When the French-Lebanese singer Anthony Touma performed Walking Away in front of thousands at the RedFestDXB music festival on Thursday, his big smile was a sign of relief.
In addition to introducing himself to the region, his polished performance on the Dubai Media City Amphitheatre stage was a satisfying conclusion to years of struggle fed by an ongoing identity crisis.
Touma's tale begins typically enough: a young, fresh-faced teen dreaming of being the next big pop-star. The chances of success may have been slim, but at least there was a well-worn path that included free concerts and television talent shows for him to follow.
In Touma's case, that path narrowed even further because of his fluid upbringing. Born in France to Lebanese parents, he moved from Paris to Beirut as a 3 year old. He spent a significant amount of his childhood on the road; his father's work in telecommunications meant they travelled often and widely. Family stints included Amman and a year-long stretch in Dubai as a teenager.
That rich life experience resulted in an expanding palette of musical influences that Touma – who had wanted to be a singer ever since he was spotted in the school choir in Beirut when he was 7 – freely dips into.
His stint in Dubai as a teenager provided welcome insight into the city's still developing music scene. "I look back at my time in Dubai as my heavy metal phase. I grew out my hair and I was totally just getting into that scene," says Touma as he unconsciously runs his hand through his well-groomed dark locks.
"It was a different time then. It seemed like everyone at school in Dubai was listening to some kind of metal. I'm talking Metallica and Megadeth. We would go to these festivals in the desert, camp out and see all these big bands like Muse and Velvet Revolver," he recalls.
Inspired by those performances, upon his return to Beirut, Touma formed a rock cover band in high school. This time, however, his goals extended beyond having fun.
"We were playing good shows and playing in some festivals, but what happened was the typical story in Lebanon," he recalls. "I turned 18 and I told the band members that I wanted to focus on music as a career – so I wanted to see who was in and who was out."
The band dissolved and Touma undertook a marketing course, to complement a music career yet to materialise. His big break arrived in 2013 in the form of the second season of The Voice France. The show's organisers were looking for auditions from the French diaspora. But Touma worried that his international upbringing meant he didn't fit into any existing mould. "It was something that was definitely on my mind," he says. "I mean you have to think about these things when you are considering going on The Voice. I didn't consider going on the Arabic version of The Voice because I don't sing in Arabic. And at the same time, I was not confident the people in Paris where interested in listening to some kid from Lebanon."
Touma applied anyway – encouraged by his mother – and submitted the self-funded video clip to his original song Just to See You Smile. The producers responded. They were intrigued and requested that Touma fly to Paris for a series of auditions spanning a month.
When he arrived, he quickly realised that The Voice was more than a simple talent show: the panel of music producers and record executives were equally interested in his backstory.
Looking back, Touma realised that this was the beginning of his "outsider" character arch, one that had been designed by the show. It was effective; he breezed through the audition and eventually chose to be mentored by the singer Jenifer.
The acclaim in Paris spread to Beirut, but some did not appreciate Touma's casting as a young man escaping Lebanon for better opportunities. Touma recalls an exchange with the show's judges that was a real sore spot.
“They asked me: ‘So you took a one-way ticket to France?’ I said yes, because in my head I was thinking ‘one-way ticket to just go out and win’. Not because I didn’t want to go back.”
"If you know Lebanese people then you can imagine the reaction back home. One journalist wrote in a newspaper: 'Well, if you don't like it then you should leave.' I was like: 'Hey, guys, just chill.'"
But television audiences the world over are generally a fickle bunch. When Touma was controversially knocked out in the semi-finals because of a harsh score from his mentor, audiences back in Lebanon made their feelings known.
“It got to a stage where I would walk around Beirut and strangers would tell me: ‘I hate her because of what she did to you,’” he says. “People were also insulting her and sending her threats and I immediately emailed her and said that it had nothing to do with me and I was not holding a grudge. She got back to me and wished me well.”
But that controversy was partly responsible for Touma signing a major record deal. He says that while he was grateful for the opportunity to sign and record his 2015 debut album, Maintenant c'est l'heure (Now it's time) with Polydor France, it was ultimately an uncomfortable fit.
“They were really nice in that they didn’t force me to do anything. But they told me that I should sing in French in order to make it on radio, as France has this quota system when it comes to local music,” he says.
While the album didn't achieve the success he hoped for, Touma says it was a learning experience. "I sang in French because I was thinking about doing things that fit on the radio," he says. "I have this maturity in that I realise it's ultimately about creating work that represents you. People will become accustomed to it."
That lesson was drilled home by none other than Spanish superstar Enrique Iglesias, who faced a similar struggle in straddling his creative impulses with his heritage. They met in Miami in 2014 when Touma was enlisted to appear on the French version of the Iglesias single Let Me Be Your Lover. "He was so kind and we had this great chat where I told him about my story," Touma says. "Enrique told me to focus on what I want to do and not just follow the market, because that stuff comes later. He said that I should just focus on being the best artist that I can be. If people enjoy it, then you will find that will be the case no matter where they come from. When you see someone having fun, you kind of want to have fun too."
Armed with some industry battle scars and advice from a Grammy award winner, Touma left his recording contract in Paris and returned to Beirut. He began composing a series of songs strong enough to land a new deal with the Dubai-based label Universal Music MENA last year. The partnership resulted in breezy dance single Walking Away and the new ballad Don't Go.
With the former's opening lyrics, “I remember when you would say I didn’t stand a chance / 10 years gone and here we are again,” Touma says the song is a respectful “I told you so” to all the naysayers.
“It is like a statement. I went through a lot to get where I am and I met people who didn’t believe in me,” he says. “Now I am in a place where I want to be with people who have a positive energy. I don’t want anyone with negative vibes around me anymore. I am all about moving forward.”