The Summer of Soul

by: Deja Johnson

What was the Summer of Soul ?

The summer of soul was the Harlem Music Festival that took place over the course of six weeks during the summer of 1969. It took place in Mt.Morris park where about 300,000 people attended. The festival can be described as an Ultimate Black BBQ. The Harlem Music Festival created a party atmosphere and a place for black people to embrace their culture with music, food, and fashion. Before the festival the summer time meant a time of violence especially for black people. The death of many had struck in years to come before the festival like John F Kennedy, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King. The Vietnam War was also going on and many black men were on the front of the battle field. This caused anger among black people and created a division between non violent protesters and violent protesters. 1969 was a change of era for the black community and sparked a revolution. Although somewhat divided music brought everyone together. The Harlem Music Festival was brought to the community by Tony Lawrence and members of the Harlem community. The festival brought iconic performers like Stevie Wonder, The Chambers Brothers, BB. King, Herbie Mann, 5th Dimension, Gladys Knight and more. 


My Impression

Before watching the Summer of Soul documentary I thought it was just going to be about different performers during that time period. However the film was much more, it was impactful. The film showed how the black community created unity with each other through music and culture. There were all walks of people at the festival, young, old, and middle aged. It was a cultural event that that allowed black people to unplogethically black and was a time where the negro died and the black person was born. In the film it was stated that in the early 60s if you called somebody black that means you wanted to fight them because white people made the word black have a negative connotation. This shocked me because we are now in a time where people are proud to black and some people try to be black. 


Iconic Performers

Although weary of who Tony Lawrence was many big name performers still took the stage at the Harlem Music Festival.

  • Stevie Wonder
  • The Chambers Brothers
  • BB. King
  • Herbie Mann
  • 5th Dimension
  • Edwin Hawkins Singers
  • Clara Walker 
  • Mahalia Jackson
  • David Ruffin
  • Gladys Knight & The Pips
  • Sly & Family Stone
  • Moms Mabley
  • Nina Simone

Why are we 50 years late?

During the time of the Harlem Music Festival the Woodstock music festival was taking place 100 miles away. The Woodstock festival was a famous rock festival and centered for white performers and audiences. Although the Harlem Music festival was big and impactful the media coverage was at the Woodstock festival. The media coverage we do have of the Harlem Festival was in a basement untouched for about 40 plus years. Black people during this time were facing the rise of the drug epidemic in America. The drug epidemic caused a lot of downfall in the black community as businesses were being shut down, and families were being torn apart. It is good now that the Harlem Music Festival is now being recognized through the documentary Summer of Soul 50 years later because it shows how black people can come together through music and create history. 


Cultural Impact

The Harlem Music Festival exemplified so much of the black culture. Black people brought food like fried chicken, greens, mac & cheese, and more to the festival. This is a staple meal in the black culture till this day. Black people have always made a staple in the fashion industry. In the festival people wore bell bottoms, cut up shirts, and platform shoes. People also wore Dashikis as a way of trying to get in touch with African culture. Afros were also a big part of the culture as the hairstyle symbolized black pride. Today you can still see these forms of fashion being worn in the black community, therefore showing how parts of the Harlem Music Festival created a cultural impact. 

Genres of the Harlem Music Festival

The Harlem Music Festival allowed many different performers to showcase their talents.Different performers made it possible for different genres of music to be shown. The different genres were Blues, Jazz, Gospel, Soul and Afro-Cuban. The most impactful genre in the festival that is still big today is Gospel. Black people did not go to traditional therapy and used Gospel as a source of therapy because black people could express themselves through church rituals. Gospel was a big part of the festival; there were performers like Clara Walker & The Gospel Redeemers, Mahalia Jackson, and the Edwin Hawkins Singers. There was also a live sermon given by Revered Jesse Jackson who led prayer amongst the community at the festival. Afro-Cuban was brought to the festival by Puerto Rican performers who embraced the drum in music.