Questlove On Directing The Doc ‘Summer Of Soul’ & Black Joy In The Hour Of Chaos
The legendary drummer and producer talks to VIBE about the convergence of Black music, history and culture in his fantastic concert documentary.
On Saturday, June 19, the ground in Harlem’s Marcus Garvey Park was wet with history. The “City That Never Sleeps” had begun to wipe the crust from its eyes, after a 15-month COVID-induced hibernation. Hundreds of music fans, performers, and journalists filed into the grassy sanctuary for a first-look at Summer Of Soul, the 2021 Sundance Film Festival award-winning music documentary directed by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson of The Roots, which captures a long-forgotten music festival from 1969 that took place in this very park more than 50 years ago.
The outdoor screening and concert is a homecoming, reunion, and coming out party all rolled into one. While masks are still being worn, you can still see the smiles behind them. Bodies rock back and forth as the first hugs in over a year are exchanged. Hands linger almost afraid to let go. There is an anxiousness balanced by a renewed sense of freedom. A microcosm of the country at large, inside the park there is a quiet push and pull between those who remember the chaos of the last year and those who want to get back to “normal,” whatever that means now. Juneteenth, a day to commemorate when enslaved Black Americans in Galveston, Texas discovered that they had been emancipated two years prior, had just been recognized as a Federal holiday. But with that acknowledgment came an influx of performative messages from corporations that still pay African-Americans less than their white counterparts, if they hire them at all. This is just a sample of the complicated energy flowing beneath the feet of attendees who will dance and sing on the same ground where Hessian soldiers in the American Revolution once mounted cannons to suppress the American experiment.
That same energy is what summoned hundreds of thousands of Harlemites to gather for the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969. Back then the space was called Mt. Morris Park and on every Sunday from June 29 to August 24, a who’s who of Black entertainment from across the diaspora converged on this single point to bring a semblance of joy to a community rocked by tragedy and unrest. The assassinations of leaders like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. were still fresh in the minds of many. Black and Puerto Rican College Students were protesting at CUNY. The Stonewall riots were still going on a few train stops away. So, it was a momentary calming salve to watch performers like Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Sly & the Family Stone, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Mahalia Jackson, B.B. King and The 5th Dimension take the stage.
However, despite the best efforts of sponsors and local politicians to not only hold the festival, but to document it with TV cameras, its existence had been lost to history. The footage sat in television veteran Hal Tulchin’s Bronxville basement until his death in 2017. Fortunately, producers Robert Fyvolent and David Dinerstein had secured the rights to the archives and tapped music historian Questlove to sort through the more than forty-five hours of footage to create a film that celebrated not just Black music, but the culture and community that gave birth to it.
“It’s emotional [being here today]. It’s bigger than me,” says Musa Jackson, an attendee of the original festival who is also featured in the film. He points out an area in the park where his family was perched but admits that he was running all over the park that day. “The person who brought me here when I was a little boy passed away during Covid, my mother’s boyfriend. And I just thought about him just now and thinking…just how awesome this would be [for him to see]. So, I’m glad I’m here because if I’m here he’s here.”
Jackson is a fitting ambassador for his community. His father, Arthur Jackson, was an activist who was one of Harlem’s organizers for the Congress Of Racial Equality and knew Malcolm X. Musa was born a week after Malcolm’s assassination and was tutored by James Baldwin. As a festival attendee he was brought to tears seeing one of his favorite singers perform, Marilyn McCoo of 5th Dimension, who is also featured in the Summer Of Soul film, along with her husband, Billy Davis.
“I remember being backstage in the dressing room and kind of nervous because we were going to be performing for this great big audience here in Harlem,” says McCoo, with her husband lovingly at her side. “We didn’t know what they thought of the Fifth Dimension because a lot of radio stations weren’t playing our music. [They said] ours was ‘the Black group with the white sound.’ How do you color a sound? So we didn’t know how the audience would receive us. But they were so welcoming. Seeing that footage later was very emotional.”
Like the first festival in ‘69, the clouds above the park are heavy with rain, but they hold out just long enough for Questlove to warm the crowd up with a DJ set before taking his seat amongst them to watch his baby be presented to the world. This is the first time Thompson is seeing the film on the big screen with an audience and he’s anticipating the crowd’s reaction to his careful selections. In his 2013 memoir, Mo Meta Blues, he reveals that his life revolves around circles. “My logo or autograph, which I developed over the years through doodling, is composed of six circles. My life revolves around that shape.” So, this full-circle moment, Black history being rescued a day which is meant to commemorate Black history, is not lost on him at all.
VIBE spoke with Questlove on the red carpet and again several days after the premiere about preparing for this amazing moment and what it means to have his legacy as a musician, historian, and Black man converge in this very unique and powerful way.
VIBE: Father’s Day [just passed]. Your late father, Lee Andrews, an accomplished musician in his own right, was your first teacher and first everything. What would he say to you about your achievement with this film?
Questlove: I’ma tell you my dad helped me through this. This is my dad right here [holds up a jeweled pouch with his ashes hanging around his neck.] He goes with me everywhere I go. I take him with me on my journey and you know, he taught me everything I know about music. So, it’s me taking all of the knowledge that he gave me and I’m returning it to the people. I’m just a filter and a channel for this.
I watched as you took your seat in the audience for the screening and there was a woman sitting in front of you just having a great old time. Describe for me what it felt like to be amongst the audience watching your film.
I wanted to embrace the moment and REALLY embrace the moment. I think a lot of times with other creative forms I’m in, with The Roots albums, with books, or whatever I’m doing creatively, I might subconsciously tend to dismiss these things quickly. Maybe because it’s a fear of rejection. I haven’t listened to “Do You Want More??” since I had to remaster it for the anniversary edition. I have a tendency to do this dismissive, like, “Yeah, I wrote that book,” and move on. So, I made sure that with my first film that this is the first time that I really sit in the moment. That’s why I insisted on DJing, being the first person there to watch people come in, and I also wanted to watch with the audience because I didn’t want to fatigue myself watching this too many times when we were editing. So, I only [watched] when it was absolutely necessary for me to sign off on an edit. Before watching it with the audience, I would say that I watched this film in its completeness, maybe nine times.
The audience laughed out loud for a few scenes, like the photo of Al Sharpton as a teenage preacher. Which audience reaction did you covet the most?
So, the greatest moment [in the film] for me was when Jesse Jackson’s telling us about the assassination of Martin Luther King. For one, I wasn’t asking him a question about that. I was trying to get to why we know who Benjamin Branch is. As history has it, Ben Branch is the last person who MLK spoke to before he got assassinated. Jesse was explaining to me “Benjamin Branch said,”–and I’m listening to his words in my chair–and he’s like “Hey, man I really love what you did with ‘Precious Lord’ and I want to make sure…‘Pow!’” and he does that and I jump out of my chair as he’s telling the story. The way he told me that story, that’s exactly what I want everyone watching this film to do. The second he says “Pow!” I want [them] to jump. So we spent hours mixing…and because we’re in a pandemic I’m not in a big studio like regular movies. We’re doing this on our laptops and there is just a different relationship with listening to music on your laptop or your headphones. Back in the day you’d give it a car test and turn shit up loud. We didn’t have that luxury. So [in the park] this is the first time I’m hearing the music LOUD. The first time ever. We made this film on small devices. So when that scene happened and I’m watching the audience’s reaction and they all jumped like a horror film, then they all collectively looked at me and said “You did this didn’t you?” and I was like “Yeah, I did.” So for me it was amazing to watch people watch this film. Everything that happened was exactly the way I wanted it to happen.
I imagine going through 45 hours of concert footage was a treat for you, but how did you tackle that Herculean task?
It’s almost like you gotta Jedi Mind Trick yourself. If you’re telling me, “Hey Ahmir, here’s 45 hours of content,” I don’t care if it’s the best Prince show I’ve seen in my life, all I see is the number 45 and the big boulder that I now have to carry on my back like the Slave album cover, their very first album cover. I saw myself holding this giant number. “How am I even going to [do this]? Is that two hours a day, in a week, fourteen hours? I’m never going to get through this film. You’re gonna fail, you’re gonna fail.” The hardest thing to do was NOT watching “Soul Train” and not watching the normal things I always do in the house. “Soul Train” is on constant loop. So the thing I [had] to discipline myself to do, was to put this on my hard drive device, and have this play [continuously]…the way that Prince talked about Finding Nemo, that was this film with me. I had it on in my bedroom, my bathroom, my kitchen, my studio, my phone, so there was no place in the world where I couldn’t watch this film and that’s all I did. For six months that’s all I did was keep it on. If something interesting happened and I caught it, I took a note. When I had thirty of those things, it was, now I have a foundation.
You chose to open with footage of Stevie Wonder drumming. While I can imagine your motivation, what made you want to start the film that way?
In that kind of Internet meme, “Show me this is your movie without showing me this is your movie,” it was that Stevie Wonder moment. The one thing people kept saying to me was “How come you’re not in the rough cuts? Why aren’t you in your own film?” And I said that’s a little self-serving. I don’t want this to be…I don’t feel like I’m Spike Lee where I have to be in my film and sell tube socks. However, when I saw that solo I was like, yo, this is a Questlove movie without me having to be in the movie. Because who else but me would start with the drum solo? That’s the moment when I realized “jackpot.” So, I curated this film the way that I do a DJ set; I work backwards. Because when people recall concerts, they remember how it started, so I knew I needed a powerful beginning.
“I didn’t have a lofty dream to be a director, but now I realize that maybe everything that I’ve done in my life is leading up to telling our stories. You’re watching me realize my super powers.” – Questlove
What is the significance of this concert happening when it did in ‘69 and then this film coming out now in the midst of a pandemic and Juneteenth becoming a national holiday?
Before 2020 I would say that maybe in America, 1969 is the most important year. I think in 2030 you’re going to see a lot of documentaries on 2020. It’s almost like 2020 might be the new important year and ‘69 might have to go to second place. So the obvious answer is the paradigm shift of a new generation, a younger generation of the Civil Rights Movement, somewhat more insistent [and] less patient than before. Fist banging on the table, “We want it now!” Being Black is now a concept and a way of life in 1969, where it wasn’t that way before and it was not lost on me that we were living through this in real time 50 years later.
In the beginning I thought this was going to be a niche project, an art house film. And I thought people my parent’s age and grandparent’s age, they’ll gravitate towards it. And cats like you and I who grew up with those parents and know hip-hop samples and what not, we’ll latch onto it, but I dunno about Millennials and Gen-Z. It started in 2017 that way. But as we got to 2019 then I was like “This is how Millennials and Gen-Z will connect with it,” because it mirrors exactly what was happening 50 years ago. For me, that’s what I want people to walk away from receiving this film.
I have it on good authority that there is some footage of the late great Percy Miracles in the director’s cut. Can you confirm or deny?
[Laughs hysterically] No, no Percy Miracles. But there’s definitely a lot on the floor and we’re definitely talking about extended cuts and Directors Cuts. In the last month or so I’ve gotten DMs from people saying “This isn’t alone. I’ve got 20 hours of blah-blah-blah- that you might want to look at,” and I’m like “What??” There’s at least six other projects of this level out there waiting for a home.
So, “How it started vs how it’s going…” I didn’t have a lofty dream to be a director, but now I realize that maybe everything that I’ve done in my life is leading up to telling our stories. You’re watching me realize my superpowers. That first moment when he realizes he’s Spider-Man, that’s me right now. I accept that challenge.
Summer of Soul is in theaters and on HULU July 2nd.