While the world watched hippies dancing in the mud at Woodstock, over 300 thousand black people gathered in Harlem for the Soul Music Festival. In the new film, “Summer of Soul”, the festival is seen for the first time. In his producing and directorial debut, Amir “Questlove” Thompson brilliantly tells the story of six weeks in the Summer of 1969, of the Harlem Cultural Festival. At a time of incredible unrest, the festival provided black Americans a moment in time to find comfort, safety, freedom, and healing in the music.
The festival was filmed by television veteran, Hal Tulchin, but no one showed interest in it. The forgotten footage was found in the basement of Tulchin’s home following his death in 2017. Winner of the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival, “Summer of Soul” features performances by Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight and the Pips, The Staple singers, Nina Simone, Mahalia Jackson, and more.
“The fact that 40 hours of footage was kept from the public is living proof that revisionist history exists – it was incredibly important to me to get that history right. Blacks have always been a creative force of our culture. But sometimes those efforts are easily dismissed. I want to make sure that Black erasure doesn’t happen during my lifetime anymore, and the film was an opportunity to work towards that cause.”-Amir “Questlove” Thompson
1969 marked a moment of reflection and change in Black America. With the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr, it was a time of change in reference to politics, culture, and social justice. A new black nationalist state of consciousness began to take roots in younger black Americans. Suits and dresses were replaced with bell-bottoms, dashikis, and African-inspired clothing. Chemically relaxed hair was replaced with Afros and braids. This transition is reflected in the musical lineup during the Soul Music Festival. Polished Motown Acts such as Gladys Knight and the Pips shared the same stage as Sly and the Family Stone and Nina Simone.
Initially created to celebrate black creativity and to commemorate the one-year anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr’s assassination, Tony Lawrence, a lounge singer, and performer, created and curated the Harlem Cultural Festival. For six weeks, each Sunday in summer, Mount Morris Park in Harlem celebrated culture and community through music. Then, Mayor, John Lindsay supported the festival hoping it would help curb tensions, unrest, and looting in Harlem brought on by the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s death. Tony Lawrence also enlisted the Black Panthers to act as security. While the NYPD was present, Lawrence wanted to protect Harlem residents from the police.
“Screaming is just as therapeutic as any other form of cathartic release”-Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson
Central to the theme of “Summer of Soul” was the spirit of the music as a form of therapy and healing in the Black Community. Attendees and performers reminisced about the sense of pride they felt at the sight of so many black people gathered in one place in Harlem. With the incredible amount of unrest and racism occurring during the 60s, black people in Harlem enjoyed the festival as an act of self-care. From the soul-stirring duet of Precious Lord” with Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples, the free-spirited performance of “Everyday People” by Sly and the Family Stone to the unapologetically black rendition of “Young, Gifted and Black” by Nina Simone, it is evident in “Summer of Soul”, that the Harlem Cultural Festival was a salve for so many black people who just wanted space to exist and feel free in their own skin, if even for a moment.
“Summer of Soul” also highlights the diversity within the Harlem community. The Harlem neighborhood was a community with many shades of brown. Black, Afro-Latino, and African music are beautifully showcased during the Harlem Cultural fest. The intersectionality of black and brown music is displayed in the performances of South African trumpeter, Hugh Masekela, Puerto Rican percussionist, Ray Barreto, and Cuban percussionist, Mongo Santamaria. Highlighting the unique connections between black and brown communities through a shared struggle is as relevant today as it was in 1969 says, Lin Manuel-Miranda. “The communal heritage between Black and Brown people in Harlem remained as strong during 2020’s Black Lives Matters protests as the 1960s and before. There was a collective political pursuit for equal rights. It’s something that’s so exciting when you watch that footage from the Harlem festival and you see Ray and you see Mongo playing because we have a shared struggle, but we also have a shared joy,”
The documentation of the Harlem Cultural Festival by “Summer of Soul” represents a moment that rings true even today. Festivals like Afropunk, The Chosen Few Festivals, and others are prime examples of creating spaces of community, fellowship, and freedom with music as the great unifier.
“A song isn’t just a song. It can capture a moment in time. It will tell you a story if you look close enough. The story of “Summer of Soul” is my voice.” -Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson
Questlove’s directorial debut captures a moment in time and a spirit when Black icons in music, culture, and politics came together and united a community during the summer of 1969.
“Summer of Soul” is currently in theatres now and streaming on Hulu.
Danielle Sanders is a journalist and writer living in Chicago. Find her on social media @DanieSanders20.