By: Jala Stubbs

Summer of Soul Review: Cultural Impact


The Harlem Cultural festival took place in Morris Park and featured popular Afro descended artists from multiple genres including soul, gospel, and jazz. The festival took place in 1969 which was a trying time for African Americans who were on the cusp of political turmoil. In ‘69 there was a style and music change and this idea of black consciousness became apparent in African American communities. In Harlem, summertime could be equated to violence and violence was at an all time high due to the passing of popular, allied public figures such as John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated in ‘63, and Dr. Martin Luther King jr., who was assassinated in ‘68. Furthermore, the United States was still fighting the Vietnam War and young adults were hearing stories of others their age who were dying overseas. Not to mention the racism African Americans faced daily, the black community was at a crossroads, divided between non-violent and violent civil rights ideas. All of these events, among racism, were at the core of Black America’s dying spirit and distress. The festival would serve as a cultural reset to encourage and console the black citizens of Harlem. Being that this festival was “for us, by us”, the Harlem Police department did not express any interest in wanting to protect it, therefore security was fulfilled by the Black Panthers. As aforementioned, the Harlem Cultural Festival featured artists from every genre and the movie opens with B.B. King and his electric guitar. The movie would follow up this performance with additional soul artists like the 5th Dimension, from St. Louis, Missouri. They performed the most popular record of ‘69 Aquarius which originated from the popular broadway show ‘Hair’ and the popular song ‘Let the Sunshine In’. The festival also highlighted gospel hits such as Oh Happy Day, by Edwin Hawkins. Gospel, and oftentimes religion, served as therapy and consolation for African Americans and provided hope where there was none. Artists such as Professor Herman & the Voices of Faith and Papa Stable and the Staple Singers provided comfort to people and enabled them to rejoice. Keep in mind, this was during the Penecoastal Period, so religion was a big deal and believers were persecuted for unsavory tasks like partying and drinking. One of the more influential performers, Mahalia Jackson performed alongside Ben Branch, a saxophonist, the song Precious Lord. This was significant because it was Dr. King’s, a strong civil rights figure, favorite song. Following the gospel portion of the documentary, a segway into rhythm and blues ensued. The documentary covered motown r&b and psychedelicized r&b. The Motown performers included Gladys Knight & the Pips who represented the class and courteous style of the genre; It was about more than just the music. Psychedelicized r&b featured the politically savvy side of America and changed social aspects of the country. Sly and the Family Stone was particularly popular and had a white drummer which caused cultural buzz around the group. The documentary also covered a young, influential Stevie Wonder and his countless hits, and their effects on black America as well. It was during this time that African Americans became aware of their subculture in America and the narrative flipped. African Americans were no longer negros, they were black and that changed made a huge difference in the way Black Americans identified themselves. The festival also included Afro-Cuban artist like Hugh Masekela, which sparked a general interest in African Americans wanting to define and identify with their ethnicities and mother countries whether it be through fashion (i.e. Dashikis) or through music. The Jazz Fusion portion of the documentary displayed what was commonly referred to as “Freedom Music”. Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach collaborated and were able to express musically the political and cultural feelings of black people. The documentary closed out with more soulful music and the musical stylings of Nina Simone. Nina Simone was a talented, regal figure who was outwardly pro-black and influenced others to be as well. She performed an array of songs, one being ‘To be Young, Gifted, and Black’ which was inspired by a play that was on Broadway entitled the same.  Following the end of the Culture Festival, the tapes were placed on the market for sale, however no one was interested in keeping the festival a part of history. Like much of Black history it was erased and forgotten, which spoke volumes about the way America sees African American cultural contributions to society. The documentary was able to breathe life into a festival that had inspired so many and was a social marker of 1969 Harlem.