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Questlove on 1969 Harlem fest that sparked ‘Summer of Soul’

Questlove on 1969 Harlem fest that sparked 'Summer of Soul'

After DJing at the Oscars this year, Questlove could very well be up for one of those golden bald babies in early 2022.

In fact, his directorial debut, “Summer of Soul” — a documentary about the Harlem Cultural Festival that took place over six Sundays in 1969, which premieres on Hulu and in theaters on Friday — was already honored with two prizes at the Sundance Film Festival in February.

The 50-year-old Roots drummer, “Tonight Show” bandleader and celebrity DJ — who was born Ahmir Thompson — reveals how he first stumbled upon some festival footage, which performance he can watch on repeat, and how the Roots would have gone over at the historic concert series, also known as “Black Woodstock.”

Questlove
Questlove first discovered some Harlem Cultural Festival footage while on tour with the Roots in Tokyo.
Getty Images

How did you first discover footage of the Harlem Cultural Festival?

The first time that the Roots went to Tokyo, I was in a place called the Soul Train Cafe, and it was there where I saw kind of a bird’s-eye view of the Sly & the Family Stone footage. And at the time, I didn’t know that I was watching the Harlem Cultural Festival. And then, cut to 20 years later in 2017, these two gentlemen, Robert Fyvolent and David Dinerstein — they were my producers — asked if I’d be interested in doing a movie about it. The first thing I did was Google it and there was nothing there, and I was just like, “Wait a minute, what’s going on here?” Of course, they bring the footage, and I was floored.

How in the world did this footage remain buried all these years?

None of us can believe it. Sadly, the real answer is that, even something as magnificent as the idea of Stevie Wonder, Mahalia Jackson, Gladys Knight, Sly & the Family Stone — all this A-list talent — even in the midst of that, sometimes black stories can be dismissed.

What was the coolest discovery you made going through all of the footage?

When I discovered the Stevie [Wonder] drumming footage, that was something I’d never seen before. And I knew that was something that the world had never seen before, so I knew that that had to open the film.

Mavis Staples and Mahalia Jackson performing
Mavis Stapes and Mahalia Jackson took it to church at the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival.

There are so many amazing performances that gave me goosebumps. Which one is your favorite?

I will never, ever in this lifetime tire of watching Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples [singing “Take My Hand, Precious Lord”]. Aretha Franklin was an 11th-hour dropout, so it was Aretha Franklin who was supposed to duet with Mahalia Jackson. I also discovered that Jimi Hendrix had requested to play at the festival … and he got turned down. But Jimi Hendrix actually wound up playing, like, three weeks of after-parties after the festival was over. He played, like, three blues bars in Harlem.

The 5th Dimension on stage at the Harlem Cultural Festival
The 5th Dimension let the sunshine in during the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival.

If you could jump in a time machine with the Roots and go back and play the Harlem Cultural Festival, how do you think you guys would have gone over?

The Sly & the Family Stone performance is probably the most telling about how we would be received … The adults there were sort of like, “This is a little too freaky for me.” But by song four, oh my God, the adults were acting as giddy as the kids were. We are no strangers to arms being folded and sort of adversarial looks. So I would say that, they would be a little weirded out and then we’d win them over in the end.

B.B. King performing
B.B. King turned Mt. Morris Park into a big blues joint at the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival.

About the author

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Julia Mangels

Julia has handled various businesses throughout her career and has a deep domain knowledge. She founded Stock Market Pioneer in an attempt to bring the latest news to its readers. She is glued to the stock market most of the times and just loves being in touch with the developments in the business world.

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