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Questlove Discusses His Must-See New Doc, 'Summer Of Soul'

Sly Stone performs at the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969, in a still from the film <em>Summer of Soul</em>.
Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures
Sly Stone performs at the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969, in a still from the film Summer of Soul.

Updated July 2, 2021 at 1:02 PM ET

Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson knows you have probably heard a lot about Woodstock, the legendary summer concert festival of the late 1960s. But a few years back, Questlove, best known as drummer and composer with The Roots, was asked to direct a music documentary, Summer of Soul, about another legendary concert, one you probably haven't heard about.

"In the very beginning, I felt like, oh, well, this is too historical for a first-time driver to be at the wheel, so maybe [the filmmakers] don't want to ... leave it in my hands," Questlove tells Audie Cornish in an interview with All Things Considered (you can listen to the audio above). "But the itching and burning of wanting to see this footage and the goosebumps I got watching it..."

The Harlem Cultural Festival was a series of free shows at New York's Mount Morris Park that ran six weekends in the summer of 1969. Three hundred thousand people attended, and saw a galaxy of stars that we're all familiar with today, but whom we might not have glimpsed at that moment in their careers.

There was Motown's Gladys Knight, an ingenue with a tortoiseshell clip pressed into her teased hair. There were singers of The 5th Dimension in fringe vests and bell-bottoms, nervous about how their psychedelic pop would be perceived by this mostly Black audience. A lanky, velvet-suited David Ruffin enjoyed the spotlight away from the Temptations. And a young Stevie Wonder shed his Little Stevie image, tearing across the stage between instruments and ripping through a drum solo — on the verge of several years of hits that would soon define him as an artist.

Black artistry and how it's defined, seen and embraced — those are some of the ideas that Questlove explores in the documentary he made about this moment: Summer Of Soul won the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. But, Questlove explains that the film was almost never made. The footage, shot by the late Hal Tulchin, sat in the cameraman's basement for years before he shared it with the filmmakers. They didn't want to just snip together a highlight reel. They wanted to tell a story. So, they approached the prolific Questlove, an author, DJ and composer who had not yet added director to his list of titles.

"I was amazed at the diversity of [the Harlem Cultural Festival]," Questlove says. He found he could easily put himself in the shoes of the artists, especially those who could defy expectations about what a Black pop star could or should be. "This is a concert festival that somehow found space for Moms Mabley and Mahalia Jackson and Sonny Sharrock and Sly and the Family Stone and Stevie Wonder and Mongo Santamaria, like every type of genre from Africa to Harlem."

The audience, too, defied expectations, which is something Questlove wanted to showcase. The festival was embraced by the New York City mayor at the time; the New York police less so. Black Panther Party members did some of the security. But Questlove says this was no Black Woodstock – the concerts were taking place at a crossroads period for Black America. Martin Luther King Jr. had been gunned down the year before. And the riots and anguish that followed still hung in the air. The artists present at the Harlem Cultural Festival melded music and social justice at the same time.

In making this film, Questlove says he wanted today's artists to learn from the artists of the past, "I want artists to know the lesson that we need to learn is that message and activism, those things matter. Those things matter. We can't lose that."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Over two decades of journalism, Audie Cornish has become a recognized and trusted voice on the airwaves as co-host of NPR's flagship news program, All Things Considered.