The Harlem Cultural Festival was a festival that impacted a significantly large group of people. In the year when it emerged, 1969, there was a lot of turmoil and unrest in the country. Martin Luther King Jr. had recently been assassinated, along with Malcolm X, and John F Kennedy. The country was going through a lot of change and the black community was faced with the everyday challenges of how to move forward in a country that was not built for us. Although Harlem at this time was a place that cultivated black culture and was the epicenter of black life, it was also a place of poverty and daily struggles for civil rights which is why “the festival was to keep black folks from burning up the city in 1969.” The festival brought people together in many ways, and symbolized something more than they may have realized when it happened.

The festival had over 55,000 participants and took place in Mount Morris Park, Harlem, New York City. People came from all over the city and beyond to be a witness to this major historical event. Because the person who initiated to hold the festival, Tony Lawrence, was not well known, the entire thing was a bit skeptical, but the outcome of the entire thing proved to be a major production that I don’t think many were expecting. Some of the people who made appearances during the festival included BB King, Mayor Lindsay, Gospel groups, civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, Motown Artists, Stevie Wonder, and more. This wide range of artists and impactful figures all coming together at this event was a powerful image because it showed that even with the many images that represent the Harlem community, unity is still very present.

For the time that the audience was at this festival, they had the chance to put aside all of the things going on during this time and release those feelings. We also learn through this film that ’69 is the year “when the negro died and Black was born.” The festival empowered the people there and served them as a reminder of why it was so great to be black during that time. What it means to be black is something that we gather through the songs and experiences shared from the different perspectives in the film. The participants were interviewed over thirty years later for the documentary and their strong emotions attached to this significant time in history demonstrate the lasting impact of the festival on people’s lives.

Another thing that the film touches on is the different styles of music that were performed at the Harlem Cultural Festival. There was gospel, R&B, rock, jazz, pop and so much more. By performing these different genres of music I feel like the black community was able to claim them as their own. Throughout history, there has been a variety of music that is played and appreciated, but the idea of most of this music within the U.S. having been taken or influenced by the black community is not always acknowledged. There really were no parameters for the festival and it served as a display of all of the music that the African American community had to offer and more. The genres of music gave us information about what the festival symbolized to some of the participants also. It included a whole section of the show that focused on gospel music, where we heard a survey of singers including legendary ones like the Edwin Hawkins Singers, Mahalia Jackson, the Staple Singers, Clara Walker, and the Gospel Redeemers. The black connection to gospel music is undeniable. As talked about in the film, it is one of the only places where black people could be expressively open. Since enslavement where Black enslaved people would have to sneak away to the church to be acknowledged as human, Gospel music has held a special place within the community, and therefore, a special place within the festival.

There is so much representation within the music that is included in the festival programming beyond Gospel. There were many different cultures including Afro-centric, Caribbean, Latin, and Cuban. There also was the combination of cultures like Herbie Hancock’s Watermelon Man where Cuban met Jazz and Ray Barreto where Latin and soul were able to come together. These combinations of cultures were important and emphasized how the festival was a political statement. Within music, the different parts of Harlem were able to come together and show that music is universal. The artists were open to crossing genres to bring people together and it demonstrated unity throughout the city within the communities of color.

The festival also symbolized where people were during this time. Like I mentioned above, there was a lot of turmoil and challenges that people were facing in the city, and the festival served as a release. During one of the days of the festival, man landed on the moon for the very first time. This documentary captured how this historic event was viewed by the people from the festival and all of the people interviewed seemed to be unphased by it. The festival, they said, was more relevant to them than the man landing on the moon, and the moon landing was a waste of money. It really puts into perspective the circumstances of the black people in Harlem because they could not understand how a country could spend that much money on something that was not affecting anyone really, and the very citizens of that country were struggling to survive. So many people were living in poverty. There was an invisible wall between the people who had all of the money and control and the people of Harlem so they were not doing anything to help them and did not care. But the festival was there for the people, speaking to their minds, bodies, and spirits in a way that was necessary to healing from past trauma and coping with everyday challenges. I like how the documentary chose to give this perspective of the moon landing, an event that we all have heard of, because it allows us to compare perspectives, and it also gives voices to the participants of the festival whose opinions and experiences are different than the ones of mass media.

Overall, this film had a large impact because it revived the memory of a festival that meant so much to so many people who attended it but was lost in history. The festival took place for the first time in 1969, a time when black people were going through a lot of change and challenges within the community. Through this festival, we are able to embrace every aspect of being black. From the clothing styles, cultures, music genres, and range of talents, a large group of people came together to acknowledge these things which are very powerful. Even though I was not there, I can feel the empowerment through the film and I am glad that this history was able to be captured. The film ends with one of the attendees looking back at the event and saying, “Before, the world was like black & white. The concert turned my life into color.” This quote describes what the Harlem Cultural Festival symbolized in one sentence: power, revival, freedom, community, love.

Notes – From Class

(Or when the revolution could not be televised)

Soul Music Festival – 55,000 ppl


“The festival was to keep black folks from burning up the city in 1969”

  • So much was going on during this time and piling up.

Blues Singer BB King performed

Tony Lawrence initiative to hold Harlem Cultural Festival.

6 consecutive weekends w/ major artists

Black panthers were there for security

Lindsay – Mayor

The 5th Dimension

  • Aquarius/Let the Sun Shine In

The Edwin Hawkins Singers

Pops Staples & the Staples singers

Black connection to Gospel

Music being one of the only places where blk ppl could be expressively open.

Gospel was therapy for being black in America

Gospel included other genres within

Jesse Jackson lead prayer

  • He was present at MLK assasination

Motown – Making black music palatable to white audience to spread black ideas.

  • David Ruffin – “My Girl”
  • Gladys Knight
    • In the beginning, they all lived in the same neighborhood

Something bigger was happening that day in Harlem (Empowerment)

Sly – Challenging social aspect

  • White people in the group (One on drums)
  • Woman on Trumpet

Different styles within the black community (Fros and Bell bottoms)

The Festival brought in different cultures

  • Caribbean
  • Afro centric
  • Latin & Cuban

Herbie Hancock – Watermelon Man

  • Is where cuban music meets Jazz

The festival was a political statement

Ray Berretto

  • Put soul into Latin Music
  • Newyorican (Newyorkan w/ Puerto Rican)

Parts of Harlem

  • Combination of Latin & African cultures
  • Music connected these ppl b/c music brings ppl together and is universal
  • The artist crossed genres to bring ppl together through music

During the Harlem Cultural Festival, man landed on the moon.

  • The festival was more relevant than the man landing on the moon.
  • It meant more to the ppl who attended the festival
  • Ppl viewed the moon landing as a waste of money.
  • People are not focused on the moon because they are dealing with “every day realities.”

Stevie Wonder

’69 – the year when Negro died and Black was born

Freedom Music

Musicians come from the Activist part of their populations

  • Many times poor Areas

“Before the world was like black & white. The concert turned my life into color”

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