Today we are going to STFU and listen to black voices speaking to us from 1969. Not just any black voices, either: these are some of the most groundbreaking, hit-making, genre-breaking, unfathomably influential musical artists of the time – and for some, perhaps, of all time
Last evening, a film popped up in our streaming suggestions: Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised). The blurb said the documentary was about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, a multi-weekend concert series that took place in the summer of ’69 in what is now Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem. Directed by Ahmir Khalib (“Questlove/?uestlove”) Thompson, perhaps best known as the drummer and co-frontman for the band The Roots, his debut film was put together from reels of raw footage that sat in a basement, virtually untouched, for fifty years.
Summer of Soul premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, where it took both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award for a documentary.
Playing the trailer (which you can view below), I first heard then saw Nina Simone (*squeee4EVAH*) sing-saying to an enormous sea of black bodies and faces,
“Are you ready, black people? Are you really ready? Are you ready to listen to all the beautiful black voices, the beautiful black feelings, the beautiful black waves, moving in beautiful air? Are you ready black people? Are you ready?”
The Harlem crowd erupts in response to her callouts with spine-tingling, goose-bumping enthusiasm. Meanwhile, written words are interspersed, appearing in bright, colorful lettering against a black background:
the same summer as Woodstock
Another festival took place
It was filmed but never seen
And with that, we were only 21 seconds into a 2-minute trailer.
The concert lineup promised nothing less than a pantheon of Black musical gods: Nina Simone, 19-year old Stevie Wonder, Sly & the Family Stone, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Mahalia Jackson, B.B. King, The Fifth Dimension and more.
Ms. Simone had me at “Are you ready?” We paid $5.99 for the rental.*
What Questlove has achieved here is a fucking masterpiece.
The digital conversion and restoration of the film footage, and particularly the sound recording, is of truly remarkable quality, especially considering the state of live recording technology in 1969 and that the original media sat in a basement in Westchester for five decades. But the technical achievements are the least of this film’s marvels.
Questlove interweaves extraordinary musical performances and the exuberant message of Black pride with multiple stories of profound national significance at the time. The all-too-recent assassinations of prominent Black leaders, the devastating scourges of drug addiction and poverty plaguing the community, and even the first moon landing which coincidentally took place during the festival, all set the context for the concerts as well as the commentary, then and now, by some of the artists and the ordinary people who were there.
By so deeply grounding the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival in its unique and specific place and time, Questlove, with barely even a whisper, conjures a bridge across the intervening decades to our collective cultural moment, to now. The skill in pulling this off with only the very lightest of touches hints at the depths of this director’s brilliance, as a cultural observer and as a storyteller. And beyond that, his deep love and empathy for his people, for their enduring pain and struggle, shines like the sun from every single frame.
So too does his pride. In the diverse Black musical genres represented here, from jazz to Motown to blues to Caribbean- and Latin-infused, to American gospel and more, one can easily discern the roots of more contemporary country music, rockabilly, bluegrass, modern jazz, hip-hop, and of course the very rock & roll being showcased simultaneously at a farm in Woodstock, New York, a hundred miles away.
The seemingly infinite fusions of all of these musical genres defy categorization, at least to this awestruck white fangirl. But I will say this much. Anyone who thinks Prince was a true original has not seen Sly & The Family Stone’s performance in this film. Anyone who thinks Janice Joplin was a great soul singer has never heard Mahalia Jackson – period. Joplin and the rest of the Woodstock lineup owe everything to the artists and sounds echoing through a Harlem park in the summer of 1969, as would so many more still to come.
You know about Woodstock, right? I’m pretty sure whoever and wherever you are, you know something about that concert, at least as a cultural phenomenon. The video I’ve seen is not great, and most of the musical recordings sound, well, terrible. But the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival? Ever hear of that? Until last night, I had not a clue.
I don’t wonder why that is. And if it weren’t for the few serendipitous turns of fate that landed the footage in the hands of first-time director Questlove, most of us would never know, and remain impoverished, however unknowingly, by its erasure from Black history, from New York City history, from musical history, from human history.
It took a British journalist, Stuart Cosgrove, to finally publish a detailed history of the event just a few years ago.
[Harlem 69 is] a history of the neighborhood’s transformational year that includes the most comprehensive account of the festival to date. “It was a timely lesson in racial stereotyping” writes Stuart Cosgrove, speaking of the contrast between Woodstock and the Harlem Cultural Festival in Harlem 69. “The young wealthy white entrepreneurs made a monumental hash of planning while a black-run public event, running over six Sundays, smoothly came together with no significant trouble, no arrests and no record of public inconvenience.”
Woodstock was a literal shitshow; the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival was a thing of beauty, in every sense of the word.
Since last year’s Sundance film festival, Summer of Soul has won a slew of other notable festival awards, and is currently nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, a Grammy Award for Best Music Film, and other industry tributes still pending this awards season. But I swear, none of that will do it justice.
Perhaps the highest accolade I can give Summer of Soul is to say that it was the best $5.99 I’ve ever spent. In my life. And as readers well know, I am not one for hyperbole. (FFS, people! Hyperbole is killing us!)
Here’s the trailer.
*The film was released yesterday (Feb. 8, 2022) for home viewers (to rent or buy), in both both digital and DVD formats; it has been available for streaming on Hulu since last summer.
Day 1 of Black History Month 2022 (Lori Teresa Yearwood) is here.
Day 2 of Black History Month 2022 (Mallence Bart-Williams) is here.
Day 3 of Black History Month 2022 (Emmett Till) is here.
Day 4 of Black History Month 2022 (A Tale of Two Citizens) is here.
Day 5 of Black History Month 2022 (Trayvon Martin) is here.
Day 6 of Black History Month 2022 (Franchesca Ramsey) is here.
Day 7 of Black History Month 2022 (National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day and the Black Aids Institute) is here.
Day 8 of Black History Month 2022 (extreme racial disparities in marijuana arrests.) is here.