Legends: Freddie Mercury’s Musical Rhapsody
Born in a conservative Gujarati Parsi family, Farukh Bulsara became a global rockstar whose music appeals to Caucasians and African Americans alike. Considered a musical genius by many, Mercury’s music was original and funky. It was upbeat and yet also conveyed deep pain and longing.
The year is 1985, the place is Rio De Janeiro in Brazil, and hundreds of thousands of cheering fans have packed the stadium. But, amazingly, they are not cheering for the national soccer team. Instead, the fans are mesmerized by a young artist whose charisma, energy, and talent have hypnotized the stadium. As the performance reaches its epic climax, the crowd cheers, the tempo speeds up, the stage fills with smoke, and the lead singer belts out, “Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? Caught in a landslide, No escape from reality.” The crowd goes wild.
The song, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” becomes one of the greatest songs of all time and the most streamed song of the 20th century. The legendary lead singer and frontman, Freddie Mercury, becomes an international sensation. Few people know that Freddie Mercury is the stage name of an Indian, a Parsi Gujarati born as Farukh Bulsara, who lead his band, Queen, to create iconic music that crossed genres and cultures and united humanity with its haunting, soulful lyrics.
I heard “Bohemian Rhapsody” as a middle-schooler and played it repeatedly, entranced by Freddie’s melodious voice and the compelling lyrics. When I discovered years later that the man behind Queen’s collection of iconic songs was of Indian origin, I set off on a quest to learn as much as I could about the legendary rock ‘n’ roller.
Born Farukh Bulsara in 1946 on the island of Zanzibar, off the coast of Tanzania, Freddie’s parents had immigrated to Zanzibar so his father could continue his work as a civil servant in the British Colonial Office.
Most of Bulsara’s childhood was spent in India, and his musical seeds were sown when his mother insisted that he learn classical piano. From the age of eight through high school, he attended St. Peter’s Boarding School in Panchgani, near Mumbai. Bulsara’s experience at boarding school helped shape his independent-minded nature. In his autobiography, Freddie Mercury: A Life in His Own Words, he recalled, “I was put in an environment where I had to fend for myself, so I got a good grasp of how to be responsible at an early age, and I think that is what made me into such a fiend! One thing boarding school teaches you is how to be independent and not rely on anybody else.”
[Right] Freddie Mercury exuded the vibes of a British rocker. Not many were aware of his Indian origins. (Photo: Wikicommons)
This “independence” in boarding school allowed Mercury to further explore and diversify his musical craft. During this time, he formed a rock band, called The Hectics, which played famous rock music artists such as Little Richard and Cliff Richard.
In 1964, Mercury’s family fled from Zanzibar to England to escape the revolution against the Sultan of Zanzibar. Having settled in Middlesex, Mercury enrolled at Ealing Art School in London to study graphic design. According to his autobiography, “Music was a sideline to everything we did and the school was a breeding ground for musicians.”
It was here that Mercury laid the foundations for what would become famous as Queen. The band members comprised fellow university students with whom Bulsara connected. Mercury wrote, “I am the only one in the band from the artistic field. The others are all scientists. Roger from biology, John from electronics, and Brian from physics.”
Farukh becomes Freddie
In order to successfully blend into the Eurocentric rock music scene, Bulsara realized he needed to change his identity. Thus, he adopted “Freddie Mercury” as his stage name. The BBC article, “Who was the Real Freddie Mercury,” quotes Brian May as saying, “I think this stage name helped him be the person that he wanted to be. The Bulsara person was still there, but for the public, he was going to be a different character, this god.” This character also helped him to dodge some of the racial prejudices of the era. “There’s no room for brown people in the Western music industry, and Freddie kind of knew that,” says Leo Kalyan, a British Pakistani and Indian singer-songwriter. Kalyan adds that Mercury was “smart enough to know that he basically had to masquerade as a white man to succeed.”
“If Mercury only did ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and nothing else, this by itself would solidify his place in the history of music.”
In his autobiography, Mercury wrote, “I thought up the name Queen early on. It couldn’t have been King. It does not have the same ring or aura as Queen. It was a very regal name and it sounded splendid. It’s strong, very universal, and immediate. It had a lot of visual potential and was open to all sorts of interpretations.”
The name “Queen” also reflected the band’s universal themes. As Mercury wrote in his autobiography, “My music is not channeled into any one category. I do not want my songs to be heard only by a certain intelligent quota. I want everyone to hear it because it is for everyone. It is an international language. I don’t write music just for the Japanese or just the Germans. It’s for all ears. Music is limitless. I’d like the whole world to listen to my music. My outlook as a musician is to try and reach as many people as possible, regardless of what they like.”
Mercury’s musical theme of unity is perhaps most evident in “We Are the Champions.” However, despite the song’s victorious theme, it was written as a way to unite the masses. He reflected, “I was [in fact] thinking about football when I wrote it. I wanted a participation song, something the fans could latch on to. It was aimed at the masses. I wanted to write something that everyone could sing along to. At the same time, I thought it would be nice to have a winning song that is meant for everybody. [Although] we said we are the champions, but that doesn’t mean it’s us: It’s for everyone.”
Fusing rock music with global influences
To better understand Freddie Mercury, I spoke to Ray Briggs, a professor of musicology at California State University and Pasadena City College. Briggs recalled his first exposure to Queen as an African American growing up in Memphis in the 1970s. At that point, rock music was mostly played on “Caucasian” radio stations, hence making the genre largely unfamiliar to African Americans. Briggs says, “I first heard Queen when ‘Another One Bites the Dust’ became a popular hit on African American radio stations. The beats, authentic rhythm, and funkiness were greatly appreciated by the African American audience. This showed Queen’s wide appeal as a uniting musical force amongst both Caucasians and African Americans. Little did we know that it was, in fact, an Indian who was uniting us.”
Briggs further says, “Mercury’s artistry reveals a genius-level framework. He did not seem to be restrained by the ideas of what rock music was supposed to be. Rather, he was able to synthesize different influences into a seamless whole that felt natural and not contrived. I think, stylistically, Queen is probably one of the most adventurous groups in the history of rock music. It is impossible to pin down exactly what their sound is. No other rock group before Queen had this knack for fluid integration of different styles.”
The fusion of several musical styles is nowhere more evident than in “Bohemian Rhapsody.” As Mercury stated in his autobiography, “It was really three songs and I just put them together. I had always wanted to do something operatic, something with a mood setter at the start, going into a rock type of thing that completely breaks off into an opera section—a vicious twist—and then returns to the original theme.” Briggs explains, “If Mercury only did ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and nothing else, this by itself would solidify his place in the history of music. This tune clearly went beyond anything rock and roll could do at the time.”
[Left] The Freddie Mercury statue in Montreux, Switzerland.
Another song reflective of Mercury’s integration of several cultural influences is “Mustapha” from the 1979 album, Jazz. Mercury writes, “I wanted to do something with Arabs because there were so many Arabs in London.” The lyrics are a mix of English, Arabic, and Persian. Some notable Arabic words include Ibrahim, Allah, and Salaam Aleykum. The opening of “Mustafa” ultimately replaced the opening vocals of “Bohemian Rhapsody” at live concerts.
Mercury’s music reflected a life of struggle
Dhruv Govind is a young man from New Delhi, India. Alongside his career in advertising, he is an avid guitarist who has taught himself various Queen songs. He shares his view, “Freddie’s life was full of struggles, and although his music was upbeat, his lyrics captured his pain and longing. This is perhaps what touched the hearts of all his listeners. It was a testament to how, in spite of what he had been through, he remained full of love and hope.”
The song, ‘Don’t Stop Me Now,’ makes a clear reference to Freddie’s struggles as a bisexual man. The song can be seen as a vehicle of empowerment for those struggling with sexual identity.’ Briggs agrees, “At this time, the 1970s, the national consciousness regarding homosexuality was not there yet. Thus, Freddie is being very honest in what would be termed an unsafe society. He is saying, ‘I am not hiding it, I am saying it, but are people actually understanding what I am saying?’ Those who had a similar life experience probably found his words liberating.”
An icon among rock stars
Freddie Mercury’s life ended in 1991 when he died, at the age of 45, of AIDS at his home in Kensington, London. Following his passing, the walls of his home have become a shrine dedicated to him, on which mourners have paid tribute by covering the wall in graffiti. Today, this is regarded as London’s biggest rock and roll shrine. Furthermore, in 1996, a large ten-foot-high statue of Mercury was erected in Montreux, Switzerland overlooking Lake Geneva. Since 2003, fans of Queen have gathered here annually on the Freddie Mercury Montreux Memorial Day in September to pay tribute to the timeless legend.
Many years later, Mercury’s distinct legacy continues to inspire aspiring musicians. Vivek Saraswat is a former venture capitalist, , and a Stanford alumna who has actively pursued acapella for the past several years. He says, “When I first heard about Freddie Mercury’s Indian heritage in my early 20s, I felt a sense of relief and excitement. He became like a role model to me. People who look like you in a sport, or whatever else, matter a lot. It helped give me inspiration as a rock singer as I felt that people like us can be rock legends.”
Saraswat continues, “My singing style as a rock singer borrows quite a bit from him. He has inspired me to integrate different styles. I have learned, from listening to him, to range up and down vocally, to switch between quiet and loud, and to use a lot of falsetto. Furthermore, I find his theatrical style as a frontman particularly inspirational. Although I am nothing like that, it is still useful to draw from.”
Reflecting on his life, Govind states, “Freddie’s journey is proof that it does not matter who you are or where you start. All that matters is who you want to be. For me, the dichotomy of his character—the shy showman with a powerful and a powerless past, who overcame all hurdles, yet faced more till his dying day, reflects the strength of his spirit.”
Born to a conservative Gujarati Parsi family in Zanzibar, schooled outside Mumbai, and a bisexual during the early years of the AIDS epidemic, Freddie Mercury was an unlikely rock star. Often tormented in his life, as Mercury shared his genius with the world, his life became a vehicle of expression and empowerment that transcended social mores and boundaries. His profound lyrics and eclectic musical style united people from all walks of life as he tapped into the deepest insecurities of the human soul.
It is impossible to be unaffected by Freddie Mercury. Professor Briggs concludes his comments to me by saying, “Mercury just expanded what is possible. Since he has been gone, there has not been a singer like him. Under Mercury’s influence and the execution of Queen, the band’s music was fine art.”
Nikhil Misra-Bhambri is a freelance journalist living in Los Angeles, California. He graduated in history from the University of Southern California (USC) and writes about relationships between cultures, cuisine, music, and history.
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