While one more rendition of “Bohemian Rhapsody” might be enough to drive one to Queen overload (as if that is humanly possibly), when we remember that “Western Music” is forbidden in Iran, and homosexuality is punishable by death, the sight of Iranian men and women (badly) singing a Queen song takes on new meaning.
In 1979, the Islamic Revolution spurred a rejection of all things “Western,” and rock ‘n’ roll was one of its causalities. Until the 90’s, all rock music was banned. Today most Iranian rock bands operate underground or flee to other countries to play (like New York’s own The Yellow Dogs). Some rockers skirt the rules by placing traditional Persian poetry over classic rock melodies. Others play instrumental music (metal is big), or write fairly “safe” lyrics in Farsi and submit them for approval from the Ministry of Culture.
So why were the Iranian representatives for the World Choir Games able to perform Queen? Well, Freddie Mercury, also known as Farrokh Bulsara, was Parsi, a Persian ethnic group that commonly practices Zoroastrianism. Growing up in India and Zanzibar, Mercury’s Zoroastrian funeral was noted after his death, but his ethnic identity was never a secret. Illegal Queen bootlegs have been floating around Iran forever, but in 2004, the first legal classic rock album was released, Queen’s Greatest Hits.
There were even translations of the songs in the liner notes, though “Bohemian Rhapsody” already had the Arabic word for God (“Bismillah”) proclaimed by the protagonist in a plea for redemption. Love songs (and presumably “Fat-Bottomed Girls”) were cut, but Mercury’s heritage and underground Queen fans greased the wheels for the Ministry of Culture. With a bisexual frontman and a sound steeped in American rock ‘n’ roll, Queen’s connection to the Persian world has been lauded by Iranian rockers since the beginning.