The Tanzanian story that started Bohemian Rhapsody

Bohemian Rhapsody, the Queen biographical film, made $3.9 million on its opening night, and is set to make even more over the coming weeks. Yet one aspect of front man Freddie Mercury’s life that the film did not focus so much on, is his African and Asian origins.

“It’s interesting to see how many people still think he was a white British dude,” said Pakistani novelist Nadia Akbar.

WHO WAS FREDDIE MERCURY?

Freddie Mercury was born Farrokh Bulsara in 1946 to Parsi parents living in Zanzibar (modern day Tanzania). His father worked there as a civil servant for the British government, as Zanzibar was still part of the commonwealth at this time.

Parsis are followers of the Zoroastrian religion, who emigrated from Persia to India in the 7th century in order to flee religious persecution.

The Bulsara family moved to London in 1964 after the Zanzibar Revolution, which saw the overthrowing of the ruling Arab elite and the establishment of the United Republic of Tanzania. Freddie was 17 and had spent his childhood in both Zanzibar and India.

DID FREDDIE MERCURY STAY CONNECTED TO TANZANIA?

Jason King, an associate professor of music at New York University, has noted that Freddie Mercury could be considered as a songwriter who is representative of the post-colonial era he experienced growing up.

“How fantastic would it be if we could re-examine Freddie Mercury as one of the biggest African pop stars of all time? Or as one of the biggest Indian pop stars of all time?”

King considers the naming of the band Queen and how Mercury would wear the Union Jack during concerts, “he like so many postcolonial subjects who displaced themselves, became highly English”.

However, Freddie Mercury never forgot his birthplace: “when you look back at early interviews he did, he’s asked very often about his background. He’ll say, yes I’m from Zanzibar, here are my parents.”

HOW DOES ZANZIBAR RESPOND TO FREDDIE MERCURY’S LEGACY?

The band Queen were renowned for their flamboyance, and Freddie Mercury’s homosexuality was widely reported on in his life and death.

Yet in Tanzania, homosexuality is illegal and carries a maximum penalty of 30 years or life imprisonment. A 2007 survey revealed that 95% of Tanzanian residents believe that homosexuality is a way of life that society should not accept.

In recent weeks, international press is reporting on an anti-gay crackdown in Tanzania.

Yet within this conservative Muslim society, where Freddie Mercury’s lifestyle is frowned upon, many are still proud of him. There are Freddie Mercury walking tours that visit the area where he grew up, the Zoroastrian temple where he worshipped, as well as “Mercury’s Restaurant” and “Mercury House” dedicated to the singer.

Mercury’s legacy could be considered as a potential gateway to greater transparency and tolerance in Tanzania.

KATIE WILSON

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