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Steppin' into the Screen | Summer of Soul

Updated: Jan 31

Gospel was more than religious, gospel was the therapy for the stress and oppression of being Black in America." - Reverend Al Sharpton

When we all thought that this would be the Summer of Love, plot twist, it wasn’t. This was however the Summer of Soul thanks to Ahmir Questlove Thompson. Just 52 years fashionably late, Summer of Soul (...or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) unveils footage of a festival you probably have never even heard of.

You furrow your brow and scratch your head in confusion and ask your screen:

“But Shady Lady, why do I care about footage of a festival I’ve never heard of?”

I reply with a sense of smugness:

“You don’t care right now but you will mate, you will.”

The Harlem Cultural Festival happened in 1969 in Mt Morris Park, New York. 1969 may ring a cow-bell as the year a particular renowned festival happened, Woodstock Festival. Although Woodstock was monumental in so many ways, unfortunately the existence of THCF was peacefully swept under the hippie hysteria and psychedelic Persian rug so to speak.

Summer of Soul is a blend of interviews and unseen footage of the Soul, RnB and Gospel festival (originally filmed by Hal Tuchin). There are interviews from cream of the crop performers like Stevie Wonder, Mavis Staples (from The Staple Singers), Gladys Knight, festival organisers, but whom I enjoyed the most were the delightfully reminiscent attendees.

The shots from The Harlem Cultural Festival are an exquisite sea of melanin and yet also demonstrates why this footage was discriminately untouched for so long. This festival represented Black and Brown power, pride, defiance and excellence in a time that did not recognise it.

“Woodstock got all of the publicity, so in selling it, I started to call it The Black Woodstock. It didn’t help, nobody was interested in The Black Woodstock. Nobody cared about Harlem.” - Hal Tuchin.

It opens with Stevie Wonder on the stage, a slick hazelnut suit and a grin from ear to ear, his voice melts my heart and I immediately get goosebumps as he gets out from the piano, struts across the stage and hops straight into a drum solo against a quintessential 60s backdrop.

“I had a feeling that the world was wanting a change. We were moving into a whole other time and space with music and with sound”. These artists were creating a new sound, experimenting and moving outside of the rigid confines of what white America demanded.

The festival was not only about the performances, it was political, it was spiritual, it represented catharsis for an entire community across America. Reverend Jesse Jackson gives a stirring sermon on the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, it is fresh in everyone’s minds, only happening the year before. Jesse speaks with vulnerability and solidity “Dr. King laid down with spine severed and his face blown off but he didn’t die crying and afraid. He died asking the Lord to lead his hand, to help him lead us”. The Operation Breadbasket Orchestra, led by Ben Branch accompanies Jesse with the organ immediately turning me to tears. Ben Branch was also known as being the last person Dr. King spoke with, before the assassination.

Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples give what I would describe as a historically holy performance of Dr. King’s favourite song Precious Lord, Take My Hand. The call and response between these two Gospel divas just bellows with pain and love “Gospel was more than religious, gospel was the therapy for the stress and oppression of being Black in America. We didn’t go to a psychiatrist, we didn’t go lay on a couch. We didn’t know anything about therapists but we knew Mahalia Jackson.” - Reverend Al Sharpton.

As Tony Lawrence, the festival host, announces each new band or a singer on to the stage my jaw seems to drop further and further as the film progresses. Every soul brother and sister is there: Sly and the Family Stone, The Edwin Hawkins Singers, The 5th Dimension, BB King, Nina Simone and that’s only skating the soulful surface. Even the Black Panthers were working as festival security for obvious reasons.

I don’t think I need to convince you any further, this film is clearly in Mint Condition for all you Discogs’ buffs (check the Film Condition Board below to know what the hell I’m talking about if you’re not up with Discogs terminology). Oh and one last thing, I genuinely want to thank Questlove for recovering this film, bringing it to fruition after decades of gathering dust in a forgotten space. Let this be a reminder that these disregarded communities should never be cast aside to catch dust but instead should be serenaded and celebrated.

Summer of Soul (...or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) will be screened at Melkweg, Amsterdam on Wednesday, February 7th 2024. More info here!


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