Gladys Knight and The Pips perform at Harlem Cultural Festival, left. Sly Stone, right, performs.
In the summer of 1969, a music festival would become one of the most famous events in American popular culture history. The Woodstock Music and Art Fair, or simply Woodstock, created and nurtured a love for rock music and set a stage for legends including Jimi Hendrix, Sly and The Family Stone and Janis Joplin. With more than 400,000 attendees, Woodstock became synonymous with hippie culture and music festivals.
Though less popular, another music festival was occurring at the same time just 100 miles away. The Harlem Cultural Festival gave Black people in Harlem the opportunity to celebrate Blackness and music. Now, more than five decades later, musician Ahmir Thompson, better known as Questlove of The Roots, is bringing Harlem to the main stage and showing the world the first and only Harlem Cultural Festival.
“Summer of Soul” is a documentary that dives deep into the Harlem Cultural Festival and its impact on not only Harlemites, but Blackness as a whole. Questlove takes music lovers and history buffs on a journey through Black music history during a time when the revolution was front and center. Sponsored by major labels like Maxwell House Coffee and General Foods, the festival even featured the Black Panther Party to secure the premises as no white Harlem officers would.
Originally filmed in 1969, the rarely-seen footage sat in a basement for more than 50 years. Occurring at the same time as Woodstock, the Harlem Cultural Festival footage was lost to the times and overshadowed by the more popular event. With more than 40 hours of footage, it is now being unearthed and presented to the world, ready to take its place in history. Purposeful in keeping himself and his artistry out of the film, the production partner on the film encouraged The Roots drummer to be more involved in the actual film and not just its technical creation.
“I was really trying to not insert myself into the film. In the very beginning, when I was showing drafts to people a lot of the complaints I got were ‘well wait, you’re not in it,’ so I begrudgingly put my voice in the very beginning of the film asking the first question,” says Questlove.
At a time when a Black man’s ability and acceptance in the business world was doubted and all but eliminated, one businessman had the vision to affect Harlem’s music scene. Tony Lawrence, though inexperienced, took a risk and produced and directed the festival. Bringing in acts like Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight and The Pips, B.B. King, Mahalia Jackson and other A-list performers, the festival took place for six consecutive Sundays starting in July of 1969 and brought out massive crowds of Black bodies swaying in the summer breeze.
“There’s a lot of primal musical expression or primitive exotic expression — in layman’s terms, people acting wild. I wanted people to know that was more of a therapeutic thing than anything else. I wanted people to know this isn’t just Black people acting wild and crazy,” says Questlove.
Questlove’s directorial debut is a powerful message of resilience, pride, rhythm and song — all things synonymous with Black culture. Receiving high praise during its showing in the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, the film took home the Grand Jury prize and Audience award at the film fest. The documentary was sold for $12 million to Disney’s Searchlight and Hulu, breaking the record for the sale of a documentary at Sundance.
“Me being a DJ is exactly what informed me on how to tell this story. To start, for five months I just kept it on a 24-hour loop no matter where I was in the house or the world. If anything gave me goosebumps, then I took a note of it. I felt like if there were at least 30 things that gave me goosebumps, we could have a foundation,” says Questlove on creating the film.
The “Summer of Soul” documentary is now available in theaters and streaming on Hulu.