Questlove’s Debut Film, ‘Summer of Soul’ Celebrates Black Culture

Questlove’s Debut Film, ‘Summer of Soul’ Celebrates Black Culture

Philadelphia native and member of the legendary band, The Roots, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, recently came out with his debut film Summer of Soul, which tells the story of the unforgettable 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. Attended by over 300,000 people, the Harlem Cultural Festival was a free summer concert series that was held in Mount Morris Park over the course of six weeks. In an era where Black America was quickly changing in wake of the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power movement, the Harlem Cultural Festival found a way to beautifully blend various forms of the Black experience and bring them together in celebration of it all.

The music festival, which was held at the same time as Woodstock 100 miles away, had a star-studded lineup with Black artists from various genres and parts of the world. Critically acclaimed artists such as Stevie Wonder, Mongo Santamaria, Hugh Masekela, B.B. King, Nina Simone, and others took the stage and gave transformative performances that audiences truly adored. However, unlike Woodstock, the footage from the Harlem Cultural Festival sat in a basement for 50 years and was never released until now.

Nina Simone performs at the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival in Mount Morris Park.

To say that 1969 was a rough year for the United States would be an absolute understatement. After losing President John F. Kennedy in 1963, Malcolm X in 1965, snd Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. the previous year in 1968, riots and racial tensions were at an all-time high. This, along with the war in Vietnam claiming hundreds of American lives every single day, made it nearly impossible for the peace to be maintained or for everyone to get along. Everyone had a different outlook and perspective on how to react—while some people believed in peaceful resistance and protest against what seemed like an oppressive regime, others felt that it was time to finally enact self-defense and fight back.

Furthermore, many members of the Black community were rightfully outraged in July of 1969 when Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon, claiming that while it was an amazing scientific advancement for the world, nothing was being done for poor Blacks across the country. Though millions of dollars were spent to put a man on the moon, the Black man in Harlem was struggling with racism, poverty, police brutality, and the heroin epidemic where hundreds were falling to the disease of addiction.

In response to many of these issues, militancy became mainstream, with the rise of groups such as the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords gaining popularity. This, along with the fight against apartheid in South Africa and the fight for change in Caribbean countries like Cuba, Trinidad, and Grenada gave rise to a global consciousness, in which various demographics united in order to fight white supremacy and oppression.

Members of the Black Panthers line up at a rally at DeFremery Park in Oakland, Calif.
Courtesy of Stephen Shames and Firelight Media.

Summer of Soul truly captures how the Harlem Cultural Festival was able to make people feel good and bring back the love and healing energy that had been lost over the last few years. In spite of the country facing such hard times when it came to race relations in America, the festival found a way to unite people through music and the human spirit. Thanks to the brilliance of Questlove, an impactful cultural moment that could have been easily glossed over and forgotten will now be remembered by the masses, and will hopefully be celebrated by generations to come.

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