What the Harlem Cultural Festival represented

There were to be five shows over five consecutive Sundays, a program modeled after a series of six phenomenal events over six Sundays the previous year, with one major difference: for 1970, the Harlem Cultural Festival moved from its titular home. in the historic venue of black and Latin life in New York City to Damrosch Park, an outdoor space at Lincoln Center, where opera, ballet and other arts glorified by the white elite were staged in the surrounding complex. After a concert billed as a “Folk Gospel Music Show,” featuring the Mighty Mellotones, Gospel Warriors and others, the four remaining dates of the 1970 festival were canceled, apparently for lack of funding. The title in The New York Times reported, “Concerts Stilled”, and the performances devoted to blues and soul music, as well as a “Tribute to the late Otis Redding”, were never to be.

The Harlem Cultural Festival, a brainchild of singer and entrepreneur Tony Lawrence, who organized and animated each show with evangelical flair, was not simply interrupted; he has been killed. After three years of increasingly ambitious events in Harlem, from block parties to a star-studded extravaganza that drew some 300,000 people to the festival site in Mount Morris Park (now Marcus Garvey Park) in 1969, the celebration of black music in Harlem and the performance moved to a new location five miles south of Harlem… and died there. As the New York Amsterdam News reported: “The Harlem Culture Festival, which for so long was a complete hit when held at Mt. Morris Park in Harlem… has faded from the upscale scene this year and moved to Lincoln Center . Now he’s completely gone. Its title contained two bullet points in three words: “Harlem Festival Ain’t.

Fortunately, Lawrence had a plan to keep the festival in memory and spread its message. He arranged for the 1969 concerts to be recorded by five video cameras under the direction of television production veteran Hal Tulchin. The team filmed some 40 hours of footage from six concerts that year, and Lawrence and his business partners began what they hoped would be a massive project to package material for television, records, and a feature film. or two. Two hour-long television specials were produced and broadcast nationally in 1969. The first, which aired on the CBS network in July, was a catch-all variety show featuring performances by the Chambers Brothers, of the Fifth Dimension, Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach, Edwin Hawkins. Singers (who recently put Pentecostal exhilaration on the pop charts with their hit “Oh Happy Day”), and Olatunji and his troupe of African drummers, singers and dancers. The second program, broadcast on ABC stations in September, was taken from the concert dedicated to spirituals and sacred music, and featured musical performances by gospel stars Mahalia Jackson, the Staple Singers and Clara Walker and the Gospel Redeemers. , with remarks by Rev Jesse Jackson. (The latter program was later repackaged by its sponsor, General Foods, as Mahalia in the park and made available for free use in schools.) In 1970, the Afro-American The newspaper would identify Tony Lawrence not as a singer or a concert promoter, but as “the producer of the Harlem Cultural Festival television show”.

The fact that two hour-long specials on this festival’s music network TV were broadcast nationally and prominently at the time – and that some of the footage would be used elsewhere, including a pair of documentaries about one of the most memorable performers, Nina Simone — doesn’t contradict the film’s subtitle Questlove has now made about the festival and its significance: Summer of Soul (or, when the revolution couldn’t be televised). A fair amount of good festival music was televised, yes. But the true cultural revolution that the event reflected and embodied – the radical shift in black thought, art and action that brought black to the fore with pride and mistrust in 1969 – was held to away from the screens as TV presenters and producers, as well as most of the rest of the media, obsessed with the first Apollo moon landing and another music festival that took place that summer, Woodstock. Built with care and intellectual ardor by Questlove in his early days as a director, Summer of the soul combines a thoughtful selection of clips from the Harlem Cultural Festival, contemporary interviews with people who attended or performed there (Mavis Staples, Stevie Wonder and Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr. of the Fifth Dimension, among others), and archive footage of events in and around 1969 to deliver a comprehensive and multi-layered exegesis on the explosion of consciousness and the creative expression that the festival encapsulates.

IIt was a phenomenon in Harlem and of Harlem, where artists of color shared their art with hundreds of thousands of other people of color, whose shared experiences fueled this art. “When I looked in the crowd, I was overwhelmed with joy,” recalls Mavis Staples. “I just saw so many black people, and they were overjoyed.”

Music videos tell a strong story on their own and surely would have been enough material for a lesser filmmaker. Even for those showing the movie at home, fast-forwarding and stopping at any random spot in the performance sequence will be a haunting experience: BB King singing “Everyone Wants to Know” why I sing the blues ”and summarizing the whole story of black oppression from slavery to the riots of the 1960s; Mavis Staples and Mahalia Jackson sharing a mic and carrying their souls to “Take My Hand Precious Lord,” after Jesse Jackson described how Martin Luther King Jr. asked for the song in his last words before being murdered; or, in the fiery call for black activism that Questlove situated as the film’s final performance, Nina Simone improvising a call and response with the audience, adapting poet David Nelson’s text:

“Are you ready, blacks? Simone asked. “Are you ready, ready, ready?” Are you ready to kill if necessary?
“Yes,” replied the crowd.
“Is your mind ready?” She continued.
“Yes!”
“Is your body ready? “
“Yes!” the crowd roared.
“Are you ready to smash white things?” Burn buildings? Are you ready to love
Black? Are you ready, black people? “

Questlove’s hand as a filmmaker is active and secure, arranging the scenes for emotional impact rather than historical timeline. (The final event of the 1969 iteration of the Harlem Cultural Festival was actually a beauty pageant, where Miss Harlem was crowned.) And this filmmaker’s hand is essentially musical. At several points, he constructs visual collages, interspersing archival footage and interview segments like music samples. We see Stevie Wonder, alone on drums on stage, pouring out his 19-year-old heart. Cutting to the beat as the drummer that is Questlove, he builds an audio-visual model that gains in intensity, as we hear testimony from his interview subjects and voices from archival footage:
“Styles changed.
“The music was changing.
“And the revolution was brewing.”
We want black power! “
“We need it now! “

In 1969, the African-American press was virtually alone in recognizing the importance of the festival as a vector of black expression at a pivotal time. As the New York Amsterdam News described one of the concerts: “It was a really memorable show produced by black men especially for black people.” In a later article summarizing the festival, the newspaper wrote: “An interesting comparison is the Woodstock festival. Woodstock received national publicity and made headlines for almost a week…. This leads to the conclusion that the only time the white press takes an interest in the black community is during a riot or major disturbance. ”

The comparison with Woodstock has long haunted the Harlem Cultural Festival. Hal Tulchin, until his death in 2017, spoke of the footage he shot as a recording of “Black Woodstock,” which is the phrase Questlove himself first used as a working title for his film. . (The words are visible on a twinkling in a scene he shot for what has become Summer of the soulAside from the decreased identification of a black event by its relation to a white event, Woodstock was not quite pure white; he benefited mightily from the outsized contributions of the few black artists he allowed on stage: Sly and the Family Stone, the only act to appear at both festivals, which tore them both up with psychedelic funk; Richie Havens, who opened Woodstock with a galvanizing call for “freedom”; and Jimi Hendrix, who closed Woodstock with a lead guitar implosion from “The Star-Bangled Banner”. With those three acts alone, the festival in upstate New York in 1969 could have been as interesting as the one happening at the same time in Harlem.


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Darcy J. Skinner

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