Influential Queen vocalist Freddie Mercury used his identity as a cross-cultural and bisexual man, and as a person living with HIV/AIDS to create change in the global community.
Mercury was born in 1946 in Zanzibar, Tanzania to parents Bomi and Jer Bulsara. He was born Farrokh Bulsara, and his family was from western India. According to Won Suh, they left Zanzibar for the U.K. in 1964 due to violence during a revolution. In Zanzibar, Mercury experienced bullying due to the size of his teeth. He later praised this unique feature for his vocal range.
After years of fame and musical success, Mercury succumbed from complications related to AIDS in 1991.
Fame and Identity
Mercury’s musical success with Queen came from meeting Brian May and Roger Taylor, who were in the band Smile. Queen formed in 1970 with members Mercury, Taylor, May, and John Deacon. According to Mercury’s biography, “Queen was always run indisputably as a democratic organisation.” Each of the band’s four members held responsibility in writing the band’s singles. Queen’s musical style led them to fame globally, selling out concerts in the U.K., the U.S.A., Brazil and other countries.
While in Queen, Mercury struggled with his own identity as a bisexual man. He was closeted for much of his life, including to those closest to him. According to Plus Magazine writer Diane Anderson-Minshall, he considered Mary Austin the love of his life even when in relationships with other men.
At the time, labels for both cultural and sexual identity were largely misunderstood. Due to the rigidity of social norms, Austin believed that Mercury was gay despite his continued love for her. Mercury’s relationship with Austin ended when he came out to her.
While Mercury never answered questions about his sexuality with specifics, he did privately have romantic relationships with men. He dated Jim Hutton, a hairdresser, for seven years until Mercury’s death.
Mercury had similarly complicated emotions about his culture, with his Indian heritage often downplayed in order to achieve success in a white-dominated industry.
Live Aid were benefit concerts hosted in London, U.K. and Philadephia, Pa, U.S.A. in July of 1985. The mission of the concerts involved raising funds for relief during the Ethiopian famine. Around the world in other cities, concerts were held after being inspired by the mission of Live Aid. The concerts became a representation of global music. Queen, David Bowie, and many other popular musical acts played in support.
Live Aid had viewers listen and watch around the world for 16 hours, with over a billion viewers in over 100 nations, according to History. Many countries held telethon charity events in support of Live Aid. The benefit raised $127 million to support those impacted by the famine.
Queen played a 20 minute set, in which they played many of their top songs. Live Aid became one of Queen’s most iconic sets, despite Mercury claiming that the band was struggling.
Mercury’s Mostly Private Struggle with AIDS
Mercury’s AIDS diagnosis came in 1987, prior to the existence of effective antiretroviral treatment. Mercury avoided tours after his diagnosis due to testing requirements and his fear of the diagnosis gaining publicity.
HIV/AIDS carries with them an intense risk of discrimination and social stigma. Prior to the creation of antiretrovirals and research into HIV, many lawmakers created laws that explicitly criminalized HIV. Even in the present day, HIV is largely viewed as a disease primarily impacting IV drug-users and gay men. Despite the virus having no preference, this prevented celebrities like Mercury from coming forward about their status.
In Mercury’s life, he gave voice to issues impacting global audiences, from his songs of love and heartbreak to his own struggle with AIDS. Mercury gave voice to cross-cultural kids with interests in music and gave his voice to the issue of world hunger.