1969. It is the year humankind set foot on the moon. The US is heavily involved in Vietnam. Men were being drafted, but there were growing protests. It is only a year after the murders of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. It was also the year of Woodstock, the amazing music festival that got out of hand. But Woodstock isn’t the whole story of music in 1969. A few hundred miles away that summer the Harlem Music Festival took place over six weekends. Summer of Soul (…or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), winner of the Grand Prize and an Audience Award at Sundance, gives us a wonderful taste of that event that has long gone unnoticed.
For six Sundays through the summer, the biggest names in Black music held court in Mt. Morris Park (now Marcus Garvey Park) in Harlem. Performers included Stevie Wonder, The Staple Singers, Mahalia Jackson, The Fifth Dimension, Nina Simone, Hugh Masekela, B.B. King, Gladys Knight and the Pips, and Sly and the Family Stone, among many others. Admission was free and there were estimated 50,000 people each week. And, it was all filmed! (So, then, why haven’t we seen it before? More on that later.)
Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson has brought together some of those wonderful performances and included some interviews with people who were there—performers and audience—to give us a hint of what that cultural experience was, and why it was important at that time in the Black community. This is more than just a celebration of the music. It brings forward the issues that were facing the community and the nation at that time—many of which continue.
One of the issues that played a part in the festival was racial unrest. The year before, after the King and Kennedy assassinations, many cities experienced civil unrest. The city helped to sponsor these concerts, possibly in part to head off violence. When the police were slow to commit to the festival, the Black Panthers provided security. At one of the events, Rev. Jesse Jackson was part of the program to promote Operation Breadbasket.
That political setting is an important part of understanding the event (as is reflected in the film’s subtitle). The very concept that the culture of Black America was of value was a part of the larger racial revolution that was underway. But more than anything, this was about community. One of those who remembers attending as a child called it “the ultimate Black barbeque”. This was an opportunity for the people of Harlem to gather and find affirmation of their music and their culture.
There is a spiritual aspect to that affirmation. Some of the acts performing were in the gospel tradition. We see during some of these performances how gospel serves as a bit of therapy to the harshness of the world. The height of this understanding comes as we watch an amazing version of “Precious Lord” with Mavis Staple and Mahalia Jackson.
Getting back to the question of why it’s taken over fifty years for this to come to light. Even though it was all filmed, no one really thought Black music was a market that would make it profitable. There was a pair of local broadcasts, but nothing beyond that. There is also a sense that those who made those decisions did not recognize the revolutionary nature of such an event. (Or maybe they did.) So it’s been hidden away all these years.
The festival is sometimes referred to as “Black Woodstock”, but I find that a bit off base. While both were amazing music festivals, Woodstock became famous more for the event itself. It was a countercultural happening. It was a crashed party that overwhelmed the promoters and the authorities. The Harlem Cultural Festival was extremely well organized and its sense of community was far more organic than the seeming community of the flooded fields of Woodstock.
All these years in the future, we still struggle with racial inequality in our society. Summer of Love allows us to consider what progress has and has not been made in the decades since the Harlem Cultural Festival. It is a blessing that it has been brought out after all this time. Not just for the music, but for the revolution that we are still ready for.
Summer of Soul (…or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised) is in select theaters and will soon be available on Hulu.
Photos courtesy of Seachlight Pictures.