For six weeks during the summer of 1969, some 300,000 people flocked to Mount Morris Park (now Marcus Garvey Park) in New York City for the Harlem Cultural Festival. With its star power and rapt crowds, the musical event rivalled Woodstock, the four-day affair that was held one hundred miles north later that summer. But the Harlem festival, featuring legends like Stevie Wonder and Nina Simone, has largely been forgotten—and its role as a defining American cultural experience long overlooked.
In 2021, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, drummer for the Roots, reintroduced the festival with his debut documentary Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), using footage of the performances that had never been shown. Nominated for a Best Documentary at this Sunday’s Oscars, the film shines a light on the importance of history and stands as a testament to the healing power of music during times of unrest, both past and present.
On the eve of the Oscars, Questlove spoke with National Geographic editors Debra Adams Simmons and David Beard in a wide-ranging conversation, in which he emphasized that Summer of Soul is a celebration of Black joy and a rejection of Black erasure. As he and his team put together the film in 2020, amid the rise of COVID-19 deaths and protests against racial injustice, Questlove knew he had to set the historical record straight.
Questlove: I’m really proud of Summer of Soul because, all too often, when you see films about the Civil Rights era and the revolution of the time, you often see our pain, our suffering, our sorrow, our tears, our blood, but Black joy is, to me, probably the most important element of the story of the Civil Rights struggle and the struggle of African Americans in the United States because it humanizes us, and it makes us relatable. Harlem Cultural Festival is just an awesome look at beautiful people having fun, having their joy in a way that you’ve never seen anyone from this era look.
Debra Adams Simmons: There is Black history that has been erased or buried, and there are these efforts to restore history. How can people engage in this work?
Questlove: This is one of the rare times in which an idiom like the truth will set us free really does apply. Oftentimes, we have a disdain for the past. Even in entertainment, I’ll play something old, and people will often have a jolted or traumatized reaction to any sort of exploring our past. But I do believe that you can’t move into the future until you know what the past is. I’m not surprised at all that there are efforts to suppress history. And I believe that for those who want to uncover history, you know, lead that fight and know that you have a responsibility.
I’ll be very honest with you, this was very intimidating for me. I didn’t take this just as, okay, let me figure out which Stevie Wonder songs, which Sly and the Family Stone songs go together. I knew I was restoring history, and I put that pressure on myself that, oh man, this has to be a grand slam. This can’t be anything less than hitting it out of the park. This is my one chance to slam dunk it for my people, and that was very, very intimidating. And you know, I was just afraid that I’d get it wrong or I’d fumble. But every day, I stayed focused and meditated and wound up, I think, with a very beautiful piece of work that I’m very proud of.
I think that there’s more out there. And I’m rolling up my sleeves, and I’m looking for more history to uncover and teach people.
DAS: Can you talk about the title, Summer of Soul, and the full title? And how you landed on that and why?
Questlove: When the Woodstock Festival happened in 1969, it got to define a generation. You can’t even think about the Summer of Love in the ‘60s and hippies without saying the word Woodstock. The marketing of Woodstock probably did more to define a generation than the actual event.
Around 1972-73, Hal Tulchin [the Harlem festival producer who made the original footage] wanted to clearly explain to his distributors that look, you remember Woodstock and how magical that was, right? Well, I have something magical right here, too, and it’s the Black version, Black Woodstock. So our film got tagged Black Woodstock.
On the last day before we locked production, I woke my girlfriend up and I was like, “Yo, what do you really think about the title?” And she was like, “You might as well throw your film in the trash if you put this out in the world as Black Woodstock.”
She said it would do such a disservice to your community and for history if you based this concert on something that came afterward. This concert is the original.
We were initially gonna call it Summer of Soul. However, I wanted—I don’t know—I wanted a proverbial raspberry [blows raspberry] or my version of giving the finger. For me, the real title is (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised).
To me, even though this is a beautiful piece of work, it’s still very much a story of what Black erasure is.
David Beard: It’s timely because as a teacher in several states, you could get fired for mentioning Black erasure.
Questlove: It’s funny how as we go into the future, we go further and further into the past, and that’s a shame. But you know, this is when we have to be focused and this is when we have to be brave and bold. Revolution is not gonna be safe. Revolution is not gonna be just something that you can tidy up and succinctly solve with a Kumbaya and handshake. Right is right and truth is truth.
DB: For me, one affecting moment in the film was the person who went to the concert but began to question his own sense of whether this really happened. Was this just a fantasy? The idea that you were able to capture something that was almost lost for a generation and put it there—what advice do you have for all the people looking to fill in these missing pieces of American history?
Questlove: You know what’s weird about the process of doing this film? The whole time I was wondering, is this just the lone example of that one time where we shot a really beautiful festival and captured a moment in time? There’s got to be more than this.
Maybe three weeks after the movie comes out, suddenly, my emails and my DMs all had the same tone to it: Hey Questlove, I don’t know if you know this, but in 1974, we had Isley Brothers and da da da da da da da, naming all these acts performing at this particular park and da da da da. And we got about 17 hours on film. But it’s been sitting in our college library for decades and I don’t know, maybe you’d be interested in this.
An acclaimed director who had shot a similar concert program in Chicago, the same sort of feel of Summer of Soul, thought that his project was lost to history. He recently found his lost footage and right now he’s editing his project. There are about eight or nine of these happening, but I get this spooky feeling that when I talk about a sort of casual Black erasure that this has happened by the score—beyond the score, probably by the hundreds.
DAS: Can you talk about the story that you wanted to tell? How important was the moment that we were in, and that we’ve been in, in framing your perspective on the direction of the documentary?
Questlove: My creative direction for the Summer of Soul and intention started off really different than what we wound up with. I initially just wanted to do a very cool curated mixtape, if you will, of 17 performances, of all the acts of the day.
But something happened on March 16, 2020. When we were at the beginning of principal shooting, the world completely stopped. And starting in April 2020, what was happening in 2020 began to look like a mirror of 1968-69. Suddenly, there was riots in the streets and protests, there was mistrust in the government, there were election concerns, there was also massive amounts of death. You could cut the air with a knife, and it wasn’t lost on me that suddenly the film that I thought I was gonna make was gonna take a totally different turn.
Somehow with that time on our hands, because the world has stopped, I’m not touring, I’m not doing DJ, I’m not distracted. I only have time to work on this film. Suddenly, we just felt the need to somehow mirror what we have lived through in 2020 because I feel like 2020 is gonna be just as important as the other crucial years in the United States be it 1776, be it 1619, be it 2001, all those crucial years that become paradigm shifts for the United States. And so I’ll say that if it weren’t for the events of post March 2020, the film that you know now would have not existed whatsoever. So it’s time-produced and starred in this film.
I hope there’s a watershed of just revelation after revelation after this film comes out because you know, based on the rejection letters that Hal Tulchin received for his film saying things like, “Hey, this is nice and all. We appreciate your inquiry, but we’re gonna pass”—which just reads as we don’t think it’s gonna have an impact or be anything. This is probably a really key example of what we talk about when we say that Black lives matter.
But I have friends now telling me that they’re the biggest Gladys Knight & the Pips fans just based on a two-minute clip on this film. So, yeah, the magic is still able to happen even 50 years out the gate. There’s more out there.
DB: People can grab onto the Chambers Brothers and then find singer Betty Davis or find connections that you paved the way for.
Questlove: Well, I do know that I’m definitely about to be very busy in the next 10 years. I mean, I pretty much made the announcement that I’m gonna direct the Sly and the Family Stone documentary. There are about six or seven other projects that I’m working on as well that’re in the same vein of revealing things that have been hiding in plain sight. I can’t wait to get my hands on them so that I can restore history.