''The turn to vernacular music and language (…) should be seen as a political act (...) destabilising the dominant narrow national space of political identity and belonging.'' (Mhurchù, 2015).
Music is a powerful way to express resistance. We know this because of hip-hop, often given as one of the major examples of resistance expressed through music. Yet growing immigration and globalization have led to the creation of new, increasingly more mixed genres of music, that in their own ways challenge the dominant political discourses within a society (Mhurchù, 2015). If you have ever had “Papaoutai” or “Alors on Danse” stuck in your head on loop for hours, you have already engaged with this type of music.
These songs are by the Belgian musician Stromae, notable for his multi-genre music covering various social topics, and they are an example of how music and language is used to ask meaningful questions about society. Born to a Belgian mother and Rwandan father, his music draws inspiration from across cultures, in what provides a powerful commentary on the established ideas of how history and society function. In “Humain à l’Eau” he gives his critique of neo-colonialism and the dichotomy of “modern” vs. “primitive” societies. But more than just a critique, this song can be classified as an unconventional act of citizenship (Mhurchù, 2015).
''Too late for excuses'': Stromae's music through the lens of politics
International Relations and Organisations student
HC Humanities Lab
''This is my final assignment for the course Africa and Europe. It is an exploration of Stromae's song "Humain a l'Eau" as a commentary on neo-colonialism and more broadly how music can be used by immigrant youth to challenge dominant narratives of nationality. It was my first time combining my interest in politics with that in poetry and music in a research paper, which is why I found it so exciting. Besides, Stromae is an amazing artist and this research made me even more appreciative of his work.''
Music and language as an unconventional act of citizenship
Unconventional acts of citizenship are acts that disrupt the established socio-historical patterns of a state through language and music. Specifically for migrant youth in urban areas, language and music can be a way to express conflicting identities that do not fit under the conventional narrative of citizenship. Therefore, by way of music, language and creativity migrant youth challenge the dominance of a single political or national identity prevalent in nation-states (Mhurchù, 2015), meaning that the people living in a single state exclusively belong to the same nationality. Conflicting identities can therefore prompt questions about the traditional understanding of belonging to a nation. But this should not be confused with clear opposition to the dominant narrative of nationality. Rather, the mixing of languages, styles and music from different cultures makes use of the very narrative of nationality in order to undermine it. Stromae’s music quite literally explores different territories. With Belgian and Rwandan origins, he was brought up in Brussels by his mother, in the absence of his father who was killed in the Rwandan genocide in 1994 (Van Haver, 2014). As he explains it – “I was raised in Brussels as a Belgian, but at the same time feeling that I wasn’t necessarily from there” (Sayare, 2013). This complicated sense of belonging has had profound influences on his music, which draws inspiration from electronica, rap, hip-hop, Congolese rumba, salsa and the French chanson (Sayare, 2013).
As Mhurchù (2015) puts it, the mixing of styles represents a complexity not present in mono-ethnic or mono-linguistic societies, and aims to create new ways of belonging. In his song “Bâtard”, he addresses the dichotomies of belonging: “But are you Hutu or Tutsi? Flemish or Walloon? (...) You’re white or else you’re brown, eh? Not one nor the other. I am, was and will remain myself” (Stromae, 2013). He challenges the idea of identity as singular, and by that also opens up questions about the multiplicity of the historical and societal roots of a country. In this way his music becomes an unconventional act of citizenship.
Analysis of Humain à l’Eau
“Humain à l'Eau”, like most of Stromae’s music contrasts a dance melody to powerful, and in this case political, lyrics (Sayare, 2013). He even once described his genre as “suicide dance”, because of the dance beats coupled with serious social topics such as foreign aid, divorce, social media addiction, Eurocentrism and so on. “One never knows which foot to dance on with Stromae”, says Jean-Daniel Beauvallet, a notable music editor, who sees the contrast between the melodies and the lyrics of Stromae’s music as resonating with the ambiguity present in today’s Europe (Sayare, 2013). It could be said that he uses his melody to invite the audience inside his music, and then use this as a space to then ask uncomfortable questions.
This contrast is particularly notable in his song “Humain à l'Eau” which provides a powerful commentary on neo-colonialism and Eurocentric ideas of development. In brief, neo-colonialism refers to the understanding that the colonial system did not end with the achievement of independence by former colonies, and instead persists in today’s world through economic, military or political domination (Uche, 2015). Notably, foreign aid is often perceived as a form of neo-colonialism, which is a particularly highlighted topic in the lyrics of “Humain à l’Eau”. The lyrics, originally written in French, consist of three verses and a chorus. The chorus and the title can be interpreted into English as both “man overboard”, a reference to climate change eventually throwing people “overboard”, and as “Human, wake up!”, a plea to the audience to become more conscious of how marginalization and discrimination occurs in the world (Stromae - Humain à l’Eau (English Translation), n.d.).
The lyrics are written in a reversal of perspectives, where the “primitive” man expresses their view on modern societies, ones that are meant to be models of development. In the first verse Stromae sings “If this is what evolution is, I do not want to evolve at all”, criticising the view that modern societies are evolved, especially because of their distance from nature and the environment. In a reference to rising sea levels and climate change, he draws an inventive parallel – once the planet is flooded, “modern” people will be “perching” on trees to stay above the water. In a way, portraying a cycle where the destruction of nature brings us back to it. This image, of people on trees has an ironic double meaning, considering that this is an image associated with primitivism, mocking indigenous or tribal people who cultivate a close relationship with nature (Stromae - Humain à l’Eau (English Translation), n.d.). This is his way of rejecting the idea that development coincides with technology, industrialization and capitalism, which all lead people further from nature.
Stromae then makes reference to the understanding that people and countries receiving foreign aid from should be grateful to the West. He uses the phrase “Spit in your bowl of soup”, a French expression that means “being ungrateful” (Stromae - Humain à l’Eau (English Translation), n.d.). He hints at the way this demand for gratitude prohibits criticism on the foreign aid industry from the people and societies receiving it. On the other end, it allows for a single perspective of aid providers as highly moral or helpful in the process of development, without taking into account the perspectives of the countries and communities receiving aid. In the context of neo-colonialism, it is also a criticism of the idea that there is a single path of development suitable for the whole world, regardless of social, cultural or political context, and that this path of development is the Western one. Furthermore, it exposes how the “white man’s burden” – the idea that Western societies were justified in colonising the non-Western world because they were developing it, persists well into the 21st century.
In the second verse he most clearly addresses the inefficiency of foreign aid in making a difference to societies in need - “So appoint the representative, who will appoint the next representative”. The original lyrics here uses repetition of the word “delegate”, in what could be explained in English as: “So delegate (verb) the delegate (noun) who will delegate (verb) the delegate (noun)” (Stromae - Humain à l’Eau (English Translation), n.d.). This repetition in a way encapsulates the redundant ineffectiveness of foreign aid that Western societies send, particularly to African countries. This aid is usually in the form of advisers or representatives, who are no different than the previous representatives and therefore provide no fundamental change to the neo-colonial mindset of modernization of “primitive” societies.
The final part of the second verse offers a powerful commentary on racism as a taboo topic in the Western world – “Shut up, idiot (...)/Too dangerous to be heard”. This shows how neo-colonialism manifests itself in the Western world, where neither the colonial past is reckoned with, nor are issues of racism properly addressed in the present. Lastly, Stromae addresses how neo-colonial thinking affects people who come from developing societies. To them, the Western world may become a romanticized ideal, and only once they live there they recognize the discrimination and marginalization. Perhaps Stromae is referring to his own experiences of racism growing up in Belgium.
The last verse is a synthesis of a number of topics such as climate change, neo-colonialism and economic and political inequality in the world. Stromae here hints at a number of different ideas, starting with the deforestation of the Amazon in the name of “modernization” – “My home is the Amazon, or it was, at least what’s left of it.” Followed by: “You and all your parakeets/your Christopher Columbuses/it’s too late for excuses”. This is an important part of the verse because it clearly connects what Stromae is criticising in the world right now to the colonial history of the Western world. This colonial history, unlike the Western view of conquest and civilization, is represented here as one of stolen land and resources. Immediately after this retrospect, he returns to the present, and to how technological advancements contribute to the continuous exploitation of developing states. In the line “3G, 4G, or forgotten waste” he addresses the reliance of technological production on rare metals, which besides being detrimental to workers who mine them are also significant driving forces of conflicts such as ones in the Democratic Republic of Congo (Stromae - Humain à l’Eau (English Translation), n.d.). Therefore, the former colonial system characterized by exploitation of resources and people is comparable to today’s world, retaining these practices in the context of neo-colonialism. He closes off this verse by revealing the hypocrisy of the powerful political elites that convene at big summits such as the G8 and G20. At these places, Stromae criticises decisions being made on behalf of developing societies without their contribution – “You decided all of this without our knowledge.” He further emphasizes a division in the world, a gap of who rules and who is ruled, tying neatly, though subtly, back into ideas of neo-colonialism.
“Humain à l’Eau” is a subtle, simple and clever play of words that touches upon issues of foreign aid, international relations and economic exploitation. Beyond just observing the existing inequalities, Stromae challenges the very ideas, rhetoric and beliefs that uphold them, by that providing a critique of neo-colonialism. At the same time, the beats and the melody of this song are such that for all you know you might have carelessly danced to it in a club. And precisely this is the power of Stromae, his way of permeating into non-political spaces and transforming them into spaces for meaningful questions, which ultimately makes his music an unconventional act of citizenship.
Image of Stromae ''Stromae, Main Stage @ EXIT Festival 2014'' by Exit Festival. The image falls under a Creative Commons License. The background of the image was cropped out - no watermarks or logos were taken out by doing so.
Other image attribution can be found in the 'About' section.
Mhurchú, A. N. (2016). Unfamiliar acts of citizenship: enacting citizenship in vernacular music and language from the space of marginalised intergenerational migration. Citizenship Studies, 20(2), 156–172. doi: 10.1080/13621025.2015.1132566
Sayare, S. (2013, October 14). Stromae: Disillusion, With a Dance Beat. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/15/arts/15iht-stromae15.html?fbclid=IwAR26sKxGaYot55fAOV_P4I16-1jKX4HqrjWL65VNypPEI8mPF_QqgQjPL3A
Stromae - Humain à l’Eau (English Translation). (n.d.). Genius. Retrieved from https://genius.com/Genius-english-translations-stromae-humain-a-leau-english-translation-lyrics
Stromae (2013). Bâtard. On Racine carrée. Belgium: Mosaert.
Stromae (2013). Humain à l'eau. On Racine carrée. Belgium: Mosaert.
Uche, C. (2015). Lonrho in Africa: The Unacceptable Face of Capitalism or the Ugly Face of Neo-Colonialism? Enterprise & Society, 16(2), 354–380. doi: 10.1353/ens.2015.0049
Van Haver, P. (2014, February 26). Interview by Sophie Ikenye. Stromae on his Rwandan roots and the language of music. London: BBC.