The 60’s was a very turbulent time in America. Especially, the later part of the decade where we witnessed John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X all assassinated, resistance to being drafted for the fight in Vietnam and movements ranging from non-violent to violent left folks with little to no hope. Heroin was taking over the streets in Harlem and 1969 witnessed the death of the word “Negroe” in exchange for “Black”. A word identified as a synonym for darkness, evil and negativity. My mother is Black. My father, brother and every relative I have ever known and loved throughout my life are Black. As a Black woman born and raised in America, I can assure you Black is, was and always will be beautiful.
But in 1969, music festivals, much like Coachella were all the rage. 100 miles away from Woodstock, a different music festival full of more than 300,000 Black and Brown people known as the Harlem Cultural Festival was setting it off. This summer concert series was filmed, but after that summer, the footage sat in a basement for 50 years. It has never been seen. Until now.
Summer Of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) is an unearthed treasure chock full of performances from some of the best and brightest entertainers in our industry. In an awe-inspiring directorial debut as a filmmaker, legendary musician Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson presents this part concert film, part historical record centered around a now epic event that radiated the reevaluation of Black history, culture, fashion, and music. This rich tapestry incorporates an unforgettable musical revue including a Stevie Wonder drum solo, a post-Temptation set from David Ruffin, Hugh Masekela and the legendary soulful songstress Nina Simone are just a smidge of the mind-blowing line-up.
Many of the festival attendees gleefully shared their experiences about how they came to attend the festival, performers like The Fifth Dimension shared their excitement at having the opportunity to perform for Black People (even though the members were constantly being maligned in the industry for having their sound be “too white”), Jesse Jackson recalling MLK being shot right after telling him it was time for them go to dinner, makeshift restaurants running rampant with Mac & Cheese for blocks and the permeating smell of Afro-Sheen and BBQ laying in the air.
Growing up in the COGIC (Church of God in Christ) community, nothing felt more like my days growing up in St. Louis than witnessing Edwin Hawkins Singers bust out “Oh Happy Day” and Mavis Staples with that gravely, signature gospel growl singing “Precious Lord” alongside the legendary Mahalia Jackson. Other than that soul-stirring duet with Mavis and Mahalia making you feel the virtual church vibes down to your toes, when Miss Nina Simone sang “Backlash Blues,” I was absolutely gobsmacked by these lyrics…
So, Mr. Backlash, Backlash
Who do you think I am?
You raise my taxes, freeze my wages
Send my son to Vietnam
You give me second class houses
And second class schools
Do you think that all colored people
Are just second class fools?
What is most impressive about Thompson’s debut is the narrative manner he strings the events of 1968, 1969 and 1970 along with the concert, the mood of Harlem and its inhabitants is truly a thing of beauty to behold. Shout out to his magnamous editor Joshua L. Pearson for such surgical precision and ensuring we got the best front row seat possible.
With a pandemic lurking and no sense of normalcy appearing to resurface anytime in the immediate future, Summer Of Soul is the perfect ray of sunshine captured at the end of a rainbow, while simultaneously spotlighting the importance of history to our spiritual well-being standing as a testament to the healing power of music.