Review: Summer of Soul

Like any other family, my family and I love movies and they’re a frequent conversation topic on our weekly phone calls. They’re always on the lookout for movies that I would potentially be interested in. I love documentaries, especially ones about music and history and they saw on the news that Questlove (of The Roots) is the director of a new documentary called Summer of Soul (…Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) and they told me about it. I was definitely intrigued and had to write about it. It fits right into my blog’s title, The Diversity of Classic Rock, where I talk about the diverse people and sounds of the classic rock era and that includes telling stories not often told.

Everyone is familiar with Woodstock, but what many people don’t realise is that the same summer and only 100 miles away there was another culturally significant festival happening and that was the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, dubbed Black Woodstock. And like Woodstock, lots of big names were there. How come few talk about it? I would assume it’s underrepresentation and erasure of black history in the media and the fact that Woodstock overshadowed it. As well, Woodstock had a whole film and a soundtrack album. The Harlem Cultural Festival was filmed, but most of it was never released, but it was broadcast on a local TV station. Multiple attempts were made at making the video recordings of the festival into a film in the 50+ years since it happened, but it wasn’t until 2021 that it was finally realised. When trying to sell the festival, the organisers were told that black culture isn’t marketable, a very wrong notion. In the meantime, the footage sat in a basement with no eyeballs looking at it until now.

Woodstock was like The Beatles of music festivals. Everyone knows it and it’s iconic. Pardon my French, but it’s basic bitch 60s history. It’s time to learn about something new and I always love learning about things that are less talked about from that time period. Harlem Cultural Festival was a series of 6 concerts held at Mount Morris Park between 29 June and 24 August 1969 and in total 300,000 people attended, so almost as big as Woodstock! Best yet, the festival was free! Lots of big names performed at this festival and you’ll surely know them: The Fifth Dimension, Mahalia Jackson, The Staple Singers, Stevie Wonder, David Ruffin, Gladys Knight & The Pips, Mongo Santamaria, Herbie Mann, The Chambers Brothers, Nina Simone, BB King, Hugh Masekela, and more!

The 60s were a turbulent time, lots of unrest and protests, that’s no secret. The capitalist system hurts everyone, but non-white/mixed Americans were definitely disproportionately affected. Look at the Vietnam War, it was certainly not rich kids dying in those wars, the “fortunate sons” – it was poor black and white Americans.

It’s always depressing to live through historical events, and if you’re reading this in 2021, you’ll know that. What’s going on now is not too different from previous decades. It’s like living in the 30s, 60s, and 2001 combined, insanity! If you listen to the music of the 60s, you’ll hear a lot of optimism. It’s not mentally healthy to constantly have your mind doom watching the news or doom reading the newspaper (the old version of doomscrolling).

At least in the 60s, you didn’t have the internet, let alone a smartphone with more than a library’s worth of information in your pocket. There was some escapism and that was music: festivals, nightclubs, and concerts. Art is what makes life worth living. As one festival goer put it in the documentary, “The goal of the festival may very well have been to keep black folks from burning up the city in ’69.” It was a needed break from an exhausting life. A moment when one can relax and enjoy some music and live in the moment.

The documentary is a well put together one with lots of incredible footage of performances and the crowd having a good time and interviews with people who put together the festival, those who attended it, activists, journalists, scholars, and even a few of the performers themselves. It goes through all the historical context and what was going on at the time, giving you an understanding of Harlem Cultural Festival and its place in history. It’s two hours long, so kick back, relax and enjoy some popcorn and drinks for a night in learning about one of the biggest festivals that you may have never heard about.

5 Takeaways/Things I Learnt from Summer of Soul

1. Black Panthers did the security for the festival.

In the 60s (and even today), black Americans do not have a lot of trust in the police and for good reason. The police care more about protecting capital than protecting the common people. The police are largely not from your neighbourhood. The police are trigger happy. The police are not your friends, they’re not there to help you. Summer of Soul was by the black community for the black community and it was best to have Black Panthers doing security, although some police were sent there.

The Black Panthers were a Marxist-Leninist activist group who would do various things for the black community: copwatching, feeding the children, operating community health clinics, and advocating for the working class. They were not hippies, they knew their rights and would go on armed citizens’ patrols to copwatch.

The Black Panthers are smeared all the time in history books because history in schools is largely told from the white point of view and to them, the Black Panthers were a threat. J. Edgar Hoover said it himself, describing them as: “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country” and so he sent spies to undermine the group through COINTELPRO.

2. The mayor, John Lindsay, appeared at the festival.

In the documentary, John Lindsay is described as a liberal Republican who was well liked in the black community. Because he frequently travelled directly into Harlem and other black and minority neighbourhoods and spoke to the residents there like equals, he won a lot of support and respect and so he supported the Harlem Cultural Festival. At the festival he was lovingly called a “blue eyed soul brother”.

3. It was a political event.

Gospel music is very important to the black community in America. If you look up biographical info on black R&B and rock musicians, what many of them have in common is that they grew up singing gospel music in church. There is no question that gospel music impacted and influenced popular music. You can even hear some of that influence in the music of The Chambers Brothers, The Fifth Dimension, and Sly & The Family Stone – all groups who performed at the festival. The previous year, MLK was assassinated and so MLK was honoured at the festival with a speech and a performance of “Take My Hand Precious Lord”, his favourite song, by Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples. Dr King would invite Mahalia Jackson to perform the song at civil rights rallies.

On the whole it was a political event with musicians encouraging festival goers to register to vote and talking about the issues facing Harlem and other working class black/brown neighbourhoods. In the 60s, black was reclaimed and turned into a positive descriptor and a label people can be proud of.

4. Fashion was significant to the festival and the time period.

Former tailor Jim McFarland said it perfectly in the documentary, “At that time, Harlem was a melting pot of black style”. If you look at the footage, it was a good look at the best of the best styles of the 60s. As it was summer time, you could see short skirts and dresses, bell bottoms, but you also saw more formal looks like dandified suits – very typical of the time period, and the best part was seeing out there looks: lots of bright colours and fringed sleeves.

In the late 60s and early 70s, Afrocentrism was in and you started seeing a lot more Pan-African inspired looks: dashikis, headscarves, and of course natural Afro hair – say no to damaging relaxers! Dashikis were also called “Freedom Suits” because they were easy to move in. Hair is very political and seen as one of the last things left for a black American (or black person from the Caribbean or Central/South America) to identify themselves. Their ancestors were stolen and enslaved. They didn’t have their culture anymore. Civil rights was about finding identity. You can force someone to speak a different language, you can change someone’s name, but one thing that hasn’t changed is the way someone looks. For centuries, black people were told that the way they looked was ugly and inferior and they need to strive to have more white appearing features. Some people in the 60s said no more to that and that they are going to embrace the way they naturally look, because it’s beautiful too and so the Black is Beautiful movement began.

5. Harlem is not just black, it’s diverse!

A lot of cultural exchange happened at the Harlem Cultural Festival. While yes, the culture was mostly black American, you had a mix there too with some Afro-Caribbean and Latin American elements. East Harlem, also known as Spanish Harlem had a lot of Latinos and Caribbean people: Puerto Ricans, Panamanians, Cubans, and Jamaicans. Migrants brought along their culture and people heard all sorts of music. And art being a universal language, people were intrigued with the new styles of music and people of all backgrounds danced together.

Shoutout to Patrick and Jeffrey from Maryland for supporting the blog!

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