With “Summer of Soul”, Questlove wants to fill a cultural void

Twenty years later, I got a note asking me to meet my two future producers, Robert Fyvolent and David Dinerstein, about a Harlem cultural festival that looked like a “Black Woodstock”. Instantly, the music snob in me said, “I’ve never heard of this.” So I searched online. It’s not on the Internet, so I was very skeptical. But, when they finally showed me the footage, I immediately recognized Sly’s backdrop and thought, “Oh my God, it really happened.” For almost 50 years it stayed in a basement and no one cared. My stomach fell.

How did you approach the transformation of six weeks of concert footage into a two hour documentary?

I transferred 40 hours of footage to my hard drive and kept it looping around the clock at home. I have a device so I can watch it at 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 took notes of anything that caught my eye. I was looking for “What are my first 10 minutes, what are my last 10 minutes?” Once I saw Stevie Wonder do this drum solo, I knew it was my first 10 minutes. It’s a gobsmacker. Even though I know he played the drums, it’s something you don’t see all the time.

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

It was not as easy as you think. The festival was over 50 years ago, you’re really looking for people who are now in their late 50s to early 70s, and Harlem is a different place. You have to hit the sidewalk because so much of the neighborhood’s social fabric is community driven. One of our producers, Ashley Bembry-Kaintuck, even went to a swing dance class to meet someone [the former Black Panther Cyril “Bullwhip” Innis Jr.] We have identified.

Musa Jackson ends up being our anchor. He was one of the first to respond, but revealed to us that he was only 5 when he went to the festival. He told us, “Look, this is my first memory in life. So I’ll just tell you everything I remember.

Considering that the festival predates Woodstock mostly, why do you think it was so easily overlooked?

History has seen fit that every last person who was on this stage now ends up defining a generation. Why is it not held the same way? Why was it so easy to get rid of us? Instead, the cultural zeitgeist that ended up being our guide as a Negro was “Soul Train”. And so, I’m always going to ask myself, “How could this and ‘Soul Train’ push potential creatives further? “


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