All the Wildest Things From the FBI’s 40 Year Aretha Franklin Investigation - DMT NEWS

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All the Wildest Things From the FBI’s 40 Year Aretha Franklin Investigation

For forty years, the FBI tried its best to dig up dirt on America’s soulful grandmother, the late Aretha Franklin, under the suspicion that she supported and even helped spark “radical” Black movements—and the agency repeatedly found nothing.

The FBI file on the legendary R&B singer, obtained by Rolling Stone last month via a 2018 Freedom of Information request, shows she was under the agency’s surveillance from 1967 to 2007. The 270-page report references everything from a possible affiliation with “radical” “militant Black power,” to suspicions that her performances would incite racial violence. The file also names many other prominent Black musicians and activists who would have worked with her at the time, and were also vocal about the Black experience throughout the tumultuous state of race relations in the 60s and 70s.

Franklin, a Detroit native who spent a lifetime advocating for the equal treatment of Black Americans and women, alongside prominent Black leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and who created countless tunes many considered to be the soundtrack of the Civil Rights Movement, died in August 2018. She was as politically outspoken as she was musically accomplished, snagging 18 grammy wins in her career, numerous NAACP Image Awards, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded by President George W. Bush.

Here are some of the wildest things found in Franklin’s FBI file.

FBI Thought a Performance at MLK’s Funeral Could Spark a Revolution

Among the reasons the FBI tracked Franklin was her close ties to the Civil Rights movement. She was a well-known supporter of leaders like King Jr., Black political activist and communist Angela Davis, and pro-Civil Rights organizations, which she often supported by appearing or performing at their events.

In fact, just days after King’s assassination in 1968, plans for a memorial concert in Atlanta moved forward, with the Atlanta Braves donating the stadium to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Civil Rights organization King had headed.

According to the FBI file, the agency saw Franklin as so influential that they believed she—along with others like Sammy Davis, Jr.—had enough sway in her musical talents alone to create the “emotional spark which could ignite racial disturbance [in] this area.”

The SCLC eventually decided against the memorial concert.

Tracked Communications and Mentions of Franklin

The FBI kept tabs on Franklin in several ways, including tracking phone calls and her addresses, and surveilling her correspondence with fans, friends, and family. These surveillance efforts weren’t always targeted at Franklin alone: The report mentions that, while the FBI was tracking the activities of the Black Panther Party in 1971, Franklin was one of Atlantic Records artists the organization wanted to request for an appearance at an upcoming food distribution event. The giveaway was being put together to benefit at least 3,000 poor Black families in Los Angeles.

According to the FBI’s report, fellow soul singers Roberta Flack and Tina Turner were among the others the Black Panthers also considered.

Her Refusal to Be Cheated Out of Money Made it on Their Radar
Like many Black artists at the time, Franklin had a strict rule of being paid upfront when she was booked to perform. Apparently, one time a promoter tried to work around this rule made it into a confidential FBI report titled “Possible Racial Violence.”

According to the document, Franklin was scheduled to perform at the Red Rocks amphitheater in Denver, Colorado on August 4, 1968. But because the promoter of the event had not yet proved that he sent the soulsinger her performance fee, Franklin declined to appear at the last minute, and a 20-minute brawl broke out between disgruntled fans. The FBI estimated the brawl caused about $10,000 in damages (about $85,000 in 2022).

As noted by Rolling Stone, Franklin apologized to her disappointed fans in local reports and said she hoped those running the show would provide the appropriate refunds. But that wasn’t enough to quell the agency’s suspicions of the artist.

She Received Death Threats Against Her Family

The FBI was aware of death threats that were sent to Franklin, as well as members of her family, in the late 1970s. The report shows that Franklin’s brother Cyril received at least two threatening phone calls from someone whose name is redacted in the report in October 1979.

The unidentified individual claimed he had been married to the singer two decades prior, and said he planned to kill her and her family. Cyril reported this call to a law enforcement agency or individual, whose name is also redacted in the report.

The report also mentions that Aretha had also received these calls in the past; in one, the individual threatened to “blow up you and your family.” One call occurred in the spring of 1979, and the report says that Aretha hired a New York-based private investigator to ensure her safety during visits to the east coast of the U.S..

Franklin joins the list of Black music legends who have been under the watchful eye of the FBI at one time or another. The likes of guitarist Jimi Hendrix, singer-songwriters Marvin Gaye and Whitney Houston, and Brooklyn rapper Notorious BIG, all have files with the federal agency. Under the leadership of J. Edgar Hoover, between 1925 and 1972, the agency kept tabs on artists whose fame coincided with the fight for Black Civil Rights, in case their involvement in the movement went beyond vocal support.

More often than not, as was the case with Franklin, these suspicions turned up nothing credible.

“I’m not really sure if my mother was aware that she was being targeted by the FBI and followed,” Franklin’s son, Kecalf Cunningham, told Rolling Stone. “I do know that she had absolutely nothing to hide though.”

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Trone Dowd, Khareem Sudlow