Reimagining of Harlem Cultural Festival returning to New York in 2023

HARLEM, Manhattan – A Harlem band travels back to the future to reimagine a 1969 concert series that brought the community together in what is now Marcus Garvey Park.

A film about the shows called “Summer of Soul” won the Best Documentary Oscar last month, all the more notable as it was the directorial debut of musician and producer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson.

Now the film has inspired the idea of ​​a new Harlem Festival of Culture slated for summer 2023.

It’s still over a year away, but the details come together in the same place where history was written over half a century ago.

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Shakespeare wrote, “What is past is a prologue”, which means that the story can set the stage for what is to follow; and that’s the idea behind another Summer of Soul in Harlem.

Musa Jackson was a 5-year-old when he attended the original and saw the late Nina Simone take the stage.

“Are you ready, black people? she asked the crowd of over 50,000 on that summer day long ago. “Are you ready?”

Jackson never forgot it.

“It’s a memory that’s been in my brain, that’s been in my brain all my life,” he said.

Jackson shared those memories in the Oscar-winning documentary Questlove.

“This movie completely changed my life,” he said. “I obviously got so much love from the community as well as people around the world.”

And it made him think that maybe the original concert series depicted in the film could be reimagined for the 21st century.

He brought in two partners, and together they founded the Harlem Festival of Culture.

“It’s really going to be a collaboration,” said veteran community organizer Nikoa Evans. “And we’re engaging the community in a very local way to get their perspective and what they want to do because this is really their festival.”

Joining them is Yvonne McNair, an experienced live event producer.

“We’re hiring sponsors,” McNair said. “We have partners that we talk to, to help that.”

The plan is to recruit artists from the region.

“We plan to hire talent from Harlem,” McNair said. “Because we know Harlem means so much to them.”

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Jackson said he plans to ask Questlove to participate, “in any way he chooses.” In the meantime, a series of events have already begun to raise awareness of these ambitious plans for next summer.

As the documentary makes clear, the original Summer of Soul was much more than music, as 1969 was a watershed moment in the black community.

The assassination of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. happened just a year before the event and riots had taken place in several major cities.

“A lot of these topics, a lot of topics, are still going on today,” McNair said. “These are still things that we have to sort out.”

And that is why the organizers believe that the time has come for the return of this festival.

“We want to make a footprint,” Evans said. “And create a legacy that will last.”

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Darcy J. Skinner