Farrokh Bulsara, better known as Freddie Mercury, was born September 5, 1946, in Zanzibar, a protectorate of Britain. Ethnically, he was Indian Parsi, and his father was born in India while it was a British colony. Mercury attended a boarding school in India where he was given the English name Freddie. In 1964, he and his family sought refuge in England following the outbreak of the Zanzibar Revolution due to targeted violence against those of Arab and Indian descent. There, Mercury met his future bandmates Brian May and Roger Taylor, and together they formed the international sensation known as Queen. Since Freddie Mercury is a name closely associated with British pop culture, it’s easy to forget that much of his early life was shaped by his cultural and ethnic background.
Like many young immigrants, Mercury felt the pressure to conform to Western standards. This likely prompted him to change his name from Farrokh Bulsara to the iconic yet distinctly Western “Freddie Mercury”. Lesley-Ann Jones, who wrote the book Mercury: An Intimate Biography of Freddie Mercury, points out that in the 1970s, “a rock star, by definition, was ideally American…White Anglo-Saxon was favorite, black American almost as good. It was common in those days for musicians to blur the detail of their backgrounds, as this facilitated glamour and mystery” (Lee 2018).
However, it’s important to note that the music industry, particularly within the rock genre, was dominated during this time by white and some black musicians. There was very little, if any, acceptance of other racial or ethnic identifications, such as Indian Parsi. In an article discussing Freddie Mercury’s cultural roots, Ashley Lee writes, “Queen was founded two years after Conservative Party politician Enoch Powell’s infamous ‘rivers of blood’ speech, which fueled anti-immigration sentiment throughout Britain” (2018). It’s possible that these racial and political tensions made Mercury feel pressured to Westernize or even whitewash himself.
Mercury’s family also practiced Zoroastrianism, a religion which predates Islam and is known for its famous saying, “Good thoughts, good words, good deeds”. Despite not practicing formally in his adult life, Mercury asked for his funeral to be performed in Parsi tradition, which suggests that he still felt personally connected to his religious and cultural background (Lee 2018).
The distinctions between Mercury’s public image and his personal heritage offer much to analyze in relation to the experiences of young immigrants in England. British authors have written many stories about such experiences featuring characters who represent such a diverse and unique group. Examples from this class’s readings might include “My Son the Fanatic” by Hanif Kureishi and White Teeth by Zadie Smith. In Kureishi’s “My Son the Fanatic,” the title character forges his identity based on the culture he inherited but has never experienced for himself. His storyline veers in the extreme opposite direction of Mercury’s: he completely rejects Western culture and refuses to Westernize himself in any way. In the case of White Teeth by Zadie Smith, Alsana’s niece Neena represents the younger generation of immigrants in London. Her views are much more influenced by Western ideas and beliefs, as evidenced by her feminist ideas and opinion on abortion. Her identity is more founded in Western culture than any of her relatives or Ali from “My Son the Fanatic.” White Teeth also takes place in the 1970s, which is when Queen came together (Smith 1238-1239). Neena’s character gives some insight into the mindset and blending of cultures common to young immigrants in London during this time period.