He’s a British icon and one of the most beloved rock stars of all time. The lead singer of Queen, he sold an estimated 300 million records worldwide. But Freddie Mercury, born Farrokh Bulsara, spoke little of his origins.
Raised in Zanzibar and educated in India, Freddie Mercury and his family fled to England as refugees during the Zanzibar Revolution, when he was 17 years old. Here is a closer look at the world-famous star’s early life, and why he chose to turn his back on his past.
Freddie Mercury was born in Stone Town, Zanzibar on September 5, 1946. Zanzibar is an archipelago off the coast of Eastern Africa, and it was a British protectorate at the time of Mercury’s birth, meaning that he was a British subject. His parents, Bomi and Jer Bulsara, belonged to the Parsi community of western India. They practised Zoroastrianism and were deeply religious. “We tried to instil good values into him, like respecting the family and giving 100 per cent to whatever he did and although he wasn’t religious, he respected our ways, his mother Jer Bulsara noted in a recent interview.
Mercury’s birth name was Farrokh, meaning ‘fortunate’ or ‘happy.’ His childhood in Zanzibar was filled with trips to the seaside and local public parks. His father Bomi was a cashier for the British Colonial Office. Mercury was his parents’ only child until the birth of his younger sister, Kashmira, in 1952.
His first school was Zanzibar Missionary School, where his teachers included Anglican nuns. When he was eight years old, Farrokh was sent to St Peter’s, an esteemed boarding school in Maharashtra, India. There, he developed a passion for music, creating a school band named the Hectics, and earned the nickname Freddie from his classmates – after shaking off the crueller nickname ‘Bucky’, in reference to his buck teeth.
As an adult, he adopted the surname ‘Mercury’ from one of his own song lyrics: “Mother Mercury, look what they’ve done to me”, from My Fairy King. In February 1963, at the age of 16, Mercury returned to his parents in Zanzibar. According to his former St Peter’s classmates, his father hoped he would become an accountant or a lawyer. He attended an unnamed school in Zanzibar for one year.
But in spring of the following year, a revolution took place on the islands. Citizens rebelled against the Sultan of Zanzibar and his Arab-majority government, and in the ensuing violence, thousands of Arab and Indian residents of Zanzibar were killed. Mercury and his parents and sister became refugees, and they travelled to England in search of peace and stability. They settled in Feltham, Middlesex, and soon afterwards Mercury began studying art at Isleworth Polytechnic in West London. He later studied graphic art and design at Ealing Art College.
Following roles in various bands around London, plus a stint as a baggage handler at Heathrow Airport, Mercury performed the band Smile with Brian May in 1970. May and Mercury formed the band Queen later that year, and the rest is history.
Contrary to popular belief, Mercury was not interview-shy in his early years. On the contrary, he took part in countless teeny-bop magazine interviews and was particularly talkative to journalists. However, he avoided talking about his childhood. “There were no set preconditions, but every time Freddie was asked about his background he’d toss back an answer, without really answering,” commented Tony Brainsby, Queen’s first PR agent. “For a long time, no one in the press had a clue even what his real name was.”
“Freddie avoided at all costs mentioning Zanzibar, I think because he thought it might make him look a bit too Asian,” Brainsby has speculated. “It wasn’t meant in a prejudicial way. He just didn’t think it fitted the image. He desperately didn’t want to be thought of, or seen as, an unlikely rock star,” Brainsby added.
Notably, Mercury never mentioned his ethnicity or religion to the press either. The only mention he made of his cultural heritage was in response to a question about his larger-than-life persona: “That’s something inbred, it’s a part of me. I will always walk around like a Persian popinjay,” he noted, referring to his Indian Parsi background. His assistant Peter Freestone later speculated, “If Freddie had his way, he would have been born aged 18 in Feltham.”
Mercury used his ultra-glam, camp take on Englishness to parody and explore the national identity. Endlessly fascinated with the country’s traditions, he loved British fashion designers and would treat his guests to afternoon tea with fine china and sugar lumps.
Zanzibar, on the other hand, has at turns celebrated and suppressed the memory of its most famous son. The region – which in 1964 merged with Tanganyika to form the United Republic of Tanzania – remains part of the British Commonwealth, and in recent decades, a successful government initiative has drawn lots of tourism.
Sites such as Mercury’s Restaurant and The Mercury House Gift Shop, as well as various Mercury walking tours, have attracted international tourists. In 2006, visitors planned a 60th birthday celebration for Freddie Mercury, to take place on the beach.
However, this event created controversy on the Muslim-majority island, with locals threatening to protest the celebration of a gay icon. Among them was Abdallah Said Ali, head of The Association for Islamic Mobilisation and Propagation, who told the press: “We do not want to give our young generation the idea that homosexuals are accepted in Zanzibar.”
This controversy didn’t dissuade Brian May from visiting his Queen bandmate’s birthplace. In 2019, a year after the release of the biographic movie Bohemian Rhapsody, May and his wife Anita Dobson travelled to Zanzibar to pay tribute to his friend.
“ZANZIBAR !!! Stone Town,” May posted on Instagram. “This is the building where Freddie and his sister Kashmira lived when they were young. A pilgrimage !!!” This visit, along with the success of the Rami Malek movie, emboldened local businessman Javed Jafferji to create a dedicated Mercury museum within the Bulsara family home. It opened to the public on November 24, 2019, 28 years since Mercury passed away.
“We really want to create awareness of Freddie Mercury in Zanzibar and in Tanzania overall,” Anam Adnan, manager of the Freddie Mercury Museum, told CNN. “We want people to celebrate him and to love him.”