It wouldn’t be far-fetched to say that the hip-hop community believes it is unique in many ways, and it is. However, those who think that the “Hip-Hop Police” and the constant surveillance of rappers is the first time in music history that a genre has been targeted by law enforcement are mistaken. Way back in the day, during the jazz era, there was one musical artist who was actually the first major target of America’s “War On Drugs.” Her name was Billie Holiday.
In 1930, Harry Aslinger assumed the position as head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. This was an arm of the United States Treasury that was formerly the Department of Prohibition. With the re-legalization of alcohol, the bureau was almost out of business. With his neck on the chopping block, Anslinger needed to create a criminal sensation that would give the bureau a second wind. That criminal sensation would be the reefer-toking Black musicians of jazz era. Anslinger despised jazz, deeming it a mongrel art form. He and the bureau felt that jazz musicians–who “reek of filth”–were under the impression that they were killing it on stage, when they were really up there sounding horrible. The bureau believed that the weed was to blame for jazzmen “becoming hopelessly confused and horrible” whilst playing some of the most popular, demanded tunes at the time. In a FBN memo on jazz, it was written, “Music hath charms, but this is not music.”
Anslinger was determined to lock up all of the era’s shining stars, such as Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk (the Drakes and Futures of their time). He instructed all of his forces to prepare weed cases against them and have them rounded up in a single day. His command was to “shoot first” should the so-called need arise. However, much to Anslinger’s dismay, the jazz community was a unified front that “couldn’t be fractured.” The jazzmen didn’t snitch on each other (we all know police wouldn’t be able to operate without snitches) and they all (one could say) crowdfunded bails for their comrades who got locked up.
Anslinger turned his sights onto another Black performer, who really ground his gears: the iconic “Lady Day” Billie Holiday. Holiday irked Anslinger so, because she sang the song (her most popular) “Strange Fruit.” He didn’t fuck with a Black woman soulfully protesting lynchings in the South for mixed crowds. One of Billie Holiday’s downfalls was her drug dependence.. She was a legendary heroin addict (more than likely catharsis for a rough life) and her vice would be Anslinger, and the bureau’s, saving grace. Anslinger would hunt Holiday for the rest of her life.
To see how we got here, it’s important to see the history of Black folks, drugs (especially cocaine) and the law. The “cocaine epidemic” said to be surging through the southern Black community was the catalyst to the outlawing of cocaine in the United States (where it had been sold commercially, used medically and casually consumed by children). Peep the infographic below (rest of the story after) (keep in mind that it was claimed that a North Carolina cop claimed that when he shot a Black man, raging on cocaine directly in the heart, he didn’t die. One medical professional said, “The cocaine nigger sure in hard to kill.”):
Billie Holiday was vacuuming coke and drunk off her ass when Jimmy Fletcher first laid eyes on her at her brother-in-law’s crib. It was the same when he ran into her at a brothel later on. Fletcher was known in the Black communities of New York and Baltimore as a hustler who consistently had the fix you needed. They didn’t know that his packs were coming straight from Harry Anslinger and the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Though Anslinger hated the idea of a Black agent in the bureau, he needed one to fully infiltrate the Black community, find out who was selling drugs, then make suggestions as to who should be busted. Fletcher was his guy. He was assigned to watch Billie Holiday’s every move. Fletcher got to know her well, and they became good friends. Anslinger felt Lady Day was vulnerable for arrest. Fletcher ended up at Holiday’s apartment claiming to have a telegram for her. Holiday told him to slide it under the door, but he said it was to big. He eventually gained entry into her apartment and was soon-to-be followed by more agents. Holiday agreed to strip, so that she could be searched saying, “All I want to say is— will you search me and let me go? All that policewoman is going to do is look up my pussy.” Holiday then pissed on the floor of her apartment in defiance. Fletcher took Holiday aside and told her that he would talk to Anslinger personally for her. She ended up not getting in trouble and even kept Fletcher as a friend afterwards. “I had so many close conversations with her, about so many things,” Fletcher remembered. “She was the type who would make anyone sympathetic because she was the loving type.”
That incident didn’t lead to jail time, but Anslinger wasn’t finished. He found a “break” on Holiday through her abusive husband/manager/occasional pimp, Louis McKay. It was said that he beat Holiday so severely that her ribs had to be taped up before she was pushed on stage, some nights. Holiday was too shook to go to the cops, but finally mustered up the strength to leave McKay. This didn’t sit well with McKay, and he decided to flip on Holiday for the feds. He agreed to work with Anslnger because, “She’s been getting away with too much shit.” He said in true pimp fashion. “How come I got to take this from this bitch here? This low-class bitch? If I got a whore, I got some money from her or I don’t have nothing to do with the bitch.” He also expressed his desire to see “Holiday’s ass in the gutter in the East River.” He gloated, “I’m going to do her up so goddamn bad she going to remember as long as she live.”
McKay’s collaboration with the feds led to another drug arrest for Holiday, this time with a trial date. During the proceedings, Holiday pleaded with the judge to let her go to the hospital for treatment, so that she could get “the cure.” The judge wasn’t hearing it and sentenced Holiday to a year in a West Virginia jail, where she would have to go cold turkey off the dope and experience withdrawals.
Anslinger took a much different approach with White women celebrities/socialites with drug addictions. Legendary actress Judy Garland was also a prolific smack shooter. However, Anslinger just had a friendly chat with her, advising the actress to take longer breaks between shoots. He even went so far as to assure Garland’s studio that she didn’t have a drug problem. He also couldn’t arrest a Washington socialite addict, claiming that “it would destroy….the unblemished reputation of one of the nation’s most honored families.” He would promote that idea that the American drug problem was 100% Black. Making 10% of the population 60% of the users was a fear tactic that Anslinger needed to further ensure that his department stayed open.
Anslinger needed another win for his bureau, though. He turned back to Holiday to victimize. When she wasreleased from jail, Holiday was stripped of her cabaret performer’s license, on the claims that listening to her music may “harm the morals of the public.” This license was needed to perform at venues that served liquor, which was pretty much every jazz club in the country. Nevertheless, Anslinger wanted to punish her more, so he sicked one of his prized agents, Colonel George White, on her.
White was a large, aggressive agent, who did his share of dirt. When he left his post as a San Francisco journalist to apply for the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, his personality test flagged him as a sadist (someone who likes to inflict pain on others). More evidence that he had a screw loose was he was known to swim in the poisonous Hudson River. Nevertheless, White rose through the ranks. He became the first White agent to infiltrate a Chinese drug gang (he learned Mandarin so he could chant their oaths). He strangled a Japanese man to death, claiming that he thought the poor man was a spy. In reality, White killed the man just to kill him. He hung with thugs and wanted to fit in with them. White even kept a photo of the dead man in his apartment. However, it was probably White’s history of slipping drugs to women that made him Anslinger’s choice to hunt Billie Holiday. While living in Greenwich Village, he would pose as an artist and spike women’s drinks with LSD in his apartment (they showed signs that they didn’t want to fuck him beforehand) to see what would happen. Nevertheless, One night, he came to see Holiday perform live at Cafe Society Uptown. Though he requested songs for her to sing, he would claim her music was trash later. He felt that Holiday was “didn’t know her place.” He didn’t fuck with Lady Day’s flashy lifestyle of classy automobiles, jewelry and fur coats and believed she had to be set straight.
White and his men came for Holiday at the Mark Twain Hotel in San Fran without a warrant. Agents claimed to find opium stashed in a trash can in her room (which was never entered into evidence). Holiday would go on to check herself into a clinic (at the cost of $1,000), promising that she would show no signs of drug addiction. It turned out she was right. She didn’t show any symptoms of withdrawal during her stay. The prosecution proceeded anyway and Holiday was found not guilty.
Holiday would continue singing “Strange Fruit” throughout her career. Seeing what happened to her with the laws,many other singers of the era were too scared to sing it. The beginning of her end began when she was 44 and collapsed. She was taken to Knickerbocker Hospital, but was turned away after an hour and a half of waiting. The hospital refused to serve drug addicts. Holiday had a slew of ailments at the time: “she was emaciated because she had not been eating; she had cirrhosis of the liver because of chronic drinking; she had cardiac and respiratory problems due to chronic smoking; and she had several leg ulcers caused by starting to inject street heroin once again.”
Holiday was then taken to New York City Metropolitan Hospital, where she was admitted (Holiday smoked a cigarette as soon as she was taken off of oxygen). Maybe it was women’s intuition, but Holiday just knew that she was going to be harassed by the feds again. Sure enough, agents showed up at her hospital room, saying they found an eighth of dope wrapped in tin foil in her apartment (at a location in the crib that Holiday was too short to reach). A grand jury was summoned to indict the dying songstress. Her mugshot was taken, she was fingerprinted and she was urged to rat on whichever dealer served her. Holiday was handcuffed to her bed, her things were confiscated and no visitors were allowed into the room without a permit. With agents posted outside her hospital room door, Holiday started to experience withdrawals and begged for methadone. She was given methadone for ten days and started showing signs of recovery, but the treatment was abruptly stopped and she began to decline again. Holiday believed that the powers-that-be were trying to kill her.
A “Let Lady Live” protest was held outside of the hospital, led by Rev. Eugene Callender. The pastor had built a clinic in his church and requested to transfer Holiday there. His requests were denied. As a result of improper care, Billie Holiday died right there, handcuffed to a hospital bed with agents at her door. She had 15 $50 notes strapped to her leg that she wanted dispensed to the nursing staff for being so helpful. That $750 was about all the iconic singer had left. Of her death, Harry Anslinger wrote (mocking one of her songs) that, “there would be no more ‘Good Morning Heartache.’”
In a copy of her autobiography, which she autographed for Jimmy Fletcher, Holiday wrote:
Most federal agents are nice people. They’ve got a dirty job to do and they have to do it. Some of the nicer ones have feelings enough to hate themselves sometime for what they have to do . . . Maybe they would have been kinder to me if they’d been nasty; then I wouldn’t have trusted them enough to believe what they told me.
In her memoir, Billie Holiday blamed the “War On Drugs” for her predicament:
Imagine if the government chased sick people with diabetes, put a tax on insulin and drove it into the black market, told doctors they couldn’t treat them,” she wrote in her memoir, “then sent them to jail. If we did that, everyone would know we were crazy. Yet we do practically the same thing every day in the week to sick people hooked on drugs.
This piece was adapted from “The Hunting Of Billie Holiday” by Johann Hari, author of Chasing The Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, for Politico