Summer of Soul Review

The Harlem Cultural Festival, held in the summer of 1969, established itself as a significant marker of Black musical expression and community. Summer of Soul details the various musicians and groups who gathered in Harlem to share their art with the community. It should be noted that the festival took place during the same summer as Woodstock, albeit with its own feel and implications for Black culture. The documentary offers viewers an inside look into the footage that sat unseen in a basement for over 50 years.

Notable Performers

Stevie Wonder

19 years old at the time of the festival

The Fifth Dimension

Nina Simone

Princess of Soul

Mahalia Jackson

Gladys Knight

Queen of Soul

Historical Significance

With the Harlem Cultural Festival taking place in 1969, a lot of things were changing for Black people. There was a new spirit of freedom and embracing of Black power emerging from radical ideas. By 1969, Black people as a whole had suffered the loss of notable leaders and figureheads, including Dr. Matrin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, John F. Kennedy, and Robert Kennedy. The Black community was divided between those advocating for non-violent measures and those sticking with self-defense. 

We should also remember that the festival is taking place in the midst of the Vietnam War. Many Black Americans of this time opposed and protested the Vietnam War, considering the number of Black men specifically who were drafted and lost their lives. In addition, this is around the same time as the Apollo 11 moon landing. Press were present at the festival asking attendees their thoughts on the moon landing. Many responded with the festival being more important and culturally relevant to Black people. The moon landing was described as a waste of money and a barrier to addressing poverty and other social issues.

"There was just a sea of Black people"

"It was a wholesale reevaluation of our history and culture"

"The Panthers were the security for the festival."

Cultural Significance

In addition to the historical events occuring at the time of the festival, the summer of 1969 was a turning point for the consumption of Black music. I think many people would agree that Harlem was an appropriate location to host the festival, given its rich artistic and musical history. Harlem for Black people was a hub of creative expression formed through hardship and cultural experiences. The festival allowed for the gathering of all these Black people who wanted to bask in great music and be in community with other Black people. There was an Afrocentric cultural revolution at the time of the festival that facilitated it boom and popularity.

The Harlem Cultural Festival featured performances across all genres, including gospel, soul, jazz, pop, etc. Gospel music in particular was heavily represented with performances by the Edwin Hawkins Singers, Mahalia Jackson, Papa Staple and the Staple Singers, and more. There was a merge between gospel performers and other genres (including blues, jazz, pop), as some artists noted “you will hear every kind of music in our songs.” Religious consciousness was especially essential in Black folks’ lives at the time; gospel music was therapeutic, offering hope and sustenance. The communal aspects of music were also highlighted in soul and funk. In an interview, Gladys Knight made note of their proximity to Motown, expressing how “we were all there together,” sharing ideas, making soulful music, etc.