“Yeah, not far from where we are now, in 1939, Billie Holiday stands on stage in a hotel, and she sings the song “Strange Fruit,” which obviously your viewers will know is an anti-lynching song. Her goddaughter Lorraine Feather said to me, “You’ve got to understand how shocking this was, right?” Billie Holiday wasn’t allowed to walk through the front door of that hotel; she had to go through the service elevator. To have an African-American woman standing up, at a time when most pop songs were like twee, you know, “P.S. I Love You,” that kind of thing, singing against lynching in front of a white audience was regarded as really shocking. And that night, according to her biographer, Julia Blackburn, she’s told by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, “Stop singing this song.”
Federal Bureau of Narcotics was run by a man called Harry Anslinger, who I think is the most influential person who no one’s ever heard of. Harry Anslinger takes over the Department of Prohibition just as alcohol prohibition is ending, and he wants to find a new purpose for it. You know, he’s got this huge bureaucracy he wants to run. And he’s really driven by two passions: an intense hatred of African Americans—I mean, this is a guy who was regarded as a crazy racist by the crazy racists in the 1930s; he used the N-word in official police reports so often that his senator said he should have to resign—and a really strong hatred of addicts. And Billie Holiday, to him, was like the symbol of everything that was going wrong in America. And so, he gives her this order.
She refuses. She basically says, “Screw you. I’m an American citizen. I’ll say what I want.” She had grown up in segregated Baltimore, and she had promised herself she would never bow her head to any white man. And that’s when Harry Anslinger begins the process of stalking her, and eventually, I think, playing a role in her death, as was explained to me by her friends and by all the archival research.”
The Hunting of Billie Holiday & the Roots of the U.S. War on Drugs