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  • Writer's pictureeclectic Stefan

Summer of Soul:”Powered by a wave of music“

Music has the power to excite, energise, calm and create harmony and beauty. Key moments in music have celebrated and highlighted social and cultural change. The 1969 music festival Woodstock celebrated 3 days of peace and music— with equal amounts of rain, mud and high octane drugs. It was a landmark festival and movie by Michael Wadleigh, all three and a half hours of it, featuring innovative techniques for its time, such as multiple split screen images.

But, in that same year, 1969, another festival of music, culture and celebration happened in Harlem, New York City, a festival that did not receive the same notoriety and widespread acclaim as Woodstock. Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) celebrates that festival and the movie recounts a cultural festivity that was as influential as Woodstock except that it was a festival of black musicians and black culture that disappeared from public view, despite 40 hours of footage being recorded of the event. A significant and crucial reason that the 40 hours of vision and sound remained buried in a back drawer in a storeroom for 50 years was the revolutionary nature of the music and political tensions surrounding demands for integration and equality.

Festival attendees, Mavis Staples & Mahalia Jackson, Gladys Knight & The Pips

Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) highlights the love, energy and cultural shift that happened in Harlem over six weekends in 1969. Each weekend featured a different style of music from soul and jazz to gospel and blues featuring high profile musicians such as Sly and the Family Stone. Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Hugh Maskala, B. B. King, The 5th Dimension, and Clara Walker and the Gospel Redeemers.

1969 also was a time of momentoust events, particularly the assasinations of Malcolm X, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr and Robert Kennedy, that activated cultural change and were influential in shaping history and peoples’ thinking. It was the time of the Vietnam War where black soldiers in the US armed forces were represented disproportionally in the ranks of soldiers fighting in Vietnam while rights for black people in the US were unrepresenatative. Within the black community of Harlem and elsewhere in the United States, organisations such as The Black Panthers and community leaders such as Jesse Jackson, highlighted poverty and inequality and acted to empower black communities. Harlem changed in other less desirable ways when the heroin epidemic of 1969 shredded the community spirit and harmony of Harlem.

The musical performances in Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) provide a soulful feeling and a groove while the activism of The Black Panthers drives the power to make change happen. It was about black consciousness for black people. The music also raised the fundamental question of how you can be an artist and not reflect the times in which you live.

WATCH: Harlem: Now & Then

Festival attendees, such as Dorinda Drake, Darryl Lewis, Ethel Beatty and Barbara Bland-Acosta, reflecting years later about the Harlem Cultural Festival, said it was the summer that they became free…free from their parents. They also reflected, “These are our people”. Attendee Musa Jackson called it the “ultimate black BBQ ” that signified the importance of music and a sense of community. Gospel music was “therapy for black people” and church provided “sustenance.” They all agreed on one thing; it was “more than just the music. We wanted progress.”

Youth rebellion was common in many communities during 1969. Clothes, hair, language, and social structures were a sign of rebelliousness, cultural identity and change in the way society was thinking about issues of poverty, housing, equality, racism, sexism and integration in incorporate USA. The Harlem Cultural Festival was equally incendiary through music performances and social advocacy from people such as Reverend Al Sharpton and Black Panther Party leader Cyril ”Bullwhip” Innis, Jr.

The obvious question is why the footage of the Harlem Cultural Festival remained unrecognised and discarded for so long. Director Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson has finally collected and compiled footage of the musicians and their performances interspersed with interviews among the music that explains the invisibility of the Harlem Cultural Festival.

WATCH: Soul Searching with director Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson

There was a benefit to the film being uncovered, digitised and released in 2021. People who were in the audience and musicians who performed on the stage had the opportunity to reflect on the impact the festival had on them personally and the cultural impact it had on black communities, the ability of black leaders to hold equal status in business and government and the shift in attitudes to black lives. It was groundshifting. Nina Simone’s powerful performance of Are You Ready?, based on a poem written by Harlem poet David Nelson, asks the audience how strongly they believe in change.

“Are you ready to kill? Are you ready to burn buildings?”

from David Nelson's poem Are You Ready? performned by Nina Simone

Nina Simone

Two streams of thought indicated there were those who wanted change peacefully while others advocated similar notions to Malcolm X’s call to action, “By any means necessary” (although after his pilgrimage to Mecca, Malcolm X changed his views). The Harlem Cultural Festival rode on a wave of cultural change. Even natural hair was politicised as a form of black identity.

The first impression you get is energised music, familiar songs and sensational dance routines from backing singers like Gladys Night’s backing singers The Pips. The choreography is outstanding. Sixties fashion in its glorious multi-patterned and colourful glory along with clothes, such as the dasheki, reflected people’s African heritage in the Summer of Soul. The message in the final stages of Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) becomes blatantly political and activist in nature.

Abbey Lincoln, The 5th Dimension, Hugh Masekela, B.B. King & Gladys Knight & The Pips perform at The Harlem Cultural Festival 1969

And that brings us back to the reason the footage remained unreleased. The simple answer was that no-one was interested. Nobody wanted to touch it because of the messages being communicated. The Harlem Cultural Festival encouraged black individuals, groups and organisations to advocate for change. That was the difference. Music was one thing; activism was unacceptable. This was highlighted when Charlayne Hunter-Gault, who became an American civil rights activist, journalist and former foreign correspondent, was accepted as one of the first African-American students to attend the University of Georgia, She wanted to enrol in a journalism course. Other students--white students--indicated it wouldn’t be appropriate and they didn’t support black students attending their campus and they made her life uncomfortable. She maintained her stance and became an acclaimed journalist.

Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) is a celebration; it is a cry for social and cultural recognition. You will know the songs; they will lift you higher. You will love the music; it will inspire you, make you smile and put a groove in your step. Dance to the music; power to the people.

Summer of Soul is the Power of Soul.

Current release in selected cinemas and streaming online. Check your local cinema for available session times.

Photo stills, film poster & videos © Searchlight Pictures


Woodstock (1969)

The Woodstock Music and Art Fair, the most famous of the 1960s rock festivals, was held on a farm property in Bethel, New York, August 15–18, 1969. It was organised by four inexperienced promoters who signed a who’s who of current rock acts, including Jimi Hendrix, Sly & the Family Stone, the Who, the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, Ravi Shankar, and Country Joe & the Fish. Woodstock was an opportunity for people to escape into music and spread a message of unity and peace. Although the crowd at Woodstock experienced bad weather, muddy conditions and a lack of food, water and adequate sanitation, the overall vibe was harmonious.

from Woodstock, American music festival [1969] by Ed Ward • Last Updated: Feb 3, 2022


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