The year 1969 was the end of an era and the shift to anew. Modern textbooks are filled with imagery, stories and more centering around the civil rights movement, as that was the most impactful part of the 60s. Activists both violent and non-violent who were advocating not only for equity in the eyes of the law, but general dignified treatment as human beings, had finally been heard toward the end of this decade. Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson passed acts and stood with Black America on a political level, but the progress that had been made so far certainly did not bring oppression to a halt. With progress, the concept of “two steps forward, one step back” is always evident. While progress was being made, events continued to happen that caused a decline in hope; John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, then Malcolm X in 1965, Martin Luther King in 1968, and Fred Hampton in 1969. In addition, if young black men weren’t being killed by police brutality or general systemic violence toward black people, many of them died in the Vietnam War. The revolution was prominent in society, but despite big accomplishments in the movement, it was not enough.
A repeating pattern within Black history is how revolutionary acts come in a plethora of forms outside of protests and riots. Activism and politics can be executed through literature, cultural expression, and of course: music. Music is a foundation that has grounded and provided support for Black people since the dawn of time, through spiritual song and dance, to negro spirituals, to blues and jazz post slavery, the musical and cultural renaissance in Harlem and Chicago in the 20s, to that summer in 1969, declared as the Summer of Soul when Harlem had a revolutionary music festival to bid that decade adieu.
Music and general artistic expression is often revered to as the “universal language”. As a musician, cartoonist, and writer myself, this has always been my favorite part of being an artist. Musicians can walk into a room with people from all different races, nationalities, gender, class, and so on and be able to sit together and play music. Storytelling is not unique to one part of the world, whether the story be happy, traumatic, or sad, everyone has a story to tell. For people of color, especially black people, music as a form of storytelling is used to relieve stress, express great joy, and more; and during that era that type of release was more important than ever.
A part of this festival that was so beautiful was the portraying of all parts of Harlem, American Black people, Jamaicans, Puerto Ricans, Afro-Latinx folks, and more. The emphasis on togetherness through music was truly heart-warming. I was especially stunned that the republican mayor of Harlem at the time, mayor Lindsay, was very liked within the Black community and made an appearance in solidarity of the Black community. Truly an example of unity through art. The revolution was beyond physical acts, but it was conscious and spiritual, and what better way to touch one’s mind, body, and spirt than through music?
Stevie Wonder played, Nina Simone, Chambers Brothers, B.B King, 5th Dimension, Papa Staple and the Staple singers, Sly and the Family Stone.
Ending the festival with Nina Simone I think was revolutionary both musically and politically, as Nina Simone is a powerful symbol in both.
Personal Ending Statement
It outstands me how Black history is constantly erased overtime. This festival was an additional beacon of hope during a period of up and downs on a journey toward freedom. Through the interviews it was so emotive seeing people reliving and recalling the memories from that summer. Woodstock was fun and great and deserved all the recognition it received, but this festival’s impact deserves just as much.