His voice has a satiny sheen—Sam Cooke by way of Seal. It's helped make Corneille a huge star in France, where his slinky, Afropop-influenced R&B fills stadiums and has sold a million-plus albums. Now he's landed with that most iconic of American music labels, Motown, for his English-language debut, The Birth of Cornelius (out this month). "I've always been a sucker for America," he says. "When I was growing up, I was thinking of the Grammys, not [France's] Victoires de la Musique."
Born in Germany to Rwandan university students in 1977, Corneille (né Cornelius Nyungura) relocated with his parents to their native land at age 6; he had an early fascination with Western pop stars like Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson. "I probably felt like more of an outsider in Rwanda than in Germany," he says in faintly accented English (his fourth language). In 1994, when Corneille was 17, his mother, father, and siblings were killed in the Rwandan genocide, which claimed some 800,000 lives. The teenager was able to escape the chaos, first to neighboring Congo, then to family friends in Germany; he later settled in Montreal.
Corneille doesn't linger over the tragedy on The Birth of Cornelius (except for the searing track "I'll Never Call You Home Again"). Instead, he writes about his marriage (on the swaying soul ballad "Too Much of Everything") and shows a keen eye for social observation: With its funk beat and sprightly horns, "Liberation" is the most buoyant song about urban alienation imaginable. On record and in person, Corneille seems on peaceful terms with his extraordinary life. "There's a lot of sadness, but there isn't the same kind of pain anymore," he says. "I lost my family to genocide—it's horrible, of course it's horrible, but until I was 17, I got their love. Those people left, but I've still got their love." On The Birth of Cornelius, you can feel it.