I’m not sure how I get onto my tangents, but the other night I was thinking about Freddie Mercury and wondering why it was that he never talked much about his background- born an Parsi with parents from India in Zanzibar during British rule, years spent in boarding school in Bombay, and moving to London as a teenager. His silence on the topic seems to have led many to think he must have loathed his South Asian identity (he never struck me as a self-loathing man). Turns out, in giving precious few interviews, Freddie never talked much about *anything.*
I came across this thought piece which poses some interesting questions and makes a positive conclusion:
And it is also possible that Freddie was not “stuck” in multiple worlds — though he was rejected from most — but liberated. And maybe he had the right idea about culture — that he was not Indian, Zoroastrian, British, or Zanzibarian — but quite simply, he was all that became of his passion: rock ‘n’ roll.
I understand being between worlds and being an outsider. I understand moving to the country of your parents’ origin as an adolescent and feeling like I have nothing in common with this place yet knowing it was part of what made me who I am. I understand the desire to not be labeled or to have to claim labels.
I was thinking about a recent conversation I had with a friend on the need for people to ask a person of color for their credentials to write a story related to his or her culture. As I am writing more, I realize that I write almost…nothing…Indian. My characters often are but it’s incidental or a sub-plot. Am I expected to write on Indian topics? Why must we draw these lines and distinctions? Perhaps finally I feel fatigued by identity politics.
What if we just didn’t talk about it? What if we just didn’t give people fodder to strike back? What if we just shrugged our shoulders and stopped defending the work and let it speak for itself? Maybe we should just keep people guessing (and use ambiguity where we can take it to do so).
Maybe we should all be like Freddie. I know he didn’t write Bollywood tunes (though wouldn’t it have been amazing if had?) or cultural lyrics for anyone to quiz him on his credentials; his ethnic ambiguity prevented people from asking about his credentials to write rock’n roll. His extreme privacy thwarted people from asking him much at all. (I would bet that he would have hated Twitter.)
Many are genuinely curious about an author’s inspiration and background influences. But there are some who seek to claim an author’s legitimacy. I found how Freddie navigated -or rather, didn’t navigate – his identity to be an interesting foil, yet completely fitting for a third-culture kid who was neither truly from Africa, India, or Britain (which are really more national than ethnic identities). Isn’t it after all similar to how I prefer to say that my parents are from India, but I was born in America? Perhaps most tellingly, being Indian/Asian in the UK in the 1960s was fraught with negative societal attitudes towards brown immigrants.
Volumes are spoken in the things not said. Even all his Queen band mate drummer Roger Taylor had to say about his heritage was “Freddie did play (being Indian) down a bit. I think it was because he felt people wouldn’t equate being Indian with rock and roll.” I think it’s equally important to note Freddie never allowed himself to be defined as gay, straight, or bisexual: he was what was. And the world loved him for it.
I think what Freddie got intuitively was that there was no room for the barriers of “I vs. them” in order to have global appeal, and I think it was the very nature of his multiple layers of Other-ness that allowed him to be himself and to create his own path. Some of the art that has the most impact tends to be intersectional and genre-blending/bending. I think of others like: Prince, George Michael, and Michael Jackson.
Ultimately, here’s what his parents – the only people that matter with regards to this question – had to say: “He was kind and very respectful both to myself and his father.” And “…when he wasn’t away on tour, he would come home regularly. He always liked my cooking, especially my dahls, sweet and sour mince and cheese biscuits.” Even though he was the world’s biggest superstar at the time, he respected his parents and went home to eat his mother’s dahl. How very South Asian indeed.
I think Freddie perfectly captures how I feel about identity in the lines “I want to break free.”