When you hear the words “music festival” and “1969” in the same sentence, your mind immediately goes to Woodstock. However, just months before the festival of “peace, love, and music,” there was another revolutionary, culture shifting music festival taking place at Mt. Morris Park in Harlem. The Harlem Cultural Festival took place during six summer weekends in 1969, amassing over 300,000 spectators but somehow remained buried in history until now.
The “Summer of Soul” documentary, directed by Questlove, is a must watch for anyone and everyone with a Hulu subscription. It tells the story of African American history, and how through all their tribulations and pain it was music that carried them through. The festival covered a spectrum of genres, Blues, Soul, R&B, Pop, Gospel etc, and brought in many of the biggest and most respected artists of that time period. The festival lineup included Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, David Ruffin, The 5th Dimension, The Edwin Hawkins Singers, Mahalia Jackson, Gladys Knight and The Pips, Ray Barretto and dozens more.
The documentary opens up with a discussion of how the 60’s was a turbulent time for Black Americans. Tension and violence were high with the assassinations of former president John F. Kennedy, his brother Robert Kennedy, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr, and Malcolm X all which happened within five years of each other. The Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, but the fight was far from over. Protests and civil unrest was still happening all over the country and the Black struggle was still being overlooked. In fact, the NYPD would not do security for the concert so the Black Panther Party stepped in and secured the park. The Harlem Cultural Festival symbolized a shift in Black history. Black people were finding their own identity through style and music instead of being confined to the boxes made by others. At one point in the film, minister and civil rights activist Al Sharpton says, “1969 was the year that Negro died and Black was born.”
“Summer of Soul” also highlights the stark differences between what was seen as important to the Black community compared to everyone else. In the documentary there is a segment about the Apollo 11 moon which also happened during the Harlem Cultural Festival on July 20, 1969. There were clips of spectators of the moon landing who were mostly white talking about how it was amazing for the country that this happened and that it was a huge technological achievement. One man even said, “I felt the world got closer today…we all got to know each other that much more.” The irony of that statement is that when Black people around the country and even at the festival were asked about Apollo 11 the responses were vastly different. Black Americans did not think it was that important, some even disappointed that the US could use much of its resources for space exploration but not dealing with the poverty, violence or even the heroin epidemic in Black communities. Festival attendees thought the Harlem Cultural Festival was just as important as the moon landing if not more.
A man in the concert crowd said, “The cash they wasted as far as I’m concerned in getting to the moon could have been used to feed poor Black people in Harlem.” These responses show that while America believed that the country was advancing, the struggles of the Black community were still being ignored and undervalued.
Hal Tulchin is responsible for recording 40+ hours of footage from the festival and he had every intention of releasing it. Unfortunately, the public was simply not interested in this festival. With Woodstock happening at the same time only 100 miles away, everyone’s attention and money went towards them. Tulchin even tried to advertise it as “Black Woodstock” but it still wasn’t enough. So the footage sat in his basement for years until he passed away in 2017. As the documentary comes to a close, Musa Jackson, a festival attendee who was only four-years-old at the time, is tearing up as he watches the festival and is relieving those moments. “You put memories away…and sometimes you don’t even know if they’re real. So it’s almost confirmation that what I knew was real” he said with a smile.
“Summer of Soul” is now in theaters and available to stream on Hulu.