In 1969, promoter Tony Lawrence got a concert together: the Harlem Cultural Festival, held at Mount Morris Park. Three hundred thousand people attended. It was taped but the media scarcely took notice aside from clips. The concert became eclipsed by Woodstock in Bethel, New York. Now 52 years later, Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson has unearthed some forty hours of footage and composed a wonderful record of the event attended by a full tapestry of the Harlem community. The film is stirring, impactful and dynamic, a true time capsule.
The audience was enthralled. Many danced, chanted and prayed. Outside the park, black men and women were getting violently mistreated, tortured or abused, often by the police. The Harlem community needed this concert and Tony Lawrence delivered as the Master of Ceremonies.
A young Stevie Wonder appears, a soldier of funk. His entire being is electrified by music. The Fifth Dimension arrives resembling human sunflowers. There is BB King. The Blues moves through him like syrup, sticky and intense. Mahalia Jackson takes the stage, roar-singing in tribute of Martin Luther King and her voice is an act of spirit-possession that will move you to tears.
The music is intercut with current events happening outside the park. Nine days before NASA landed on the moon. The festival spoke out against it. Jesse Jackson said that energy should be concentrated on black men, not the moon. With a heroin epidemic, civil unrest, police violence and fires in the street, Jackson’s point is well taken.
Nina Simone pounds on the piano in a stinging rebuke of white America’s hatred. “Are you ready to smash white things?” Simone asks the crowd. The musician is incensed and impatient for change. Ahmir Thompson shows us a complete record in all of its tension.
We are brought back to the music however and its great pouring of energy. As one festival goer put it “beautiful women and beautiful men like royalty” united by the adhesive of music just as it should be.
After the concert, Mount Morris Park was left behind, the Harlem Cultural Festival all but forgotten. Woodstock took all of the glare.
Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson is a musical archaeologist, uncovering parallel events to possibly fuse Harlem and Woodstock together, in our human imagination, not as separate or different, but as one cosmic show. Such is the holistic power of music along with its practitioners.
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