When HIV/AIDS mysteriously began sweeping through the gay community in the early 1980s, fear of the deadly disease and stigma against those who had it often silenced public conversation about the virus. But when advocates — especially celebrities — began admitting that they were HIV-positive, discussions of AIDS came out of the basement and into the public conscientiousness. The 1991 disclosure of Freddie Mercury, lead singer of the British glam rock band Queen, capped a small but significant tally of public figures whose revelations of their disease began to broaden awareness of AIDS and sympathy for patients. In 1985, Rock Hudson, an American actor known for his dreamboat roles in films and the television show “Dynasty,” died of AIDS. Six years later, basketball star Magic Johnson announced his HIV-positive status and retirement from the Los Angeles Lakers. And a day after Mercury revealed his HIV infection, pleading, “I hope that everyone will join with me, my doctors, and all those worldwide in the fight against this terrible disease,” the Queen of Rock —known for his four-octave voice and flamboyant showmanship — died at 45.
To honor their fellow band mate and friend, the remaining members of Queen — Brian May, John Deacon and Roger Taylor — released the 1991 single “Bohemian Rhapsody /These Are The Days Of Our Lives” to raise money for the Terence Higgins Trust, a charity that promotes education and awareness of AIDS. While the song itself makes no mention of the disease, the music video features Freddie Mercury’s heartbreaking transformation as he struggled to fight AIDS. The single rose and stayed at the top of the United Kingdom charts for five weeks, raising more than £1,000,000 for the organization.
Their efforts continued with a performance the following April, “Concert for Life: The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert for AIDS Awareness.” Described by May as the “the biggest sendoff in history,” the concert opened with bands that were influenced by Queen, including Metallica, Def Leopard, and Guns N’ Roses. A variety of artists performed during the second half, including Elton John, Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin, and David Bowie.
May, Taylor, and Queen’s manager, Jim Beach, used the concert’s proceeds to start the Mercury Phoenix Trust, an effort to raise HIV awareness. Since then, the trust has donated over $15 million to over 750 organizations, including the World Health Organization, to fight the disease.
“It’s amazing but [HIV] stigma still does exist, all of us should know better,” May said in a 2011 interview with STV News. “It’s down to awareness and understanding and doing away with the ignorance.”
The charity has been sustained through various efforts of Queen and other musicians, including all proceeds from the group’s 1995 album “Made in Heaven,” Ben Elton’s 2002 rock musical, “We Will Rock You,” Peter Gabriel’s 2001 “Spirit of Africa” album, and attendance at the trust’s “Freddie for a Day,” when participants are sponsored to dress up as Mercury on Sept. 5, the artist’s birthday.
The trust has funded the building of the Zamuxolo orphanage in South Africa, the “Save the Children” project in Angola that works to decrease behaviors that increase the risk of contracting HIV and to reduce related discrimination in the community, as well as publication of the French edition of the “Stepping Stones PLUS” manual to increase public understanding of HIV treatment and to expand community support of its victims.
In these ways, almost 12 years after his death, Mercury lives on in song – and in the fight against HIV/AIDS.
Read our introduction to the PopMusic series, The 2×2 Project’s compilation of some of the most iconic songs tackling topics of public health. The series is now on hiatus. Please send your ideas for future installments to Dana March (dm2025 at columbia.edu).
Edited by Jordan Lite.