Black gospel music is often described as uplifting, an expression of joy in the faith. But Questlove, the director of a new documentary about a groundbreaking music festival in Harlem that ran for six weeks in the summer of 1969, said there’s another side of gospel that’s not. minus a release.
“There were a lot, I guess we can call the primitive musical expression or the primitive exotic expression or just the layman term, of people acting wild,” Questlove, the frontman of The Roots, the house band for “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon,” Religion News Service told a virtual press conference on June 22.
“So if it’s a mind-catching gospel singer, if it’s Sonny Sharrock doing one of the most atonal, destructive, violent solos I’ve ever seen on a guitar,” said Questlove, “I wanted people to know that it’s fair It’s not black people acting wild and crazy, that it was a therapeutic thing. And for many of us, gospel music was the channel. , because we didn’t know the dysfunctional families, therapies and life coaches that we have now. “
Questlove, whose first name is Ahmir Thompson, said he wanted the documentary to explain the meaning of some of the festival’s most moving music.
“Summer of Soul: (… Or, When The Revolution Couldn’t Be Televised)” will hit theaters and air on Hulu starting Friday, July 2. The documentary premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won a grand jury award as well as an audience award in February.
The little-known Harlem Cultural Festival was held from June to August at Mount Morris Park (now Marcus Garvey Park), drawing a predominantly black audience and well-known African-American musical celebrities. Following the assassination of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., organizers envisioned the festival as a way to honor King. Then-New York City mayor John Lindsay supported the festival, hoping to quell unrest.
Hundreds of thousands of people attended during the festival, and musicians and participants celebrated Black history, culture and fashion, seeking unity at a time when the nation was rocked by the Vietnam War. and a drug epidemic even as she faced a racial calculation.
“Summer of Soul” opens with a drum solo by Stevie Wonder and features artists ranging from blues performer BB King to gospel singers Edwin Hawkins Singers to Puerto Rican percussionist Ray Barretto. Gladys Knight recalled in an interview in the documentary how she joined in the prayers of the Pips, her male backing vocalists, before taking the stage and was “totally taken over” as she saw the crowd respond enthusiastically to “I am. heard through the Vine. “
Gospel music featured prominently on one day of the festival, but was also performed on some of the other five Sundays.
Artists and pundits interviewed by Questlove for the documentary and shown between snippets of footage from the festival – which took place in a basement for decades – agreed that the role of gospel goes beyond mere music.
Reverend Al Sharpton in the documentary described gospel music as more than just religious expression: “The gospel was therapy for the stress and pressure of being black in America.
“We didn’t know anything about therapists. But we did know Mahalia Jackson,” said Sharpton, president of the Harlem-based National Action Network and Pentecostal pastor turned Baptist.
Jackson, a very popular and influential gospel singer at the time, played a key role in the festival – not only as a headliner on July 13, 1969, the day designated as the gospel festival, but as a singer. of “Precious Lord, Take Ma main”, a favorite hymn of the murdered civil rights leader.
Moments before his assassination, King had leaned on the balcony just outside his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, and asked a musician to play this hymn at a meeting scheduled for the evening of the 4th. April 1968.
This saxophonist was one of the musicians of the festival a little over a year later.
“Ben Branch has always been revered by kids like me because Dr. King’s last words were addressed to Ben,” recalled Sharpton, who was the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s teenage director of Operation Breadbasket.
The documentary shows Branch, the leader of the Operation Breadbasket Orchestra, performing “Let Us Break Bread Together” as the Reverend Jesse Jackson prepares festival-goers for a musical prayer.
“We want Sister Mahalia, Mavis Staples and all of our groups to prepare for our ‘Precious Lord’ prayer today,” announced Jackson, a pastor who, over 50 years later, still continues his activism and has been arrested during a demonstration. a few weeks before the film’s theatrical release.
Staples, a member of The Staple Singers, recalled in an interview for the documentary that she was struck down by her “idol”, Mahalia Jackson, to help her sing the anthem.
“It was just an unreal moment for me,” recalls Staples, who started the song slowly. “I’m telling you, that was the moment of my life. When she gave me that mic back, I said, ‘Oh, she loves what I do.'”
Questlove noted that it wasn’t just gospel singers who featured the genre in their festival performances. Others, like The 5th Dimension, featuring singers Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr., included the style as they sang other flavors of music, including their rendition of “Aquarius / Let the Sunshine In. “, from the Broadway musical” Hair “. “
“This performance from them at the Harlem Cultural Festival was closer to that of a gospel revival,” Questlove said at the press conference. “I’ve never heard Billy Davis, except for one of their songs on their solo album, a song called ‘Your Love’. I’ve never heard Billy Davis Jr. use his hoarse gospel baritone, – AAHHHHEE – that kind of James Brown-ish sock-it-to-me, that sort of thing. “
In their interview in the film, McCoo and Davis explained how happy they were to be received at the festival as they were – black performers who had appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show” but had also been attacked for having sang pop music and “not be black enough.”
“Billy did all of these wonderful gospel licks in his ad libs,” McCoo said. “Our producer said ‘OK Billy take him to church’ and Billy knew exactly what to do because Billy sang gospel as a teenager.”
Beyond gospel inclusion, the entire festival exuded a sense of unity and a desire for hope at a time when not only King, but also Harlem-based Sen. Robert Kennedy and Malcolm X , had been lost under the bullets of the assassins.
Sharpton recalled the vocals of Nina Simone, who performed “To Be Young, Gifted and Black”, as he spoke with Questlove in the film.
“Nina Simone sang this with her tone that sits somewhere between hope and mourning,” Sharpton said in her interview in the film. “I mean, no one could capture the two spirits like Nina. It defined a whole generation because you could hear in her voice our pain but our challenge.”