Summer is a season of sustainment. A time to relax, to recover. To revel, to recuperate. A time to romanticize. A time to run free. We greet the heat, welcome the warmth of our wondrous world and its inhabitants, welcoming and witnessing the abundance provided to us in this temporal juncture of ecliptic orbit.
At the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, the site centered in Black director Questlove’s “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” sends us back in time to a particular summer in the sixties, allowing us to bask in the beauty of a significant coalescence of community, celebration, freedom, joy, soul.
In just under two hours, six weeks of footage from half a century ago is brought forth, featuring an array of Black performers showcasing a pantheon of Black music styles of the sixties, jazz, gospel, blues, Motown, R&B and more. The interplay of these genres is a testament to the expansive versatility, creativity and spirit of Afrikan peoples. Summer of Soul displays the serious range of Black artists, the distinct ways they expressed themselves creatively in a time of great tribulation.
An epoch of enormous change, of striking radical sentimentalism. The summer of ‘69 followed the violence, upheaval and disarray of that of ‘68 — a summer often compared to that of 2020 in terms of their extreme political unrest in the form of riots, police brutality and contentious presidential elections. The parallels between the two become even more proclaimed when looking at the attention given to the Space Age astronomical advancements of the time. In July of 196,9 we saw the landing on the moon with Apollo 11. Today, billionaires are racing to go to space. Two summers, where America is, as the Reverend Jesse Jackson puts it in the film, “more concerned about the moon than men.” Hearing the negative sentiments towards the moon landing in the documentary opened my eyes to the differing perspectives held at the time, namely by the disillusioned Black community. A footage from a newsreel in the documentary details a Black man claiming that the money used to go to space “could’ve been used to feed poor Black people.” As billionaire tech mogul Elon Musk, who accumulated his wealth through the exploitation of workers and minorities domestically and abroad embarks on his own mission to the stars, I’m stuck asking the same question.
The Harlem Cultural Festival in ‘69, while seen as a vehicle for revolutionary drive, could also be considered as a placation of an increasingly radicalizing populace much like how we’ve witnessed attempts at pacifying present-day movements for liberation (virtue-signaling, commodification of Blackness, emphasis on non-violent means of protest on behalf of the white power structure). German philosopher Walter Benjamin in his text, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility,” maintains that fascism will allow for the masses to express themselves on an aesthetic level while simultaneously rejecting changes in economic relations of power. While music cannot be reduced to a mere means for aesthetic pleasure and enjoyment, the curated experience of festival under the whims of capital does in some manifestation serve as a way to appease the masses and avoid uprising and upheaval. Nonetheless, cinema, which Benjamin characterizes as bringing out the soul of things, allows us to see the Harlem Cultural Festival of 1969 for what it really is: a liberating coming together of culture, style and communal spirit.
The film further exemplifies the revolutionary nature of the event in its totality through its editing. The use of montage, specifically montage of the masses, is reminiscent of prominent Soviet-era film director Esfir Shub, who used archival footage and associative editing to convey political sentiment. The quick shots, flashing imagery of the Afro-modern, Pan-Africanist fashion styles and paraphernalia in conjunction with the militancy and fiery passion of the Black Panthers and The Young Lords interspersed together informs the audience that something larger is at play. At the start of the festival, as seen in the film, the Black Panthers provided security in lieu of the police. This is important to note, especially in a time where the abolition of police and policing is at the forefront of conversation, the Black Panthers’ notions of community safety through Black self-defense cannot be neglected. In the Black Panther Party Platform and Program of 1966, number seven of the ten point program demands an end to police brutality and the murder of Black people, calling for Black people to arm themselves as a means to defend against racist law enforcement. The cultural styles of the time as detailed in the documentary demonstrate the new sense of self-determination, pride and agency for all Afrikan peoples. In what one festival attendee in the film refers to as “a sea of Black people,” you can see afros abound and dashikis dawned. A spectacle complete with cut off shirts, sombreros, bell-bottoms and beyond that, a reminder of the artistic autonomy and authenticity Afrikan peoples were postulating.
Surpassing the sublunary and spearing into the incorporeal, what at first appears to be a physical gathering of 300,000 cuts deep into the realms of the metaphysical — the spiritual. Herein lies the timeless and transcendent, titular soul of the Summer of Soul. Soul music being a synthesis of R&B, gospel and blues is synonymous with our own soul’s capacity for stringing together our series of selves — our pain, zour joy, love, madness, jealousy, rage, trauma, all the harrowing of hallmarks of feeling in a fleeting existence. “The memory is in the music,” as Black jazz artist Sidney Bechet once said. The communal spirit cultivated via Call-Response, the musical signifyin(g) bringing forth calls, riffs, runs, grunts, screams, moans, yells and shouts all serve as means to convey the freedom found in feeling the music, mystical melodies, interlocking rhythms, Heavenly harmonies. Spirituality is at the root of all Afrikan music. Thus, it makes sense that the characteristics of spontaneous spiritual possession (catching the Holy Ghost) arise in a variety of instantaneous forms. Musical expression is at its core a deeply religious experience. Black author Jerma A. Jackson asserts in her book, “Singing in my Soul,” that “music, an aural medium, is the elusive manipulation of time through space.” As she states, it was the “intractable, fluid, and impervious” nature of gospel music, prominently in the 20th century, which was a catalyst for the involvement of Black people in the highly segregated and racist American music industry. Gospel has its roots in the spirituals and hymns of enslaved Afrikan peoples who in the midst of their misery, found solace and strength to transcend their subjugation through faith. The blood-soaked, bittersweet blessing next to the corrosive wound that is racial-capitalism emerges in the endurance, wisdom, resilience and creativity instilled in the collective unconscious of the Afrikan community. As time went by, gospel evolved into R&B. R&B into rock-and-roll, motown, soul, disco and hip-hop, which were integrated into rap and countless other genres. These musical styles — originating in Black culture with roots in Afrikan religious tradition — operate in dialectical motion and are in essence emanations of a multitudinous soul.
In his book, “Race Music,” Black author Guthrie Ramsey connects ethnic identity to musical practice, drawing a parallel between their continual dialogue with a historical past to present, and their capacity for performative nature. He states, “Musical codes and ethnic markers are rather unstable: what they mean depends on many contingencies, such as historical context, geographic, who is uttering them, and who is interpreting them. The perceived boundaries surrounding ethnicity and musical styles are rigorously policed.” The Harlem Festival of 1969, despite being an open display of Black artists’ musical prowess, was forgotten and overlooked for nearly half a century. Yet since Black music has entered the mainstream, it is now subject to commodification and appropriation with little regard for its origins, meaning or purpose. When thinking about Ramsey’s notion of ethnicity and musical performance in tandem with the Harlem Cultural Festival of ‘69, it’s clear that in the past, what was once Black music performed primarily for Black audiences with the intent of conveying the Black experience(s), has now been turned into an exploitive entertainment industry for capital, to be consumed by mass-audiences and listeners with little connection to or care for the culture. Drive by any predominantly white institution on the weekend (including yours truly) and you will most likely hear hip-hop and rap blasting from the speakers of any bar, club, party or function. Black music, from its former glory is reduced to a mass-produced and consumed, commodified aesthetic, ambience in the background, hyper-focus on form, neglect for content.
As critical philosophers Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer posit in their seminal piece, “The Culture Industry,” “art is always ideology” and through the dictates of capital arises an obedience to a social hierarchy in which culture is put into administrative hands through mechanized production. In an increasingly secular culture dominated by the demonic forces of white supremacy and capitalism, we’re witnessing the erosion of spirit that was once so ingrained in our music. “Summer of Soul” serves as a reminder of our infinite potential as spiritual creatures — the power endowed in us by our Creator to express ourselves from the depths of our being — to reach into the ecstatic states of song and dance to feel the divinity and exuberance that life has to offer… only if we do some soul-searching within.
MiC Columnist Karis Clark can be contacted at email@example.com.