For over 50 years, Woodstock has dominated conversations surrounding the cultural shift which took place in the late 1960s. Yet the summer of 1969 also saw another game-changing music event, one that most people have never heard of – including Summer of Soul director and The Roots founding member Questlove until 2017 – due to the all too familiar erasure of Black history.
Spread out over six steamy weeks in Manhattan’s Mount Morris Park, a 20 acre green space on the border between Harlem and East Harlem in New York, The Harlem Cultural Festival was not just a music festival. A celebration of Black pride, culture, beauty and fashion – check out The Chambers Brothers’ buckskin-fringed jackets and Nina Simone’s stunning ankara print gown – the event saw nearly 300,000 people gathering every Sunday throughout the summer. Free of charge, it bought together everyone from a sharp-suited, 19-year-old Stevie Wonder to The Temptations‘ David Ruffin, Gladys Knight, BB King, Hugh Masekela, The Staple Singers, Babatunde Olatunji and The Fifth Dimension as well as an unannounced Sly and the Family Stone. It was a thrillingly diverse bill, skipping from jazz and blues to soul and Motown, through gospel, funk and pop. Its timing was vital. Coming off the back of the American Civil Rights Movement, the decade had been marred by the assassinations of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and John and Bobby Kennedy. The Vietnam War was also in full swing, with a disproportionate number of Black American men fighting.
Harlem was on the front line of the battle at home. A tight-knit community had been ravaged by poverty and a heroin epidemic. Black Americans were angry and with good reason. One contemporary interview with a man who attended the festival as a teenager suggests its goal may have been to stop Harlem residents from “burning up the city.”
A celebration of the Black community, freedom and hope for the future, the Harlem Cultural Festival was filmed by a producer called Hal Tulchin, yet the footage spent 50 years languishing in his basement. Nobody, he said, was interested in it. That was until Questlove of The Roots – also known as Ahmir Thompson – found out about the festival and knew that the rest of the world had to as well. Pulling from 40 hours of incredible archive footage, there are some powerhouse performances on display, including gospel singers Mavis Staples and Mahalia Jackson going toe to toe on a divine interpretation of ‘Take My Hand Precious Lord’ as well as a belting Stevie Wonder drum solo and Nina Simone playing a heartfelt ‘Young, Gifted & Black’ in one of its very first live performances. Placed alongside images of the unrest that was eating up America at the time, the revolutionary aspect of the festival is hard to ignore.
Initially, the film was going to be called ‘Black Woodstock’ – it’s still written on the clapper board in the opening shots – but Questlove thought that would be a disservice to what really happened in America in the summer of 1969. The Harlem Cultural Festival needed not just recognition, but ownership. With Summer of Soul, it finally has both.
- Director: Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson
- Featuring: Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Sly Stone
- Release date: July 16 (UK and Ireland cinemas), July 30 (Disney+)