This month sees the release of a new feature film detailing jazz and swing singer Billie Holiday’s struggles with the FBI. Based on the book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs by Johann Hari, The United States vs. Billie Holiday puts forward the case for the FBI initialising the War on Drugs in post-prohibition America in order to take out celebrities with messages that were in opposition to the ‘values’ of the USA.
Struggling with addiction whilst singing politically-charged songs with civil rights messaging, it was little wonder that Holiday was unfairly targeted by the Bureau. With her documented troubles with alcohol, cocaine and heroin, she was soon on the radar of Harry Anslinger, the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics.
Holiday released arguably her most celebrated song Strange Fruit in 1954 - a time when lynching was still commonplace across America. With its lyrics evocatively referencing those events with words like 'black bodies swingin' in the Southern breeze”, Holiday was perceived to be a threat to national security and so began a racially-charged campaign of harassment and undercover interactions with the singer that persisted up to her death and even contributed to her demise. Holiday died whilst withdrawing from heroin in a government facility, struck down with liver cancer and handcuffed to a bed.
It was a tragic end to the life of one of jazz music’s most outspoken and authentic figureheads. But Holiday is by no means alone in having been pursued by secretive intelligence agencies. Indeed, thanks to the Freedom of Information Act and the drip-feed release of FBI documents, we know that hundreds of our favourite stars of screen, stage and sports have suffered similar treatment.
After the Beatles split in 1970, it’s no secret that John Lennon’s lyrics became more political. Indeed, a year before the break-up, he staged his historic ‘Bed-In for Peace’ on honeymoon with Yoko Ono, highlighting his pacifist take regarding ongoing affairs like the British occupation of Northern Ireland and the Vietnam War, the latter of which by that stage had been raging for 14 years. But it was in his post-Beatles period when living in the USA on a visa that Lennon really caught the attention of the FBI.
1969’s Bed-In occurred in the same year that Nixon was inaugurated for the first time, and it was this Republican President who launched an ongoing investigation into Lennon and his dealings. In 1997, after mounds of red tape were traversed, the FBI released documentation on the former Beatle’s supposed anti-American activities. Very little scandal can be found in the documents and there’s nothing criminal within its 300 pages. In fact, it could be said the most surprising thing about the entire investigation is that funds were poured into it. Lennon made no secret of his left-of-centre political stance and never publicly - or secretly - allied with any one group.
Dubbed ‘The King of Pop’, Michael Jackson’s personal legacy is tarnished by persistent rumours of child molestation and the out-of-court settlements which ensured the truth behind the accusations were never proven.
The FBI’s investigation of Jackson over a period of a decade resulted in a document that totalled 600 pages - of which 333 were released to the public in 2009. The charges within those pages relate to the aforementioned alleged offences against minors - none of which came to anything in the eyes of the Bureau - as well as analysis of his interactions with The Black Panthers and The Nation of Islam. He recruited several members of the latter to work as bodyguards during his trial.
Recent documentaries featuring in-depth interviews with Jackson’s accusers have pointed heavily to his guilt, but there is still a large and very vocal pool of Jackson defenders who insist the case against him was fabricated from the start - and the FBI files do little to incriminate him any further.
Jim Morrison’s bacchanalian excesses defined his onstage appearances with The Doors, particularly at the tail end of the 1960s. Again, under Richard Nixon’s presidency, we see a pop star whose colourful life attracted the attention of the authorities and it’s said that by 1969, there was already a dossier held by the FBI on Morrison that amounted to 80 pages, mostly pertaining to alcohol offenses. In 1968, he had already upset law enforcement when a large police presence turned up to a show in New Haven where the singer compelled the audience to rally for the lights to be shut down when the police stormed the stage. Despite the auditorium being plunged into darkness, he was arrested onstage. This incident led to a more focused drive to bring the Light My Fire singer down.
During a performance at the Dinner Key Auditorium, Miami, Morrison famously asked the audience ‘do you want to see my c*ck?’. Whether he actually exposed himself that night is the subject of debate (the rest of the band said he merely simulated the act), but whether or not he committed indecent exposure, the accusation stuck and he was still appealing the conviction when he passed away in Paris in 1971.
The death by shooting of Tupac Shakur is still one of music history’s greatest unsolved crimes. Though the Bureau likely had a file on him during his life - not least because of his familial connections to the Black Panthers - the only files to be released thus far on the rapper cover his murder in 1996.
The consensus seems to be that his was a gangland slaying and a moment so chaotic, we’ll unlikely know the precise identity of whoever pulled the trigger. 15 years after his tragic death, FBI documents were released detailing their investigations into the case which began the month after his murder and, rather than spelling out who was to blame, the file only made the circumstances around the shooting murkier.
We can glean a few facts from the documents that open up the moment in history to even more speculation. According to the Bureau, both Shakur and Easy-E of NWA were receiving death threats in the build-up to Shakur’s death and both were being extorted of large sums of money as a protection fee. All that can really be gathered from the files is that a disagreement emerged between Ruthless Records and the Death Row label - with the former unhappy that the latter had poached their talent. But that’s where the FBI file falters, and the truth becomes difficult to pin down.
The list doesn’t stop anywhere near the above figures. Add to the above the likes of Sonny Bono, Frank Sinatra, Jimmy Hendrix, Jane Fonda and Janis Joplin - and countless more besides - and you begin to wonder which of our favourites stars didn’t have a file on them.
Considering some of the greatest entertainers the West has ever seen had their lives scrutinised and their movements tracked by secretive government agencies, you begin to wonder - who are the stars of today being heavily surveilled and potentially manipulated behind the scenes? Sadly, we’ll only find out when the FBI chooses to release that information.