Rhapsody on the F.M.
The first time I heard “We are the Champions” by British rock band Queen, I must have been a child. I had a sharper sensitivity to music as I grew older and into secondary school, where I knew that song by Queen as one of those timeless ones – ever universal, relevant and enjoyable. Indeed, it speaks about trials, tribulations and triumph and was and still is used as a motivational anthem for countless sport teams and individuals since it came out in 1977. It is almost impossible not to know the song; one would have heard of it or highly likely heard it before. Queen, indeed, were the musical champions of the 1970’s and 1980’s until Freddie Mercury, the band’s lead singer, passed away in 1991. Back in secondary school, I never knew his name or who he was, but I was always rendered highly impressed by that vocal range whenever I heard “We are the Champions”, which Freddie wrote, sang and played the piano for. The song was released eighteen years before I started secondary school and persisted in the decades to follow. Each time I heard it and “Another One Bites the Dust” on the FM radio, I remained privately impressed by the sheer classiness of the rock singer’s vocals. I still didn’t know his name; nineties music was all the rage for my schoolmates and I at the time. Singers and bands from decades before – like Queen – were deemed irrelevant by and to us; old-fashioned and out-of-date, their days of glory behind them. No doubt that today’s youth, in the era of Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift and Bruno Mars, feel as disdainful about 90’s idols the same way I had once felt about Queen.
I was in secondary school in the latter half of the nineties. It was a religious school with all male students. There was, therefore, a lot of misguided testosterone that teachers tried to restrain through strict discipline and enforcement of rules that, in retrospect, many former students now consider comparable to a prison camp. Rebellion, or just plain misunderstanding, was met by corporal punishment. Every other morning, our principal would conduct the school’s student assembly, which comprised a devotional message, prayers and the singing of both the national and school’s anthems. And that’s when Fionn Maharaj took to the stage, much to the chuckling and mocking of the students. A Chemistry and Math teacher otherwise, Fionn would strut to the podium, remove the microphone from its stand and twist his body this way and that as he moved to the rhythm and the melody of singing, which, in a school comprising proud, macho – or more accurately, pretending to be macho – boys, wasn’t too much melody to go with. He – Mr. Maharaj – sashayed his legs and hips and timed his musical rhythm by snapping the fingers of one hand as he held the microphone in the other.
You might imagine the kind of fun young boys lucky to have been born into heterosexual humanity would have had at Fionn Maharaj’s expense. As our Chemistry or Math teacher, my school- and classmates did not make Mr. Maharaj’s experience pleasant, or leave him with the conviction that he got through to his students. To be a teacher in secondary school is difficult enough; to be a “pansy”-male teacher in an all-male secondary school would have been extremely difficult. In his classes, students taunted Mr. Maharaj as he tried to teach, mocking his sissy-ish (as it was regarded) voice, his unmale gestures and movements and his attempts at disciplining students, which, often, resulted in physical shoving back by the student. Such was the level of contempt and disrespect the students showed toward Mr. Maharaj, but this did not seem to faze him – he never toned down his body language or style of speaking to seem more “manly” and so the fodder for ridicule never diminished. Throughout my years at that school Mr. Maharaj remained the target of mockery and contempt. It was a process that I’m certain repeated itself with each influx of new students. Yet Mr. Maharaj took it all in stride – or strut – and never toned down the tendencies he possessed. In retrospect, I realize now, it was very tough of him. Tougher than my schoolmates postured to be, and more resilient – very deserving of the respect and admiration that was flagrantly denied him in my secondary school days. Paradoxically, Mr. Maharaj was more of a man than we could have hoped for as students at that time. If we regarded him with contempt and disrespect then as unrefined boys, it now seems the opposite as matured young men – Mr. Maharaj was not beneath us by masculine standards, but above us; a real man among boys, a teacher not only of Math and Chemistry but also of courage and truthfulness to oneself no matter what the world. A man among boys indeed; a royal among knaves, not a king but more aptly, a queen.
The biofilm of Queen’s lead singer, Freddie Mercury, recently came out (pun intentional). Admittedly, I’d watched it in the cinema one night after work; I was restless, bored and did not want to return to my house just yet. Indeed, if I’d had another endeavor I deemed better to do than look at a biopic of a singer I considered – as you recall – irrelevant to my current tastes I’d have no doubt pursued that other thing. The theatre at the time was empty; there were about eight or fewer people who were probably there for the same restless reason as me. Bohemian Rhapsody is the title of the film. Its accolades include: Winner, Best Motion Picture (Drama) at the 2019 Golden Globes; Winner, Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture at that same event (won by Rami Malek for playing Freddie Mercury); Best Picture nomination at the 2019 Academy Awards; Best Actor award at that same event to Rami Malek, as well as Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing and Best Film Editing – all at that event.
Rami Malek was tasked for and by the role of Freddie Mercury, but Freddie Mercury made those awards easy to win. I was ignorant of him until the movie, and after the movie I was in awe of him. He was a musician, a singer, an artist and human being before his time; even before current time today, when the movie provided for himself and Queen a renaissance of sorts. Their music both merged and transcended genres, eras and sensibilities. Freddie – aka Farrokh Bulsara – had a beautiful spirit, unfazed by the ridicule and contempt he was subjected to not only as a Parsee immigrant to the United Kingdom of the 60’s, but also because of his homosexuality which was implicit in his on-stage antics, costumes and gestures; not to mention, of course, his off-stage lovers. Yet he pressed on: creating and moving queenly on stage; his voice not just soaring but climbing, climbing up to heaven where his fans are convinced he is carrying on as he always did to this day. He was indeed a fearless man – resilient and convinced of his talent – yet by the same token those who knew him spoke of his humility, his unassuming bent, his kindness, introversion and loyalty to his artistic drive to create, play and perform. I – you could say – unabashedly fell in love with him the more I delved into his music and the kind of person he was amidst the challenges that he faced; that unbroken, unfazed spirit that persevered. It confirmed a notion I had: that a heterosexual man could fall in love with another man; more in the direction of true love because it is love that is artless and comprised of respect and admiration. As a student I’d thought I’d only fall in love with women, yet perhaps it is not unfathomable to understand that I could with a man describing himself as a queen. And after all, what did he name his band?
There was no difference, in essence, between Fionn Maharaj and Freddie Mercury. They had the exact same initials, even. Perhaps that was – as Freddie and Fionn might have believed respectively – a symbol. Freddie Mercury received the world’s love, but Fionn Maharaj did not receive love from his own world; that world that consisted of contemptuous, ridiculing and mocking students. And yet, Fionn strutted, sashayed and hip-swayed despite it all, despite us all. That’s what made true royalty: not brute presentation, but self-composure in the face of tribulation. It was known that Fionn did have a wife and children with her, yet we eagerly chose to assume he was gay and living falsely, instead of denying he was homosexual at all. If he was indeed gay, such suppression even has nobility to it: it must have taken a gargantuan internal and external effort for Fionn to do the “right” thing by his parents, religion and society at the time and his own conditioning by them all. It must ultimately be the right thing, however, for individuals to healthily and openly actualize themselves as who they are – that’s when nobility ends and royalty resides. Freddie Mercury, British citizen and frontman for a band named Queen would have – figuratively – told you that nobles are below royals, and no one is above royalty. That’s what Fionn was: despite the ridicule and mockery, he remained upbeat, positive and concerned about our well-being, just as Mr. Mercury had been amidst his own mockery from others; even from biology itself, as AIDS decayed his body and took his life – his physical form, at least. Yet, even that is not true, for decades later Freddie Mercury’s astounding voice still remains, climbing and climbing, higher than heaven, “punching a hole” through it on the way, as the film remarks.
And what of Fionn? Even if he was gay and eventually came out, it would be naive to conclude that he also eventually lived his life as expressively, experimentally and experientially as Freddie Mercury: fully and openly queer. The true admirability, however, in Fionn’s story is that in his time as a teacher, in the midst of the torments of testosterone-titillated young men, he carried on regardless – just as Freddie did until his death; just as millions of other unsung individuals do in the midst of their own respective external and internal torments. They both had resilient, persistent, mighty spirits, unswayed by their respective worlds – Freddie Mercury in 1950’s-1980’s society and Fionn Maharaj in one more recent; one that might as well have been in Freddie’s time in its attitude to queenly and queerly expression in men. Resilience, unswayed determination, fearlessness: the very traits that boys ridiculed in my secondary school were keenly sought out by us as we grew into young men.
And what indeed is a man, I would often ask myself since those school years, as I’m certain most of my schoolmates did. We have bumbled and suffered in our journey to know exactly what a man is and many of us still do today. Back in secondary school, we dismissed the likes of Fionn Maharaj and Freddie Mercury, making conspiratorial fun of our teacher’s initials – F.M. – to validate our assessment: the Fag Man, the Fairy Man, Fruity Man, Foolish Man, Female Man, even Femme Man (by those of us “cultured” enough to know the term yet rarely using it, lest we, of course, incur the accusation that we were of the type of people we were mocking). We did not know – far less even think of – the truest, most resonant expression of the shared initialism of both Freddie Mercury and Fionn Maharaj: F.M., of course, standing for the Free Man.
Tristan Marajh is a Winner in the William Faulkner Literary Competition of 2020 and his work can be read in a number of literary journals; most recently in down river road, based in Kenya and Ayaskala, based in India. With a childhood spent in the Caribbean islands of Trinidad & Tobago, he resides in Toronto, Canada.