“Everybody wanna know why I sing the blues…” — B.B. King
In the summer of 1969, upwards of 300,000 people gathered for the greatest concert you’ve never heard of. This was the Harlem Cultural Festival, a massive six-weekend celebration of black excellence through music, dance and prayer. The cavalcade of musicians, entertainers and preachers far exceeded anyone’s expectations, bringing together Americans from Harlem and beyond over the course of a particularly sweltering city summer. The music was amazing, sure, but it seemed all 300,000 attendees understood that this was about more than just the music. This — to quote Nina Simone — was about being young, gifted and black, about the world waiting for you, about the quest that’s just begun.
By mid-1970, the Harlem Cultural Festival was forgotten entirely.
Fast-forward a half-century, to Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and his debut documentary Summer of Soul (…or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), which unearths long-lost footage of this momentous and beautiful event. The original footage alone would have likely made a fine concert film, and certainly a great many documentaries get by on assembling a fly-on-the-wall cut of what happened. But Questlove, a born storyteller, dives deep enough to mine true significance out of the music, interviewing attendees and performers fifty years after the festival, reflecting on how short that fifty years really is, and investigating how such an important experience could be erased from our collective consciousness.
There’s a performance from a young B.B. King early on in Summer of Soul, twanging away on his beloved Lucille and groaning to “Why I Sing the Blues.” The song’s positioning in the documentary makes the answer to that question inescapable. After the recent assassinations of JFK, MLK, RFK and — perhaps most significantly to the Harlem crowd — Malcolm X; after an endless war in Vietnam that had claimed the lives of countless young black men; after the ascension of Richard Nixon earlier that year, with the promise of notable social reform waning under his “leadership” — at this point the reasons for a black man singing the blues were abundantly clear. “The whole festival may very well have been to stop black folks from burning up the city in ’69,” recalls one attendee. Another frames it in a more direct manner: “We needed that music.”
And Tony Lawrence gave it to them. As a young local entertainer himself, Lawrence was enlisted by New York’s Parks Department in 1967 to organize summertime programming in the neighborhood. Largely due to Lawrence’s relentless passion and knack for promotion and fundraising, the 1969 fest ballooned into one of the biggest New York City had ever seen. Then-mayor John Lindsay, civil rights leaders like Jesse Jackson and Marcus Garvey Jr., and a whole host of other politically-minded aspirants showed up on stage. People may have come for the music, but Lawrence knew from the jump that success could transform the event into an enduring crossroads of black culture and politics.
Which is not to say the music took a backseat. B.B. King, Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Sly and the Family Stone, Gladys Knight and the Pips, The 5th Dimension, David Ruffin of The Temptations, Mahalia Jackson, The Staples Sisters, Sonny Sharrock, Max Roach, Hugh Masakela — the list goes on and on. All types of music crossed Lawrence’s stage, from blues to gospel to soul to funk. Music itself was highly segregated in 1969, and so black pop groups like The 5th Dimension were anomalous. Radio listeners would often be surprised to discover they weren’t a white act. “We were often attacked because we weren’t ‘black enough,'” says 5th Dimension singer Marilyn McCoo. But black pop hit the Harlem stage same as any other genre, and the footage of the crowd dancing as The 5th Dimension burns it up is a thing of beauty.
But like many things of beauty created by black citizens of America, the Harlem Cultural Festival quickly fell into a cultural abyss. Woodstock happened the same summer, and the filmmakers who captured the HCF soon found that no one wanted the amazing footage they’d captured. “No one cared,” states one of the documentarians, recalling that even a pivot to branding the festival footage as “Black Woodstock” failed to garner any attention. All of that art and power and grace, all of that music from all of those entertainers and creators, all the shared experience of 300,000 people ended up in a New York basement for the ensuing fifty years, gathering dust as a symbol of cultural erasure in America.
Questlove should be commended for this disinterment above all, though his status as a filmmaker is far from a fleeting after this passionate debut. Summer of Soul brings back Tony Lawrence and the Harlem Cultural Festival in such a way that it can never be buried again. It brings back the Edwin Hawkins Singers crushing “Oh Happy Day,” a sentiment which comes across as simple truth. It brings back David Ruffin’s freaking unreal falsetto runs, Sonny Sharrock forcibly lambasting his guitar like no one you’ve ever seen, Nina Simone debuting “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” for the very first time. Together these moments of beauty are finally brought to light, and Summer of Soul is an achievement that won’t easily be forgotten.