From 1967 to 2007, the Federal Bureau of Investigation methodically collected information about Aretha Franklin using false phone calls, surveillance, infiltration, and highly-placed sources, according to the documents obtained in September by Rolling Stone.
Franklin’s FBI file — first requested in via the Freedom of Information Act on Aug. 17, 2018 — is 270 pages long, peppered with phrases like “Black extremists,” “pro-communist,” “hate America,” “radical,” “racial violence,” and “militant Black power” and overflowing with suspicion about the singer, her work, and the other activists and entertainers with whom she she spent time. Some documents are heavily redacted and others indicate that there may be additional materials in the FBI’s possession. Rolling Stone has requested the FBI make available any and all additional records.
“I’m not really sure if my mother was aware that she was being targeted by the FBI and followed. I do know that she had absolutely nothing to hide though,” Aretha Franklin’s son, Kecalf Franklin, tells Rolling Stone.
Born in Memphis in 1942 and raised in Detroit, young Aretha Franklin sang in the gospel choir where her father Clarence L. Franklin was a minister and civil rights activist, and she followed in his footsteps.
Franklin’s work on behalf of civil rights and her association with Martin Luther King Jr., Angela Davis, and other social justice revolutionaries, became a preoccupation of the FBI, with the singer’s addresses, phone numbers and activities regularly tracked by agents, according to the documents obtained by Rolling Stone. Along with all the surveillance, the FBI documents contain letters and reports of death threats against Franklin. In 1974, for example, she received this ominous letter, “Dear Aretha…I’m still in charge of you…I’m not to be crossed…you should be…paying me some of my money…evidently your advisors do not know the dangers of neglecting what I’m saying…I would hate to drag [your father] into this.”
In 1979, four months after her father was shot in Detroit, she received yet another threat from a man who said he was going to kill her and her family. In a separate incident, files show an extortion attempt against Franklin. Information about the suspects in these incidents has been redacted.
This March 26, 1972 file photo shows the Rev. Jesse Jackson speaking to reporters at the Operation PUSH Soul Picnic in New York as Tom Todd, vice president of PUSH, from second left, Aretha Franklin and Louis Stokes.
The FBI declined several requests to comment for this article.
Among the documents obtained by Rolling Stone —some of which are newly declassified— is a 1968 document discussing funeral plans for Martin Luther King Jr., calling it a “racial situation.” It further notes “Sammy Davis Jr., Aretha Franklin…of this group, some have supported militant Black power concept…[performance at MLK memorial by these prominent entertainers] would provide emotional spark which could ignite racial disturbance in this area.”
The agency also tried and failed to connect Franklin to the Black Liberation Army and other so-called “radical” movements. In one case, the FBI detailed her 1971 contract with Atlantic Records “just in case” agents could link Franklin’s business dealings to the Black Panther Party.
Another document titled “Possible Racial Violence” describes an incident in August 1968 when Franklin canceled a show at the Red Rocks Amphitheater near Denver, Colorado. According to local news reports at the time, fans engaged in a “20-minute melee” and “broke chairs and music stands, damaged a grand piano, and even set fire to trees, bushes and trash piles.”
The agency’s notes say that the “disturbance began about 9 pm after Miss Franklin refused to perform because her fee, guaranteed by the promoter, was not forthcoming.”
Franklin issued a statement apologizing to her fans and saying she hoped they would be given a refund. Franklin had a firm rule: She had to be paid prior to her performances, usually in cash. Tavis Smiley, the talk show host, told The New Yorker’s David Remnick that she was concerned about being cheated, as were many prominent Black musicians. “There is the sense in her very often that people are out to harm you. And she won’t have it. You are not going to disrespect her,” Smiley said in 2016.
Record producer/ music industry executive Clive Davis, singer Aretha Franklin and Kecalf Cunningham attend Aretha Franklin’s 72nd Birthday Celebration on March 22, 2014 in New York City.
From the very early days of the civil rights movement and through today, the government has been known to keep tabs on prominent Black leaders, entertainers and activists and scores of other celebrities involved in the anti-war or social justice movements or whom J. Edgar Hoover thought it might be beneficial to collect dirt about.
Marvin Gaye has a brief six-page file, which details an incident that followed him not being paid for a concert. Jimi Hendrix has a file including documents related to a pot bust in Canada. Mariam Makeba, an anti-apartheid activist who was married to Stokely Carmichael, has a 292-page file which details the couple’s every move, including buying new home appliances.
As Rolling Stone recently reported, The Monkees’ Micky Dolenz is suing the FBI after it failed to hand over the full file the agency has on the band. Robin Gibb, Whitney Houston, The Notorious B.I.G., and even John Denver had FBI files.
Despite the four decades of surveillance and hundreds of pages of notes, the bureau ultimately never discovered anything linking Queen of Soul to any type of extremist or “radical” activities. “It does make me feel a certain way knowing the FBI had her targeted and wanted to know her every move” Kecalf Franklin says. “But at the same time knowing my mother and the way she ran her business I know she had nothing to hide so they wouldn’t have found anything and were wasting their time. As you see…they found nothing at all.”