“Summer of Soul”: The Hidden Story of the Harlem Cultural Festival

By Kharisma McIlwaine

Black music has such a rich history, heritage and global cultural impact. This had an even greater impact on the black community as a whole. With a wide range of sounds and the mix of genres, black artists have always used music as a platform for change.

When it comes to musical royalty, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson of Philadelphia has been leading the way for musicians and music enthusiasts for decades as a member of The Roots, Music Director of “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” and better. from the New York Times -selling author.

Questlove can now add the director to his list of achievements thanks to his directorial debut: A Questlove Jawn, “Summer of Soul (Or, When the Revolution could not be televised)”.

“Summer of Soul,” which premiered at Sundance, receiving “Grand Jury” and “Audience” awards, is a documentary that highlights a hidden masterpiece – the Harlem Cultural Festival.

Gladys Knight & the Pips performed at the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969, in the documentary SUMMER OF SOUL. Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2021 20th Century Studios All rights reserved

The Harlem Cultural Festival was a six-week festival that took place in Harlem at the same time as Woodstock in 1969. The footage captured performances by some of the biggest names in R&B, gospel, Afro-Latin music and Latin, including Stevie Wonder, Sly & The Family Stone, BB King, Mahalia Jackson, Nina Simone, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Ray Barretto, The Staple Singers and The Fifth Dimension.

However, these historic images have been lost – buried in a basement for 50 years. During a press webinar, Questlove shared the incredible journey behind the creation of this film.

Imagined by Tony Lawrence, salon singer and master of ceremonies, the Harlem Cultural Festival welcomed more than 300,000 people for six Sundays in a row in Harlem’s Mount Morris Park. Questlove was introduced to festival imagery long before taking on the role of director.

“I inadvertently first saw the footage in Tokyo in 1997,” he said. “My translator for this tour knew I was a soul fan and took me to a place called The Soul Train Cafe. I didn’t know I was watching the Harlem Cultural Festival; I just assumed that all the festivals in the 60s were from Europe, because America didn’t really have that culture yet. Only to find out 20 years later, when David Dinerstein and Robert Fyvolent told me that they had these images and that they wanted me to make this film.

As a multi-hyphenator familiar with a number of areas of the entertainment industry, Questlove shared his initial concern in taking on this project.

“This project, more than anything, has helped me evolve as a human being. Sometimes artists can be neurotic… living in our heads, ”he explained. “I wouldn’t hesitate to admit that of all the things I’ve done creatively, this is the one that worried me the most, and by nervous I mean scared in part because I’m a perfectionist. . What I will say is that this movie really brought out a consciousness and a skill in me that I never knew I had. “

Nina Simone performed at the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969, featured in the documentary SUMMER OF SOUL. Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2021 20th Century Studios All rights reserved

“Summer of Soul” is full of surprises, including an incredible drum solo from a then 19-year-old Stevie Wonder. It highlights the great diversity of black music not only in America, but the intersectionality of black music around the world. Plus, it intentionally highlights the power of the gospel.

“As far as I was concerned, there was a perfect balance between soul, free jazz and salsa. The gospel aspect of it – I kind of see gospel and free jazz as the same thing, ”he said. “I wanted people to know that it’s not just black people acting wild and crazy, that it was a therapeutic thing. For many of us, gospel music was the channel – because we didn’t know [the] the dysfunctional families, the therapy and the life coaches we have now.

Questlove immersed himself completely in the process of selecting which performances to include in the documentary – the result is absolutely breathtaking.

“There was a time when I was wondering if I could take the same approach I take to DJing or putting on a show with this movie and that’s exactly what I did,” he said. he declares. “For starters, for five months, I just kept it on loop around the clock, no matter where I was in the house or in the world. If anything gave me goosebumps, then I would take note of it. I felt like if there were 30 things that gave me goosebumps, we could have a foundation.

After having consumed the brilliance of this documentary and this festival, the public will ask themselves a question: how could a festival of this magnitude remain hidden for so long? The short answer… Black erase.

“This is the first time that I really see conversations that have never been had before,” Questlove said. “We weren’t really talking about erasing black people. Years ago, we kind of coded it as cultural appropriation, which was a really politically correct way of putting it. It was always draped in slang, so you couldn’t see the heart or the sincerity of the matter.

“Whether it’s Tik Tok content or a festival, I know this thing… it’s not the only story out there! he added. “This is not the only streak that drags on unscathed. So maybe this movie can be a starter – kind of [sea]change so that these stories finally come out.

BB King performing at the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969, featured in the documentary SUMMER OF SOUL. Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2021 20th Century Studios All rights reserved

“Even something as small as social media content or one of the very first black festivals is important to our history,” Questlove continued. “As for me, I didn’t go in there wanting to be a director or any of those things. I believe creativity is transferable, so this is not my last rodeo telling our stories. If anything, I’m more obsessed than ever with making sure the story is correct, so that we don’t forget who this artist or event is.

In the documentary, The Fifth Dimension’s Marilyn McCoo recalled a time when she was told that Fifth Dimension’s music was not dark enough. “Summer of Soul” helped dispel this ideology that black music is a monolith. It is a love letter to darkness and black music, celebrating it in all its forms.

Rich in nostalgia and phenomenal performances, the Harlem Culture Festival was a safe place for black people to come together and enjoy the things they had in common… a love for music and for each other. It was a cultural movement that allowed people to express themselves in their most authentic ways. In an era when the mere existence of darkness was seen as a threat, racism was the norm and powerful leaders like Reverend Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were being murdered. Lawrence gave refuge to a whole community of blacks.

Questlove has given us all a real gem in this documentary. “Summer of Soul” is in theaters and available to stream on Hulu – it’s a must!

Darcy J. Skinner

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