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With ‘Summer of Soul,’ Questlove Wants to Fill a Cultural Void

With ‘Summer of Soul,’ Questlove Wants to Fill a Cultural Void

Twenty years later, I received a note asking me to meet with my two future producers, Robert Fyvolent and David Dinerstein, about a Harlem cultural festival that was like a “Black Woodstock.” Instantly, the music snob in me said, “I’ve never heard of that.” So I looked it up online. It’s not on the internet, so I was highly skeptical. But, when they finally showed me the footage, I instantly recognized the backdrop for Sly and thought, “Oh God, this really did happen.” For nearly 50 years, this just sat in a basement and no one cared. My stomach dropped.

How did you approach turning six weeks of concert footage into a two-hour documentary?

I transferred 40 hours of footage on my hard drive, and I kept it on a 24-hour loop in my house. I have a device so I could watch it any time, in my living room, in my bedroom, in my bathroom. I also put it on my phone when I traveled. For five months, that’s all I watched and just kept notes on anything that caught my eye. I was looking for, “What’s my first 10 minutes, what’s my last 10 minutes?” Once I saw Stevie Wonder do that drum solo, I knew that was my first 10 minutes. That’s a gobsmacker. Even though I know he played drums, that’s something you don’t see all the time.

Why was it so important to include the experiences of people who actually attended?

This wasn’t as easy as people think. The festival was 50-plus years ago, you’re really looking for people who are now in their late-50s all the way through their early-70s, and Harlem is a different kind of place. You have to hit the pavement because so much of the social fabric of the neighborhood is community-oriented. One of our producers, Ashley Bembry-Kaintuck, even went to a swing dancing class to meet one person [the former Black Panther Cyril “Bullwhip” Innis Jr.] we identified.

Musa Jackson winds up being our anchor. He was one of the first people to respond, but he disclosed to us that he was just 5 years old when he went to the festival. He told us, “Look, this is my first memory in life. So I’m just going to tell you everything I remember.”

Given that the festival mostly predated Woodstock, why do you think it was so easily forgotten?

History saw it fit that every last person that was on that stage now winds up defining a generation. Why isn’t this held in the same light? Why was it that easy to dispose of us? Instead, the cultural zeitgeist that actually ended up being our guide as Black people was “Soul Train.” And so, I’m always going to wonder, “How could this and ‘Soul Train’ have pushed potential creatives further?”

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