There’s an infectious joy that comes with watching Lebanese pop star Anthony Touma dance carefree around Lebanon’s bustling souqs and refugee camps, part of a music video for his latest single Walk Away.
Coming from anyone else, the concept might have seemed forced — a cheap ploy to win hearts. But coming from Touma, who walks into a busy working-class Lebanese neighbourhood, turns on his music, and starts grooving away, it’s refreshingly earnest.
“People were confused, like what is a guy doing in the middle of the souq with a speaker on, singing and dancing? They didn’t understand what was happening,” said Touma.
“But as the song went on, people starting joining in everywhere — especially kids. I wanted to show people that this is where I come from. I come from this country, from this region, even if I sing in English,” he said.
The singer, 25, has often been looked at as a poster child for third culture kids. Born in France (he holds a French passport) and raised in Lebanon (he moved there aged three), Touma speaks French, English and Arabic. His parents, who lived in Paris for a while, began to show him the world through an international lens.
“My dad would teach me how to drive like I was in France, like I was in Europe, even though in Lebanon, we don’t really follow those rules. It’s a bit of a jungle here,” said Touma.
Touma has also lived in Dubai, Jordan and London, extracting the best part of each culture. He grew up listening to Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles. He cites Justin Timberlake and Ed Sheeran as more recent influences.
His decision to sing in English stemmed from the fact that Arabic music was rarely played around his house.
“I had a metal phase, where I had long hair and I was listening to all these bands like Metallica and Megadeth. I started learning electric guitar and made everyone go crazy at home,” said Touma.
“I sang in English because I grew up listening to English songs and [being around] American culture,” he added.
BEGGING TO PLAY
When Touma was seven, his mother, also a singer and a guitarist, wrote a song for Mother’s Day. He performed it in front of an audience — his first time on a stage. Touma was stiff as a board and scared, but said it felt amazing.
“I told my mum afterwards that I wanted to be a singer. She obviously told me I would grow out of it when I got older, but I never did,” he said.
At 15, Touma began singing in a soft rock band that covered the likes of Nickelback, 3 Doors Down and 30 Seconds to Mars. In university, he studied marketing, but his band would play gigs on the side.
“We used to basically have to beg people to let us play in their festivals and concerts,” he recalled.
The rest of his band decided to become doctors and lawyers. But Touma was dead set on becoming a singer. He put his education on pause to try out for The Voice in France, where his blind audition of Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean on the piano made all four judges turn around.
“I cannot actually describe the feeling of it,” said Touma.
His mother, father, friends and extended family had flown in to watch him. The pressure of performing in front of people he loves was palpable.
“I gave it everything that I had. I was so happy that I couldn’t contain myself. You can even see in the blind audition, at some point, I just go, ‘Woo!’ because I was too happy to see all the judges had turned,” he said.
NEXT BIG THING
When it came time to record his newest album, which will be released under Universal Music Mena later this year or in early 2018, Touma composed his own melodies and wrote his own lyrics. On the four songs that are done and dusted, he occasionally played the keyboard and laid down chords.
“I’m a singer-songwriter and I love to write songs. I really believe that the best person to write songs for you is you. But I’m open-minded,” said Touma.
His understanding of what makes a pop song stick is evident and well-earned. A classically trained pianist, guitarist and amateur drummer, Touma has dedicated most of his life to perfecting the craft. But back in 2013, after finishing as a semi-finalist on The Voice (there was selective outrage when he was eliminated), he didn’t want to limit himself to music alone. He participated in — and won — season three of Dancing with the Stars in Lebanon, becoming the show’s first male winner.
“It was very tiring,” he said. “At a certain time, we were practicing six hours a day, and I’m not a very flexible person. But dancing is amazing, and obviously, I have a special relationship with music, so I understand the rhythm.”
He dipped his toe into acting, too, and debuted onscreen in the romantic comedy And Action, which released in Arabic earlier this year.
Despite building up a fan base at home and abroad, his forthcoming record, which is “definitely going to be a pop album”, will be targeted neither towards the East or the West, but a universal audience.
“For example, Walk Away is about negative people, or an ex who comes back to you as soon as you lose weight or something silly like that.
“Another song is about destructive relationships you can’t get out of, because either you love that person too much, or you’re not strong enough to go through that break-up,” said Touma.
“I think anyone can relate to it if they’ve lived long enough.”