Maybe our parents, and grandparents and great-grandparents had it right all this time.
That’s what I found myself thinking toward the end of Summer of Soul (… or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), an award-winning documentary landing on Hulu July 2. Directed by Root frontman Questlove, the doc chronicles 1969’s other seminal music festival—one you’ve probably never heard of: the Harlem Cultural Festival.
And as I watched, I thought about how each generation has embraced a form of music that terrified the previous one: Elvis; the Beatles; Black Sabbath; NWA; Nirvana; Eminem; Cardi B. They were worried that the music would change their sons and daughters—lead them in new directions, introduce them to new ideas, lure them into dangerous new pastimes.
Summer of Soul suggests that all those nervous parents and guardians were right: Music is powerful. And 1969 is exhibit A.
While Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix were making flower-power history at a muddy dairy farm near Woodstock, New York, some other A-list headliners were making their own sort of history 100 miles away. The 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival ran for six weeks at Harlem’s Mount Morris Park. Each weekend, 40,000 or more people packed the park—some climbing trees to see the acts—and listened to music. All kinds of music: the soaringly earthy Gospel of the legendary Mahalia Jackson; the danceable sound of Motown via Gladys Knight and the Pips; the melodic pop of The 5th Dimension; the psychedelic rock of Sly and the Family Stone; the breathless funk of Stevie Wonder. They heard jazz, blues and salsa, as well as music straight from Africa. And as the music played, the definition of what it meant to be Black in America shifted, swayed and coalesced into something new.
Gladys Knight recalled the energy she felt during her own performance. “I knew something very important was happening that day in Harlem,” she said. “It wasn’t just about the music.”
But without the music, it wouldn’t have happened at all.
Summer of Soul talks about the critical way that music has long given voice to the Black experience. Ancestors in Africa had used music as an almost religious catharsis, and that sense of transformational energy was taken by slaves to the New World. When they embraced Christianity, they found a spiritual bulwark against slavery’s horrors—and a musical form (Gospel) that gave voice to both suffering and praise. “Gospel’s a part of our DNA,” journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault says in the doc. The blues, Motown, jazz and psychedelia all mirrored the Black experience, but it helped shape it, too.
One attendee recalls how before the festival, he and his friends were big fans of Motown music—music defined by its suit-wearing, highly choreographed, über-polite groups. They were “suit-and-tie guys,” he says.
But during the festival, he saw Sly and the Family Stone sidle up onstage: a white guy playing the drums, a woman on the trumpet and everyone dressed just how they wanted to dress. They took their time getting to the stage. They took their time warming up. And then they unleashed an electric, eclectic handful of hits, including the anthem “Everyday People.”
“We saw Sly,” the attendee recalls, “and we were no longer suit-and-tie guys.”
That throwaway comment tells us that it wasn’t just about the music itself: Something fundamental changed in the space of a set—a transformation from a “suit-and-tie” guy into something edgier, more unpredictable. The music brought with itself an ethos that informed how its fans thought of themselves.
The acts on stage, be they Motown’s sharpest or psychedelia’s freakiest, talked in their own ways about what it meant to be Black in America, the Black experience—its struggles, its tragedies, its beauties, its spirit. The festival coincided with a bunch of sociopolitical events, too: the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr., Bobby Kennedy and Malcom X; Harlem’s own poverty and problems with heroin in the streets; a disillusionment with the system that led to a new, sometimes militant activism in black communities. Some, liked soul legend Nina Simone, seemed to open the door to violence from the stage.
Said Denise Oliver, one of the leaders of the militant activist group The Young Lords, “We were propelled on a wave of music.”
That’s the thing about music—something Summer of Soul discusses a bit. It can bypass the head and hit the heart. It can bypass the problems of language—the difficult process of making oneself be heard and understood—and strike home. Just a few words paired with just a few notes, and listeners can say, “Yeah, that’s exactly what I feel.” Music can bind people more closely than glue. It can galvanize those people to action more effectively than a thousand hours of lectures.
It’s why, I think, music has been so important—so arguably fundamental—in Christianity, too. We may find ourselves moved by sermons. But for me, it’s the music—“Amazing Grace” or “How He Loves”—that can move me to tears.
But while music can be a catalyst for positive change—both individually and culturally—it can be problematic, too. And, as Summer of Soul suggests, those positive and negative influences aren’t necessarily exclusive of each other.
The Harlem Cultural Festival of 1969 was overshadowed by Woodstock in its own day, then practically forgotten for decades. Concert footage sat in a basement for 50 years: This documentary is the first time it’s been seen since it was first made.
I’m grateful to have seen it. While the film (in theaters and on Hulu July 2) is rated PG-13 for smoking, some drug references and a few newsclips showing difficult images, the performances we see here can be pretty electric—showcasing some musical legends in their prime. But more importantly for our purposes, it illustrates a truth that we at Plugged In are always preaching: Entertainment is powerful. It can move us and shape us in ways that we don’t always fully understand—and music is one of the most powerful movers we know.
We sometimes think about how crazy our parents were for wringing their hands over the pop or grunge or rap we loved (and perhaps still do). We think to ourselves, “It’s just a song. I don’t even pay attention to the words.” But history tells us that those songs—that music—can change the world, in good ways and bad.