What the Harlem Cultural Festival Represented

What the Harlem Cultural Festival Represented

What the Harlem Cultural Festival Represented

Questlove’s debut as a director, the documentary Summer of Soul, revisits a musical event that encapsulated the energies of Harlem in the 1960s.


There were supposed to be five shows over five consecutive Sundays, a schedule modeled on that of a series of six phenomenal events over six Sundays the previous year, with one major difference: For 1970, the Harlem Cultural Festival moved from its titular home in the historic locus of Black and Latinx life in New York to Damrosch Park, an outdoor space at Lincoln Center, where opera, ballet, and other arts aggrandized by the white elite were staged in the surrounding complex. After one concert billed as a “Folk Gospel Music Show,” featuring the Mighty Mellotones, the Gospel Warriors, and other acts, the four remaining dates of the 1970 festival were canceled, ostensibly for lack of funding. The headline in The New York Times reported, “Concerts Stilled,” and the shows devoted to blues and soul music, as well as a “Tribute to the Late Otis Redding,” were never to be.

The Harlem Cultural Festival—a brainchild of the singer and entrepreneur Tony Lawrence, who organized and hosted every show with evangelical flair—was not merely stilled; it was killed. After three years of progressively ambitious events in Harlem, growing from block parties to a star-packed extravaganza that drew some 300,000 people to the festival’s site at Mount Morris Park (now Marcus Garvey Park) in 1969, the Harlem-based celebration of Black music and performance moved to a new location five miles south of Harlem… and died there. As the New York Amsterdam News reported, “The Harlem Cultural Festival, which for so long was a complete success when held in Harlem’s Mt. Morris Park…disappeared this year from the uptown scene and moved to Lincoln Center. Now it has disappeared altogether.” Its headline packed two points in three words: “Harlem Festival Ain’t.”

Fortunately, Lawrence had a plan to preserve the festival in memory and spread its message. He arranged for the 1969 concerts to be recorded by five video cameras under the direction of a TV-production veteran, Hal Tulchin. The crew shot some 40 hours of footage from the six concerts that year, and Lawrence and his business partners began what they hoped would be an expansive project to package the material for television, records, and a feature film or two. Two hour-long TV specials were successfully produced and broadcast nationally 1969. The first, telecast by the CBS network that July, was a catchall variety show featuring performances by the Chambers Brothers, the Fifth Dimension, Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach, the Edwin Hawkins Singers (who had recently put Pentecostal exaltation on the pop charts with their hit “Oh Happy Day”), and Olatunji and his troupe of African drummers, singers, and dancers. The second program, broadcast on ABC stations that September, was culled from the concert dedicated to spirituals and sacred music, and featured musical performances by gospel stars Mahalia Jackson, the Staple Singers, and Clara Walker and the Gospel Redeemers, with remarks by the Rev. Jesse Jackson. (The latter program was later repackaged by its sponsor, General Foods, as Mahalia in the Park and made available for free use in schools.) By 1970, the Afro-American newspaper would identify Tony Lawrence not as a singer or concert promoter but as “producer of the Harlem Cultural Festival TV show.”

The fact that two hour-long network-television specials of music from this festival were broadcast nationally and prominently reported on at the time—and that some of the footage would be used elsewhere, including a pair of documentaries about one of the most memorable performers, Nina Simone—does not contradict the subtitle of the film Questlove has now made about the festival and its meaning: Summer of Soul (Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised). A good amount of great music from the festival was televised, yes. But the full-bore cultural revolution that the event reflected and embodied—the radical shift in Black thought, art, and action that brought Blackness proudly and defiantly into piercing focus in 1969—was kept off screens while newscasters and TV producers, along with most of the rest of the media, fixated on the first Apollo moon landing and another music festival that took place that summer, Woodstock. Constructed with care and intellectual fire by Questlove in his debut as a director, Summer of Soul combines a judicious selection of clips from the Harlem Cultural Festival, contemporary interviews with people who attended or performed in it (Mavis Staples, Stevie Wonder, and Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr. of the Fifth Dimension, among others), and archival footage of events in and around 1969 to deliver a full-bodied, multilayered exegesis on the explosion in consciousness and creative expression that the festival encapsulates.

It was a phenomenon in Harlem and of Harlem, where artists of color shared their art with hundreds of thousands of other people of color, whose shared experience fueled that art. “When I looked out into the crowd, I was overtaken with joy,” recalled Mavis Staples.“I just saw so many Black people, and they were rejoicing.”

The music clips tell a strong story on their own and would surely have been enough material for a lesser filmmaker. Even for those who stream the film at home, fast-forwarding and stopping at any random spot in the performance footage, it will make for a spellbinding experience: B.B. King singing “Everybody wanna know why I sing the blues” and summing up the whole history of Black oppression from slavery to the the riots of the 1960s; Mavis Staples and Mahalia Jackson sharing a microphone and bearing their souls on “Take My Hand Precious Lord,” after Jesse Jackson describes how Martin Luther King Jr. had requested the song in his last words before he was murdered; or, in the fiery call for Black activism that Questlove situated as the finale performance in the film, Nina Simone improvising a call and response with the audience, adapting text from the poet David Nelson:

“Are you ready, Black people?” Simone asked. “Are you ready, ready, ready? Are you ready to kill, if necessary?”
“Yeah,” replied the crowd.
“Is your mind ready?” she continued.
“Is your body ready?”
“Yeah!” the crowd roared.
“Are you ready to smash white things? To burn buildings? Are you ready to love
Black? Are you ready, Black people?”

Questlove’s hand as a filmmaker is active and sure, arranging the scenes for emotional impact rather than historical chronology. (The final event of the 1969 iteration of the Harlem Cultural Festival was actually a beauty pageant, where Miss Harlem was crowned.) And the hand of this filmmaker is essentially musical. At several points, he builds visual collages, intercutting archival footage and segments of interviews like music samples. We see Stevie Wonder, alone at the drum kit on stage, pouring out his 19-year-old heart. Cutting on the beat as the drummer that Questlove is, he constructs an aural-visual pattern that builds in intensity, as we hear testimony from his interview subjects and voices from archival news footage:
“The styles were changing.”
“Music was changing.”
“And revolution was coming together.”
We want Black power!”
“We need it now!”

In 1969, the African-American press was virtually alone in its recognition of the festival’s importance as a vehicle of Black expression at a pivotal time. As the New York Amsterdam News described one of the concerts, “This was a truly memorable show produced by Black men specifically for Black people.” In a subsequent piece summing up the festival, the paper wrote, “An interesting comparison is the Woodstock Festival. Woodstock received national publicity and stayed headline news for nearly a week…. This leads one to conclude that the only time the white press concerns itself with the Black community is during a riot or major disturbance.”

The comparison with Woodstock long haunted the Harlem Cultural Festival. Hal Tulchin, until his death in 2017, talked of the footage he shot as a record of the “Black Woodstock,” which is the phrase Questlove himself first used as a working title for his film. (The words are visible on a clapboard in one scene he shot for what became Summer of Soul.) Apart from the diminishment in identifying a Black event by its relation to a white one, Woodstock was not quite purely white; it benefited mightily from the outsize contributions of the few Black artists it allowed onstage: Sly and the Family Stone, the only act to appear at both festivals, who tore them both up with psychedelic funk; Richie Havens, who opened Woodstock with a galvanizing call for “Freedom”; and Jimi Hendrix, who closed Woodstock with a solo guitar implosion of “The Star-Bangled Banner.” With those three acts alone, the festival in upstate New York in 1969 may well have been as interesting as the one going on at the same time in Harlem.

Thank you for reading The Nation!

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read, just one of the many incisive, deeply reported articles we publish daily. Now more than ever, we need fearless journalism that moves the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media.

Donate right now and help us hold the powerful accountable, shine a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug, and build a more just and equitable future.

For nearly 160 years, The Nation has stood for truth, justice, and moral clarity. As a reader-supported publication, we are not beholden to the whims of advertisers or a corporate owner. But it does take financial resources to report on stories that may take weeks or months to investigate, thoroughly edit and fact-check articles, and get our stories to readers like you.

Donate today and stand with us for a better future. Thank you for being a supporter of independent journalism.

Thank you for your generosity.

Ad Policy