The Harlem Cultural Festival entertained New Yorkers for six Sundays, from June 29 to August 24, 1969, in Mt. Morris Park. Over 300,000 people attended, most of them Black Harlem residents. Performers included some of the most famous musicians in the world.
Filmmaker Hal Tulchin decided to film on five portable videotape cameras to sell later. But no one was interested in buying them, because “nobody really cared about Black shows,” he said. So the film sat in his basement for 50 years.
Bandleader Ahmir Questlove Thomson was first approached about creating this film in 2018. He had never heard of the festival, nor had any of his friends. So he tweeted out to his three million followers, to ask if any had attended the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. He was inundated with responses. One, film producer Musa Jackson, who was five years old in 1969, told Questlove it was the first memory of his life. Musa narrates much of Summer of Soul.
1969 was marked by protests against racism and the war in Vietnam. The Black Power movement was growing. It was one year after Martin Luther King Jr.’s murder had provoked huge rebellions in most major U.S. cities. New York City Mayor John Lindsay and festival host Tony Lawrence rounded up donors, artists and promoters to hold a music festival in Harlem during summer’s hottest months, partly to avoid “unrest” during the summer, but also to promote Harlem itself. They convinced Maxwell House coffee to put up much of the money.
The crowd was mostly families with picnic lunches, while kids watched from trees. Security was run by the Black Panthers and police kept a discreet distance. This non-militarized approach was hugely successful. Performers were eager to play in front of a mostly Black audience in iconic Harlem.
Six weekends — magnificent music. Musa recounts being thrilled at the music but shocked that the drummer for Sly and the Family Stone was white. When Jesse Jackson came on to say that Dr. King’s favorite singer was Mahalia Jackson and his favorite hymn was Precious Lord, the singer asked Mavis Staples to sing with her. Their segment is one of the most riveting parts of the film.
Marilyn McCoo of the Fifth Dimension, one of the contemporary commentators, described the honor of playing for a mostly Black crowd since many people had thought they were a white group.
Interviews with attendees and musicians reveal the poignant history of racism and poverty. “Pops” Staples, leader of the Staples Singers, when asked how much his first guitar cost, replied, “five dollars.” When asked how much money he made, he said “three dollars a week, fourteen hours a day.” Attendees asked about the moon shot that just happened, said those resources are needed here, in Harlem and other poor communities.
The concert features the presence of Black women singers, instrumentalists and journalists. Sly and the Family Stone had a Black woman trumpeter. Legendary journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault convinced The New York Times to start using the word Black instead of Negro.
So, what has changed? Two years of recent protest over police murder of (mostly) Black people has changed very little about life for communities of color. However, consciousness of the economic roots of racism among young people of all colors, within the U.S. labor movement, and social movements overall, is on an entirely new level. From police murder, to hunger, homelessness, and war, people are once more in the streets, and that is one of the reasons this film resonates today.
Questlove has said the film was buried due to “Black erasure” and that he meant to combat that. He also said after he won an Academy Award, a Grammy, and countless other honors, that “hey, if people don’t get it, I have forty more hours of film I can use to make the point.”
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