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Still from Summer of Soul shows a band of Black performers on stage at the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969.

Issue 002 Spring 2021 Interviews

Summer of Soul: Reclaiming The Harlem Cultural Festival

An interview with Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson

by Karas Lamb

Summer of Soul (2021). Film still courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.

The year 1969 was preceded by some of the biggest moments of the Civil Rights Movement—from Loving v. Virginia to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and Civil Rights Act of 1968 to the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. That summer, scores of Black Americans, scarred by the impact of those events, gathered at Harlem’s Mount Morris Park for the Harlem Cultural Festival.

Held on successive Sundays from June 29 to August 25, the series would host an audience of 300,000 and come to be known as “Black Woodstock”—after its more famous counterpart held the same year. Footage of the latter would transform an upstate New York dairy farm into holy ground for American folk and rock. Meanwhile, footage—and common knowledge—of the Harlem Cultural Festival languished in the basement of producer and filmmaker Hal Tulchin. The festival is now the subject of the Sundance Film Festival’s Grand Jury Prize–winning documentary Summer of Soul (. . . Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (2021). The festival was the living, breathing, gyrating, and jiving intersection of Black American music, the Civil Rights era, and radical Black leftist movements. The film marks Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s feature-length directorial debut. It is a tour de force that reclaims a watershed moment in Black art and liberation featuring the likes of Nina Simone, Sly and the Family Stone, Stevie Wonder, B. B. King, the Staples Singers, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Hugh Masekela, the 5th Dimension, the Edwin Hawkins Singers, and more.

Emerging miraculously after five decades, Summer of Soul liberates one of the most important but little-known moments in Black music that championed Black pride and has the chance—at yet another tipping point in the American struggle for racial equality—to do it all over again. Questlove explains.

Karas Lamb: I’d like to talk first about the genesis of Summer of Soul and why the story of the Harlem Cultural Festival, or “Black Woodstock,” was so important for you to tell.

Questlove: It’s kind of weird the way the producers of the film, David Dinerstein and Robert Fyvolent, contacted me in the summer of 2017 about this mythical festival that allegedly took place fifty years ago. I’m the kind of person, especially the kind of pop art collector, that often meets people that know about the amount of collecting I do—the auctions I go to and the things I acquire. There’s always that one guy that says, “Well, I have this particular Prince piano that you don’t know about in a warehouse stored over . . .” You know, that sort of thing. I thought it was an attempt to flex. Then I thought, Stevie Wonder, Sly, Nina Simone, BB King, and Max Roach? This concert took place and was filmed in Harlem fifty years ago and no one knows about it? There’s almost nothing about it on the internet. I thought it was some elaborate story. They said, “No, we have something that we think you’d be interested in seeing.” My whole thing was: pics or it didn’t happen. The next week they sent me clips, and my jaw dropped. Suddenly I went to the opposite extreme of wanting to know: What’s the catch here? Why do you guys want me to do this? If this document is important to the history of Black music, why wouldn’t you want to give this to a big director? But then there was another part of me that was just burning to see all of the footage.

I’m the kind of guy that watches musical documentaries and I’m always talking to the screen, because this particular instrument wasn’t invented in 1965, or that’s the wrong time period—the details are off. I also had the burning question: how was Black erasure so normalized that not one person or network saw fit to give it a blurb or even a mention?

So that’s where I entered. I spent one year just absorbing and learning. But you know, my production partner Joseph Patel basically said, “Look, you put records together, you write books—this is the same thing. You have to figure out what your story is. And once we map out what the story is, then we tell that story.” And, thank God, I think we nailed it.

How was Black erasure so normalized that not one person or network saw fit to give it a blurb or even a mention?

KL: The original Hal Tulchin footage of the 1969 concert series was feared lost for over fifty years. How did it surface?

Q: Well, this is not to say that footage hasn’t leaked out, but it was never put in the proper context. I was in Japan in 1996. They have immense love and respect for things that Americans throw away and discard. I happened to be in a soul club, and on the bar movie screen, I saw four minutes of Sly and the Family Stone in concert. I was under the impression that it was a European music festival because up until like 2010, huge festivals were not such a staple in the United States. Before then, there was a Lollapalooza here and a Coachella there. I had no reason to believe that this was something historically significant from the United States. So I saw that bit of footage before, but I knew nothing else.

The festival organizer, Tony Lawrence, and festival producer, Hal Tulchin, thought that “Black Woodstock” would be a no-brainer for TV when they captured it. Lawrence got Maxwell House to pay for it. It was low budget, but it was still enough to capture fifty hours of footage. When Tulchin tried to shop it, he was shocked at the pushback and network disinterest. All they got for their hard work was one local station in New York (WNEW) that decided to show segments of it on a Sunday, back in late 1969. Basically, nobody saw it. Tulchin tried to change the title of the film because he felt he could resell it as the “answer to Woodstock,” but buyers still weren’t interested. So it sat in his basement for forty-nine years.

Near Tulchin’s death, Dinerstein, who had been trying for ten to fifteen years to buy this footage off of him, finally convinced him to relent. After he passed away, his wife was going to gut the basement and get rid of everything—their mementos, the old clothes, the trunks, and everything. Something told us we should take one more visit to that basement to see if there’s anything else. Sure enough, everything was in there—the floor plans, the contracts. Who knew you could get Sly and the Family Stone to play a concert at the height of their powers for $4,500 in 1969? The fact that Mahalia Jackson was the highest-paid performer, even above Stevie Wonder, was amazing. All of the details were laid out and helped us find people who were there at the festival.

KL: Is it possible that the obscuring and eventual erasure of the Harlem Cultural Festival’s story was done to suppress a major event in Black arts and culture because of its proximity to Black activist movements?

Q: I genuinely believe that when you tell a story of the oppressed and you tell the story of the oppressor, that maybe four times out of five, the oppressor is completely unaware of any long-term damage or any altering of history that’s been going on with the oppressed. I think they honestly, in their hearts, don’t feel as though it’s happening because it’s always done under the guise of “good business.” It’s easier to sell a concert that has Joe Cocker and Joan Baez and other white names of the day.

Often people are thinking of Middle America. When they say Middle America, the person they are referencing doesn’t look like you or me, and we don’t represent the whole idea of what defines [this] America. So I believe that’s even more dangerous—the whole idiom of “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” If it weren’t for the pandemic and this heightened sense of awareness non–people of color have about the long-term damage that’s been going on for a lot of us, I think this movie would be seen differently.

Initially, when cutting it, the first thing we took note of was that the things happening in 1969 are still happening fifty years later. Then it was like: OK, well, do we spell this out for people? The one thing I don’t like about films is when they don’t trust the intelligence of the audience that’s watching it. There was maybe a cut or two where we were thinking of infusing the civil protest of what was happening between 2015 and 2020. At the last minute, it was clear to us that the parallels between the two were obvious, and it would hit home just the same without spelling it out. It’s an empty feeling in the last ten minutes of the film when you realize that what you just saw could have been erased.

As a musician and as a person who was born in 1971, you know that one concert [Woodstock] defined a generation. It was contextualized as a generation-defining moment in history, and all I kept thinking was, Wow, this could have been that for me. Imagine if I grew up watching the Harlem Cultural Festival and it was held in the same light and given the same glory that its counterpart was given three weeks later. How could that have affected me as a musician? How could that have affected me as an artist? Could this have helped to keep Black consciousness at the forefront of Black music? The burden shouldn’t be on us to always be the example, but I had those questions. Fortunately, it’s affecting my life now, and I’m glad I’m the one to help bring it forth.

Still from the film "Summer of Soul" is a close-up image of two Black women singing into a microphone.
Summer of Soul (2021). Film still courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.

KL: What does it mean to tell the story of the Harlem Cultural Festival at this point in history and to give it a life of its own away from the specter of the famed Woodstock festival?

Q: It was liberating. It allowed me to tell the story I often felt was missing in every documentary about Black art. Often, as Black people, we have concerns about how we’re portrayed in Hollywood in terms of the material potentially making us look bad or unruly or uneducated. But there’s an opposite side of that spectrum. When you watch great events, it’s almost as if it’s a compliment when someone focuses on a Black person’s natural gifts, these God-given talents. It’s quite flattering, but it’s also dismissive—because it implies there’s no science, no intellect behind the art.

What’s even more beautiful is that the real star of this story is the people who are watching the festival and physically communicating how it affects them. We live in a meme and GIF culture right now. So you’ll see clips of people catching the spirit or these sorts of things. It seems humorous and funny, but what I wanted to get across was that for a lot of us in the United States, we just started talking about mental health for Black people in the last five years in a serious way. It was considered crazy to pay someone to talk about your problems. But, you know, for us, there was a cathartic release, as creators and listeners and observers, that could be found in the music. There were a lot of avant-garde performances at the festival that might have seemed out of place, but I wanted people to know when you see gospel singers screaming or soul singers holy-ghost shouting, that’s their release. That’s their way of getting therapy for what they’ve been through. And that was important to show.

The real star of this story is the people who are watching the festival and physically communicating how it affects them.

KL: You have people who were having this cathartic experience, but they’d also just been through a whole bunch of trauma. Can you talk a bit about the historical significance of the event as an extension of the sociopolitical movements of the time?

Q: That’s the specific reason why this festival was even a thing. Taking the cue from Boston in 1968, when James Brown happened to be in town on April 4, 1968, the night that Martin Luther King Jr. dies. The mayor wisely begged Brown to keep the concert going and also to let them televise it, so Boston doesn’t erupt in flames. Boston was one of the rare major cities that wasn’t mired in explosions and civil unrest, because James Brown kept them cool during those hours at night when they could have been out riding.

At this point, with the Kennedy brothers assassinated, with King gone, with Medgar Evers, all the civil rights leaders under threat—1968 was a turning point. The questions were: Who are we? What are we? What do we want? There’s people on one side following the civil rights edict of turning the other cheek, but there’s a younger element that’s more interested in freedom right now. It’s almost as if 1969 just happened to be the most important postmodern paradigm shift in Black culture post–Jim Crow era—in terms of how we dressed, how we looked, how we related, what we listened to, how we self-soothed. So much was happening in 1969. It felt like everybody was asking what’s next. All of our leaders are killed, Cointelpro was going strong, they’re killing the Black Panthers off. Vietnam was still a major concern. There was this hopelessness in the air. So this concert was put on and spread out throughout the summer of 1969 to keep Harlem from burning.

KL: The Harlem Cultural Festival feels like a bit of a linchpin. Where does it stand in the pantheon of other significant Black music festivals, like Wattstax (1972) or Festac (1977)?

Q: That’s hard to say, because even after I finished [Summer of Soul], I had a conversation with Stan Lathan and it hit me when we did Jesse Jackson’s interviews at his office in Chicago. I saw a poster on his wall and realized there’s one major concert festival we don’t know about. It was directed by a then 22-year-old Lathan and it was called Save The Children. This was in Chicago and done in the same mode as the Harlem Cultural Festival, with Motown acts—the Jackson 5, Marvin Gaye, Gladys Knight and the Pips. I think Sammy Davis Jr. came. It was organized by Lathan and Clarence Avant for Jesse Jackson’s Operation PUSH to encourage political action. Something is happening with that [footage] as well.

From a technical standpoint, yes, this is the first recorded modern Black festival of its kind, although it’s not the first Black festival. In terms of its political overtones, it is the linchpin, which is why I definitely felt it was uber-important to make sure this comes out of the gate correctly, so I am able to tell other stories.

KL: Do you know whether the concert series directly inspired or influenced any iconic musical releases in subsequent years? What fruit did the moment bear artistically?

Q: As far as the creation is concerned, there’s a longer cut of the Stevie Wonder interview that stands out. Left to my own devices, this could easily have been a six-hour film or a five-part film. There’s a point where Chris Rock says, “It would be very easy for Stevie Wonder just to rely on the ’60s hits and coast through life.” But the fact that Stevie Wonder uses that particular time period to push further artistically, and in his activism to push further in performance with technology and the type of music he was playing, is important. During that period, it was just unheard of.

Stevie Wonder using a wah-wah pedal or the fact that Sly and the Family Stone didn’t wear suits—that’s crazy. The fact that Sly rebelled against this whole idea that you have to wear a suit to be presentable for Middle American audiences was huge. And the protest songs. It was unheard of for you to openly criticize the government or the police––to challenge the white, patriarchal establishment. So the fact that the Staples Singers were easing away from gospel into protest music was a very 1969 thing to do.

Also, with Nina Simone, the poem that she did was from the Last Poets. That year alone, it was just unheard of to be vocal, to have an opinion, to dress the way you want to. It was unheard of to look wild and crazy, because we had spent all of the time beforehand sort of doing this “I come in peace, I’m not harmful” routine. Motown sent all their artists to charm school. You know, cross your legs, drink your tea this way, say this very politely. It was basically how to not scare white people. And I think by 1969, all of that went out the door. So yeah, the most important takeaway is that the Harlem Cultural Festival was the culmination of the first year that we were allowed to be unapologetically Black—no minstrel overtones, no buffoonery, no gentle, nonthreatening stance. Finally, this was us.

The Harlem Cultural Festival was the culmination of the first year that we were allowed to be unapologetically Black.

KL: Summer of Soul won the 2021 Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. What have the Harlem Cultural Festival and the production of the film meant to you as a Black musician?

Q: It meant a lot to me just as a musician. I was elated to see a lot of those local music-union house musicians were playing a lot of this stuff, sight unseen, which was the order of the day back in the ’60s. You traveled to a city and you met the band that the promoter provided for you and pray to God that they sound just as good as the band that was in West Virginia the night before or better than the band that was in Texas. The idea of you having a self-contained band wasn’t a thing until the ’70s. So I was shocked that the band was able to catch on so quickly. I’m also amazed at the pristine level of the sound. I’m in a band that travels with this $300,000 sound rig. Meanwhile, this festival was done with sixteen microphones and it sounded pristine. We nearly left the sound alone in post-production. It took very little sweetening to make it sound better.

The musicianship of it all and the bands’ ability to keep the crowd engaged was impressive. Probably the greatest example is Sly and the Family Stone. It still took a second for the audience to warm up to them. They were so radical. It was unheard of to see a racially mixed band. No one had ever seen a female trumpet player play before. Then the crazy outfits they had on and just their whole energy. Just to see the look on the audience’s faces—from complete shock to confusion to totally having them in the palm of their hands—is a sight to see.

Summer of Soul (2021). Film still courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.

KL: What kinds of stories has Summer of Soul inspired you to tell next? Is this the beginning of a documentary canon that brings modern Black musical history to life in a way that has not happened yet?

Q: Absolutely. I announced the Sly and the Family Stone documentary already, so that’s officially on the record. There are three or four more under the hood. I definitely see this as my lane. With this next project that we’re bringing forth, I really want to examine the mind-state of Black artists. Once you take the humanization element away from Black people, it becomes very easy for a lot of people to filter us through as if we don’t have feelings or if we don’t have opinions or lives or anything else that matters.

If there is anything that post-2020 pandemic life really gives you, it has brought people to a place where there’s no denying that we all have these vices of self-soothing that we go to when we don’t deal with the pain and the surface underneath that pain. And so these next films I’m about to tackle are about figures that history has pegged as troubled artists. We’re so quick to revel in the fuckery of reality show culture, because misery loves company. This is where I think I can at least change the conversation and make people see the trauma and the pain that an artist has to go through. It’s not just about shutting up and singing your song or “Shut up and dribble your ball” or whatever people like to dismiss us with.

KL: Do you think it’s important for Black musicians to tell the stories of Black music, to be the ones at the forefront of preservation?

Q: With me you get an inside baseball advantage that you wouldn’t get with someone else. That’s the thing that’s kept me from totally running away from the task of producing in this way. At the end of the day, you’re telling the story, but even then, you’re going to tell a story from a musician’s perspective that someone else would 100% miss, and that resonated with me.

That’s why I went in wanting to make a film that would impress me, the moviegoer. Not from this defensive place where I have to make sure that all of the references to the songs are in lockstep with the time period when they came out. No, I just wanted to get all sides of the story from a musician’s standpoint and tell that story. There is definitely the danger of revisionist storytelling—especially as far as what does and doesn’t get told about the music.

KL: What do you want people to know about the film or the effort to bring Summer of Soul to life that has not been covered?

Q: There was so much to tell that I had to leave a lot out. We had to dabble, and there’s some things I had to completely take out. I was amazed at the staggering amount of stories of police brutality that I heard from every artist there. Everyone had a story. Stevie Wonder has a story. Mavis Staples told me four stories. At one point it was just too much. If we had added even one of those stories, it would instantly have added an extra thirty minutes to the film.

The other thing is the humor element. I lightly touched upon the comedy at that show but had to take out a lot of elements. George Kirby, who was the comedian of his day, Moms Mabley—there were so many comedians at the festival that I couldn’t find an opening to get in and get out as far as how we dealt with comedy and humor in that time period.

Those are two things I regret that we had to leave on the cutting room floor, but there was so much more. Maybe one day we’ll get the opportunity to do an expanded version and show you guys the other things.