…Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised
By Estelle DeBates
NEW YORK, August 3, 2021—Crafting it from footage of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, Summer of Soul director Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson unearthed a treasure that captures a pivotal moment in U.S. culture and politics. This invaluable film archive had not seen the light of day until now. The movie includes performances, interviews with artists and attendees, as well as historical footage of events from that time period.
Fifty years after the festival, its legacy is now, with the release of this film, available for us to enjoy and envision a future with a culture that can be forged through struggle.
Over 300,000 people attended the six free concerts held on weekends during an eight-week period at Mount Morris Park in the heart of Harlem. The musical performances included generations of Black performers from the blues, gospel, pop, rock and jazz genres.
B.B. King, Mahalia Jackson, the Staple Singers, the 5th Dimension, Stevie Wonder, Sly & the Family Stone, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Nina Simone, Max Roach and many more performers are featured in the film.
The festival took place in a country where the mass struggle for Black freedom had been dealt serious blows. These included the assassinations of two of its main leaders, Malcolm X in 1965 and Martin Luther King in 1968. The days after Dr. King’s murder were followed by rebellions in many major cities throughout the United States.
In 1965, Black Americans accounted for nearly 25 percent of combat deaths in the Vietnam War. That percentage had dropped to 12.7 by 1967, but the war’s overall toll in the Black community had been heavy.
The festival and the music reflect the frustrations as well as some of the discussion on which way forward in the fight for Black freedom.
The 1969 festival took place during the third summer of free concerts in Harlem sponsored by New York City’s Parks Department. The department hired Tony Lawrence, who had been active in civic work in Harlem to organize and promote the concert series. It is widely accepted that the Harlem Cultural Festival, an initiative of Mayor John Lindsay’s administration, and other Lindsay-era programs, were intended to quell any further riots in uptown Manhattan.
The first two festivals were quite successful. But the 1969 series was unprecedented in the breadth and scope of the talent it drew.
‘We want our people lifting us up’
“It wasn’t just about the music,” as Gladys Knight, one of the performers interviewed in the film, put it. “We wanted progress,” she said. “We are Black people and we should be proud of this and we want our people, our people, lifting us up.”
The talent Tony Lawrence brought together was impressive. At the time, Lawrence said the festival was “about where the Negro lives, physically and spiritually.”
Early on in the movie, B.B King sings a ripping version of “Why I Sing the Blues” whose lyrics include:
“They brought me over on a ship,BB King’s “Why I Sing the Blues” lyrics
men were standing over me,
and a lot more with a whip.”
The song goes on to describe the ongoing legacy of slavery for Black people in the U.S.
One of the more compelling moments in the film is the performance of “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” by gospel great Mahalia Jackson and the young Mavis Staples. The song was known to be a favorite of Martin Luther King.
The concert also included acts from Motown artists. David Ruffin, who had just left the Temptations, performs “My Girl,” while Gladys Knight and the Pips perform “I Heard It through the Grapevine.”
Also performing from the Motown family was Stevie Wonder, who personifies what the film captures about the changing times. No longer is he Little Stevie Wonder. “I was 19. I was at a crossroads,” states Wonder, who is interviewed for the film. “I had the feeling the world was wanting a change. We were moving into a whole other time and space with music.”
We witness Wonder beginning to become the man and musician who went on to write masterpieces that were “unapologetically Black.”
The movie makes it clear that 1969 marked the end of the “Negro” and the beginning of Black pride. Scattered through the crowd we see Afro hairstyles and people wearing dashikis, or colorful African-inspired apparel.
The rise and influence of anti-colonial struggles throughout Africa and the rest of the world are beginning to have a powerful impact on U.S. politics and, in particular, on the Black liberation struggle.
This growing internationalist outlook is reflected in the performances at the concert series. Legendary South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela performs. An ardent opponent of the apartheid regime, he is drawn to the Black liberation struggle and the growing interest in Africa in the U.S.
The concert reflects not only the rise of Black pride but its interconnection with other fights to end racist discrimination in the United States and advance national liberation struggles in other parts of the world.
Afro-Caribbean performances include the great Cuban percussionist Mongo Santamaria performing Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man,” interspersed with scenes from the Cuban Revolution.
New York-born Puerto Rican percussionist Ray Barreto performs “Together,” the title track to his 1969 album released on Fania Records—an anthem for Black, Brown, White, Red and Yellow unity. Barreto sings:
“I know a beautiful truth.Ray Barreto’s “Together” lyrics
I know I’m Black and I’m White and I’m Red,
the blood of mankind.
And so, in every face I see,
I see a part of you and me.
Together, we got to get together.”
‘Whitey on the Moon’
Meanwhile, in the midst of the concert series, the U.S. media is promoting a national celebration for NASA’s success in landing a man on the moon. Stevie Wonder mentions this in his performance to resounding boos from the crowd who were not about to join the celebration.
Interviews with attendees reflect the general attitude in the Black Community as to why resources were not made available to meet their needs as human beings on earth, while millions are spent to send men to the moon.
A year later, Gil Scott-Heron would capture this sentiment perfectly in his 1970 spoken word poem “Whitey on the Moon,” which has recently gone viral with the advent of space tourism for billionaires.
A highlight of the film is, of course, the performance by Nina Simone, who was uncompromising in the fight for Black freedom.
She starts off with “Backlash Blues,” singing:
“Who do you think I am?Nina Simone’s “Backlash Blues” lyrics
You raise my taxes, freeze my wages, send my son to Vietnam.
You give me second class houses and second class schools.
Do you think that all colored people are fools?
Mr. Backlash, I’m goin’ to leave you with the blues, yes I am….
But the world is a big.
Big and bright and round.
And it’s full of folks like me
who are black, yellow, beige and brown.”
‘Young, Gifted, and Black’
Nina Simone also introduced the song “To Be Young Gifted and Black” to the loud cheers of the crowd of 50,000 at the festival. It quickly became the anthem for the young generations of African Americans at the time—and remains so today.
The historical footage and story that accompany this part of the film is an interview with award-winning journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault. She describes being one of two Black students who were the first to desegregate the University of Georgia, where she chose to attend the School of Journalism.
A riot broke out a few nights after they arrived, Hunter-Gault explains in an interview. She was placed on the first floor of her dormitory, alone. White students took turns banging on the floor above her. “Nina Simone gave us hope,” she says in the film. “I had her albums,” which she listened to while the banging went on and on.
Hunter-Gault went on to become a writer at the New York Times. When one of the editors changed a story where she used the term “Black” back to “Negro” she responded with an 11-page memo that convinced the paper’s editor in chief to update the daily’s policy, adopting the term “Black” when referring to African Americans from then on.
In today’s reality, when police brutality is rampant, it is worth noting that the 1969 festival in Harlem was held with no police transgressions. Crowds of 50,000 gathered together each weekend and there were no incidents. Event organizers secured marshalling for the concerts by the Black Panthers and their Puerto Rican counterparts the Young Lords.
It is not an accident that this film was released in the aftermath of the mass protests last year triggered by the murder by the police of George Floyd and many others whose only crime is being Black or Brown in America.
I hope it will be viewed by young people today and help them reach for the lessons of the past and see the potential that exists in working people to remake the world into a better place. The film is a joyful reminder of the power of struggle to transform ordinary human beings into agents of change and of the beauty of a culture that reflects that struggle.
As a commentator says in Summer of Soul, the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival was like “a rose that flowered through cement.” The same can be said about the movie.
Summer of Soul, Ahmir Thompson’s debut film, premiered on the U.S. streaming service Hulu the same day it was released in movie theaters, on July 2, 2021. It can be viewed by Hulu subscribers for no additional charge.
Estelle DeBates became active in politics in the early 1980s while a student at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. She participated in the fight to defend a woman’s right to choose abortion, the anti-apartheid movement, and in supporting the struggles of working people in Central America—in particular, defense of the Nicaraguan revolution at the time. She continued her activity as a part of the workers’ movement for the next two decades. She remains active today in supporting struggles of working people worldwide.