In my new Taki’s Magazine review of the biopic Bohemian Rhapsody about Queen’s lead singer Freddie Mercury, I mentioned:
Queen came back more in fashion with a fine set at the 1985 Live Aid benefit for starving Ethiopians, which provides the climax of the film.
Despite the movie concluding at that orgy of celebrity self-congratulation, the biopic makes almost no effort to depict Freddie as a humanitarian … . Mercifully, Mercury was seldom a social justice scold.
Freddie’s royalism was reflected in his naming the band Queen. That wasn’t just a gay joke, it was also a tribute to the British Empire’s monarchical system under which his Parsi ancestors had prospered so remarkably (e.g., two Parsis represented London constituencies in the British Parliament under Queen Victoria). Here’s Mercury’s design for Queen’s logo, with each member represented by his astrological sign, such as Leo and Cancer, and Freddie by two fairy Virgos:
Freddie’s reticence in interviews is usually attributed to his trying to cover up his gayness (although if that were really a priority for him, he probably shouldn’t have named the band “Queen”). But it’s possible he was also cautious about talking to journalists for fear of saying something politically incorrect.
Freddie and his family had had to flee Zanzibar’s bloody 1964 black-power revolution, so perhaps he had personal reasons for not giving a damn about the racial obsessions of the age. For example, Bob Geldof almost didn’t invite Queen to Live Aid because in 1984 they’d violated the U.N.’s boycott of apartheid South Africa by playing Sun City.
Freddie’s Parsi parents had been born in India outside of Bombay and moved to Zanzibar for his father’s career with the British Colonial Office. Freddie was born in Zanzibar in 1946. He mostly attended a veddy English upscale boarding school back in India, where he was a Little Richard fan and formed his first rock ‘n’ roll band in the late 1950s.
Multiethnic Zanzibar was granted its independence from Britain in 1963, with an Arab sultan as constitutional monarch. But the black party won 54% of the vote, but was angered when that failed to translate into control of the government (sound familiar?). So a black power coup in early 1964 murdered not more than 20,000 Arabs, Indians, and Parsis. Zanzibar was eventually merged into Tanzania.
Commenter Almost Missouri points out this seven minute clip from the Italian 1966 mondo-documentary Africa Addio that is history’s only video from the 1964 massacre by black power revolutionaries of non-blacks, like Freddie, on Freddie’s native Zanzibar:
Roger Ebert practically blew a gasket denouncing Africa Addio in 1967:
“Africa Addio” is a brutal, dishonest, racist film. It slanders a continent and at the same time diminishes the human spirit. And it does so to entertain us.
It claims to be a documentary of what has happened in Africa since colonialism ended. It shows us sadism and tells us we must not fear to see the truth — but the sadism itself has been staged for the cameras. … If “Africa Addio” is to be believed, Africans have engaged in an orgy of bloodletting and pillage since the Europeans left.
In this era when 23 year old interns churn out countless op-eds about how racist everybody must have been before they, personally, were born, it’s amusing to look back 51 years and see how wokely naive a mainstream voice like Ebert was about Africa in 1967.
My impression is that American conventional wisdom was extremely optimistic about newly independent Africa in the 1960s. For example, movies and TV shows set in contemporary Africa were popular in the 1960s, such as Born Free and Daktari, both in 1966.
Then over the course of the 1970s, American opinion turned more skeptical. For example, John Updike’s 1978 African novel The Coup, about an African dictator who was a cross between Gaddafi and Amin in politics but with the prose style of Updike in his memoirs, was a sizable bestseller. Today, the book is almost entirely forgotten, even though it was written by America’s most talented novelist near the peak of his career and is a refreshing break from his usual exurban adultery themes.
21st Century Americans just don’t want to think about Africa.
But Ebert had to admit:
Some of the footage, notably aerial shots of the Arab massacre [i.e., massacre of Arabs, Indians, and Parsis] in Zanzibar, is doubtless truthful.
Freddie no doubt believed it. Seventeen-year-old Freddie and the rest of his Parsi nuclear family, the Bulsaras, fled Zanzibar in early 1964 — whether before or after the massacres, I can’t tell for sure — to avoid black rule and as British citizens found a new home in England. The formerly independent island of Zanzibar was incorporated into rule by the Tanzanian mainland.
Freddie, despite all of his globe-trotting, never returned to visit his native island.