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Farrokh Bulsara
As Freddie Mercury, he showed the world just how hard a Parsi boy could rock

print article Subscribe email TIMEasia Hardly anyone thinks of Farrokh Bulsara as an Asian. To the world he was the rock star Freddie Mercury, lead singer of Queen, with features and an accent that were ethnically vague but probably British, if one had to guess. (Indeed, he was listed as one of the 100 Greatest Britons in a 2002 BBC poll.) There is a statue of him in Montreux, Switzerland, but none in the Eastern hemisphere. The truth, however, is that Bulsara was the son of two Indians from Gujarat and was a member of the small religious community of Parsis, or Zoroastrians. Though born on the Indian Ocean island of Zanzibar, where his father Bomi worked as a High Court cashier, Bulsara was educated at boarding schools in Bombay. He learned piano at St. Peter's School in Panchgani, a short distance from the city, and among his formative musical influences was the great Bollywood singer Lata Mangeshkar.

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When you know this about Bulsara, the characteristics of his music make sense. The baroque flourishes of a song like Bohemian Rhapsody, the complex time signatures, the flamboyant stage costumes, the high camp and effortless incorporation of musical styles from jazz to gospel to 1950s rock 'n' roll: if the best Bollywood directors and screenwriters could conceive of a rock band it would be something like Queen, and its frontman would be a mustachioed, spandex-clad peacock like Bulsara. His worldwide commercial success, however, exceeded anything to come out of a Bombay studio lot. Queen have sold over 150 million albums, and according to the Guinness Book of Records are the most successful album act in U.K. history, their recordings spending a cumulatively longer time in the album charts than the Beatles'. In a 2002 Guinness poll, Bohemian Rhapsody—which topped the U.K. singles charts in both 1975 and 1991—was voted Britain's favorite single of all time. In 2003, Bulsara—who died in 1991 at age 45—was rated second only to Mariah Carey in MTV's 22 Greatest Voices in Music.

Bulsara duplicated in popular music what other Indians—such as Salman Rushdie and Vikram Seth—have done in literature: taking the colonizer's art form and representing it in a manner richer and more dazzling than many Anglophones thought possible. But in his case, the empire wasn't merely writing back—it was singing its heart out in arenas all over the world in a voice that spanned nearly four octaves. Put on Queen's Greatest Hits at any party, anywhere, and there will be a song to bring a smile to the face of almost anyone, of any age. No other Asian musician or pop-cultural figure has enjoyed the same universal appeal: that Bulsara was able to achieve this as an openly gay man from India is further testament to his gift. It's time to recognize him as the great Asian artist that he was, and to bring his memory home.

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