touch people who don’t understand.”
This appears in the October 06, 2014 issue of TIME.