There are events within pop culture that transcend their time and place, taken by factors like imagination and legend into a new realm occupied outside of reality and into the land of myth. As the first-hand accounts become fewer and farther between, the tales that get passed down begin to take on a new life all their own, to the point where any humble beginnings are forgotten and only the grandiose exaggeration remains. This is what happened to the Woodstock Festival, the most mythologised and legendary music festival of all time.
But there was another festival, one that took place at the same time and roughly 100 miles away in Harlem, that did not transcend. Instead, it was buried and forgotten by time, despite its powerhouse line-up of musicians whose lasting influence on multiple different genres can not be denied. The summer of 1969 inspired a wave of change and revolution in America and beyond, but one of its major gatherings that propelled those thoughts and ideas was never given its proper due.
The Harlem Cultural Festival had just as many moments worthy of myth-making as Woodstock, with a greater focus on Afrocentrism and the empowerment of all races and colours. Comparatively, like so much of the 1960s flower power does today, the vague peace and love tenets of Woodstock look meek, elitist, and even somewhat pretentious. When viewing footage of The Harlem Cultural Festival, the greater mix of working class and normal individuals, especially compared to the strung out hippies that occupied much of Woodstock, is a startling contrast.
However, footage of The Harlem Cultural Festival was impossible to come by for over 50 years. That was until Amir ‘Questlove’ Thompson brought it the big screen in the form of the new documentary Summer of Soul. Featuring performances from Sly and the Family Stone, Nina Simone, B.B. King, Gladys Night & the Pips, and Stevie Wonder, among many others, Summer of Soul doubles as a joyous concert film and a cultural recollection of 1969 through the lens of Harlem, New York, the centre of Black politics, music, and evolution in America.
There are moments of parallel between Summer of Soul and Woodstock that makes the otherization of the Harlem Cultural Festival even more inexplicable. Stevie Wonder’s opening drum solo is as exhilarating as Michael Shrieve’s in ‘Soul Sacrifice’. Nina Simone’s highly political performance is filled with as much discontent and rebellion as anything John Sebastian, Jefferson Airplane, or Joan Baez trotted out, but twice as relevant to the modern-day and three times as eye-opening. Sly and the Family Stone’s performance is equally as electric, but instead of playing against thousands of tired and sleeping hippies in the wee hours of the morning, the band command the entire audience to call and respond during ‘I Want to Take You Higher’.
In his first feature behind the camera, Questlove takes the same approach that he brings to arrangements and music compilations. The mix of performances and messages plays like a mixtape from an expert technician who strives to give the context of the music as big of a stage as the music itself. Intersped within the performances are stories relating to New York politics, the Black Panther Party, Christian faith, the Apollo moon landing, and the assassinations of prominent civil rights leaders. The Harlem Music Festival wasn’t born out of idealised utopian ideals: it confronted the realities and plights that its majority Black audience understood as everyday realities.
Segments of the footage give a new perspective on some of the more traditionally celebrated events of American culture. Take, for instance, the number of individuals who felt indifferent, or insulted, in the government’s prioritisation of landing a man on the moon while impoverished families couldn’t feed their own children back on earth. The film never shies away from the fact that minorities were disproportionally victimised in these scenarios, and while the film spends some time applauding the mix of races and backgrounds that made the festival happen, it never feels a need to hide how triumphant it was specifically for the Black community of Harlem.
So how does such a vital piece of history get banished to the recesses of a dingy anonymous basement for half a century? Well, no one’s quite sure, not even those asked in the film. Uncertain answers about “powers that be” not wanting to publicise the footage or bad timing regarding competition and larger interest in the Woodstock Festival are given, but the film provides another thesis: Black history is so prevalently erased, discarded, or treated without care that the footage is just some of many notable events that were not integrated into the larger, mostly White, pop culture memory.
In that way, Summer of Soul feels like validation, affirmation, and reclamation all rolled into one fantastically entertaining package. Come for the performances, stay for the incredible storytelling and the righting of a historical wrong. 52 years after its original staging, The Harlem Cultural Festival will finally take its rightful place in history books in 2021, thanks in large part to Questlove and Summer of Soul, quite possibly the best film of the year.