LONDON — Eighteen years since he died, an unglamorous London suburb has unveiled Britain’s first memorial to Freddie Mercury, hoping it will inspire other local British Asians to take the world by storm.
Mercury, the lead singer of rock legends Queen, is remembered for his captivating live performances, spellbinding vocals and enduring hits like "Bohemian Rhapsody", "Don’t Stop Me Now" and "We Are The Champions".
But few know of him as a shy teenage immigrant from India via Zanzibar who blossomed in the unremarkable dormitory town of Feltham — and the local area is now putting that right by celebrating Mercury as one of their own.
On Tuesday, the 18th anniversary of his death, his sprightly 87-year-old mother and Queen guitarist Brian May — a fellow Feltham lad — were given a rock star’s welcome as they unveiled a quartz memorial star in the shopping precinct.
"I’m Jer Bulsara and Freddie was my boy," Mercury’s mother told the 2,000-strong crowd.
"Coming here to England in 1964 gave him the opportunity to develop his talent and ambition.
"Feltham was his first home in England after we arrived from Zanzibar. It was a place where he began to explore his musical future."
Mercury was born Farrokh Bulsara on the east African island — now part of Tanzania — in 1946, but his Parsi Zoroastrian family hailed from Gujarat in western India.
He was sent to boarding school in India before his family fled Zanzibar in the wake of its 1964 revolution.
They settled in Feltham, where Mercury, then aged 17, swiftly set about transforming himself into a star.
Millions will have seen Feltham, without knowing it, as they land at London Heathrow Airport. The western suburb of low-rise homes, trading estates and warehouses sits just outside the boundary fence.
When the unrest began in Zanzibar, "we were thinking where to move and Freddie was very keen to come to England. He had read books and magazines, and said ‘Mum, let’s go to England’," Jer Bulsara told AFP.
"My daughter, she was only 10 and for their future we had to do something."
Kashmira Cooke, Mercury’s sister, said the pair felt "excited but also apprehensive because we thought new schools, new friends, new way of life.
"He felt that he could achieve his goals here, whereas Zanzibar is just like a holiday island, so for him it was more excitement to explore," she told AFP.
Mercury turned up in Feltham with his 1960s Indian schoolboy quiff — but soon began his transformation.
"He was a bit embarrassed and he quickly grew his hair and he would never stop grooming it!" Cooke said.
While Queen star May said Mercury had been a "misfit" in 1960s Feltham, now some 17 percent of the local London Borough of Hounslow’s residents identify themselves as ethnic Indians.
Now Hounslow has another singer with Indian roots shaking up the music world. Jay Sean, 28, has topped the US charts with his huge hit "Down".
Lord Karan Bilimoria, the founder of India’s Cobra Beer and a fellow Parsi Zoroastrian, said Mercury’s story embodied the best of Britain.
"There was a glass ceiling in this country some time ago but it’s people like Freddie Mercury who smashed through it and today a borough like Hounslow is a shining example of multicuturalism and the opportunity that Britain offers," he said.
Now the local area hopes Mercury’s example will inspire more artists like Sean.
"Freddie was iconic, he was a leader and the first Asian to break in the rock scene — and it wasn’t easy in those days, but he did it," Councillor Paul Jabbal told AFP.
"Now we’ve got youngsters coming through and I have no doubt we will see many, many more Freddie Mercuries coming out of this area.
"This memorial, it has a wow factor. Youngsters will come and see that and they will say ‘wow, he did it, so can we’, and that is a huge inspiration."
Queen star May added: "Feltham’s a fairly unglamorous place, then and now, and I think it’s rather nice that they’re proud of one of their sons."
Mercury died in 1991 aged 45 of an AIDS-related illness, but appreciation of his talent seems to have grown rather than faded with time.
"I am so charmed by it all, Freddie’s legacy. I could not believe he’s become an icon, my brother, I would never have known that and I am so happy for that," Cooke said.
Mercury’s mother said music and art had been in her son’s veins right from his childhood.
"We just thought it was a passing phase but he carried it on and showed the world what he was made of."
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