The Harlem Cultural Festival footage is getting wider recognition in the new ‘Summer of Soul’ documentary
Questlove premiered his documentary in Harlem’s Marcus Garvey Park, where the festival was held in 1969
Questlove, The Roots drummer and frontman, was in Harlem on Juneteenth for the premiere of Summer of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised). The Philadelphia native is making his directorial debut with this two-hour documentary featuring performances from the Harlem Cultural Festival, a series of concerts held on Sundays from June 29 to Aug. 24, 1969, in the community’s Marcus Garvey Park.
Back in 1969, in these six free shows in New York City, an estimated 300,000, mostly African Americans, got a chance to see performances from stars such as Nina Simone, B.B. King, Sly and the Family Stone, Stevie Wonder, Max Roach, Abbey Lincoln, Mahalia Jackson, Moms Mabley, Pigmeat Markham, The Staples Singers, Gladys Knight & the Pips and The 5th Dimension. In a scene from the concerts, Simone, reading from a Last Poets poem, challenged the audience: “Are you ready, Black people? Are you ready? Are you ready, Black man, Black youth, Black woman, Black everybody?” With the eclectic list of performers at the concerts, Simone seemed to suggest that Black people ought to be ready to do everything from making love to having fun to laughing to fighting for civil rights to going to church.
The festival is known as the Black Woodstock because of its comparisons to the more famous three-day festival held in August 1969 near Woodstock in upstate New York, about 90 miles from Harlem. Unlike the Woodstock festival, there wasn’t interest at the time in turning the 46 hours of footage from the Harlem Festival into a film. “I was shocked that there was all this footage out there and that no one had done much with it,” Questlove told The Undefeated. “But just in the last seven months there are other opportunities that have come up to rediscover lost musical footage that tells our story.” The documentary will be shown in theaters and available for streaming on Hulu on July 2. There are plans for screenings in Los Angeles and other major cities but specifics have yet to be disclosed. Questlove said that he wanted to bring it “back to the people” and to the site that had given so much form and context for these performances as the mecca of Black America.
Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr. hadn’t been back to Marcus Garvey Park, which was called Mount Morris Park in 1969, since they performed in the festival with The 5th Dimension. Yet they felt an immediate connection when they arrived at the park on Juneteenth. “As soon as we got out of the car, we knew that we were in the place,” Davis said. “The only difference is the amphitheater wasn’t here then. It was just a park and the people were right there with you, which made it better.”
On Saturday, the husband-and-wife team who left The 5th Dimension in 1975 to form their own group, performed the group’s hit “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” inside the Richard Rodgers Amphitheater, which was built in 2008. McCoo, who later hosted the TV show Solid Gold in the 1980s, said she wasn’t sure how the Black audience would receive The 5th Dimension. “I was nervous,” she said. “Most of the Black radio stations weren’t playing our music because we were thought of as the Black group with the white sound. But the people in Harlem loved us.”
McCoo and Davis said that they had forgotten much of the details of their performance and weren’t aware of the footage, but once they sat for interviews and were shown footage, the memories began to flow. “We’re just happy that the world is finally seeing what they should have seen 50 years ago,” McCoo said. “Everybody knew about Woodstock but no one knew about the Harlem Cultural Festival.”
Singer-actress Vanessa Williams said she was at the premiere to support McCoo and Davis. “The 5th Dimension was the soundtrack of my life going on camping trips as a kid in our Ford Econoline van,” she said.
Gladys Knight & the Pips followed McCoo and Davis with two of their hits, “Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me” and “Midnight Train to Georgia.” Dressed in a white dress and white heels, Knight was playful with the audience: “Y’all going to make me hurt myself,” she said.
Over the last couple of years, Questlove said, he went through the footage six or seven times to curate and distill the essence of the six performances, a skill that he honed as a bandleader and organizer of The Roots Picnic, the group’s annual music festival. He looked for things that caught his attention. For him it was a drum solo by Wonder. When he watched the premiere on Juneteenth, he was surprised by some of things that grabbed the attention of the audience. “They were responding to stuff that I hadn’t considered,” he said. “Usually you show the film first with test audiences, but we decided to screen it here in Harlem.”
What he is sure of is the responsibility he has as an entertainer, educator and a historian. Juneteenth has allowed him to reflect on the significance of the concerts. “We are mirroring today in our society what caused those concerts to happen in the first place.”
At the concerts in 1969, the Black Panthers stepped in to provide security at the concerts when the New York Police Department would not. During the screening on Juneteenth, Marcus Garvey Park was full of police officers. Harlem is, demographically, a much different place from what it was in 1969. On Juneteenth, the audience in Marcus Garvey Park was very diverse, unlike in 1969, when the audience was virtually all-Black, perhaps a reflection of gentrification.
As I sat in my seat in the amphitheater, I tried to imagine what it must have felt like to sit inside this park 52 years ago during those performances and feel what those Black people felt as they listened to those songs a little more than a year after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, which prompted rioting and looting in the streets of Harlem.
For them, these concerts were more than entertainment. “For Black folks, the added power and energy of coming together in a place where one could not only see, hear and feel Blackness onstage but also participate in a marketplace of neighborhood business owners was its own form of sustainability,” said Daphne A. Brooks, a Yale African American Studies professor in a 2019 New York Times story about the festival. Now thanks to Questlove, the Harlem Cultural Festival, through Summer of Soul, can sustain its own legacy without comparisons to Woodstock. The film could also set a precedent for more music festival footage to become more widely known to the public.