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Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson – The Revolution Will Finally Be Televised

Updated: May 6, 2023

Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson

The Revolution Will Finally Be Televised

By Jay S. Jacobs

“The revolution will not be televised.”

When recording artist and poet Gil Scott-Heron first wrote that line in 1970, he probably wasn’t thinking of the Harlem Cultural Festival, which had been run the summer before. Or perhaps he was, as he was living in New York at about the time of the shows. Either way, it fit into the basic thesis of his song of the same name – certain parts of black culture were considered dangerous and did not fit in with the staid values of popular consumer society.

Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, leader of the musical group The Roots and a DJ, certainly connected the Harlem Cultural Festival to the line. In fact, he paraphrased it as part of the title of his first film, a documentary about the festival and the black experience in the summer of 1969, which he calls Summer of Soul (… Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised).

The Harlem Cultural Festival was a free series of weekly concerts, highlighting some of the biggest names in soul, gospel, jazz and the blues. These included Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, BB King, Sly and the Family Stone, Chuck Jackson, Abbey Lincoln & Max Roach, The 5th Dimension, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Mahalia Jackson, The Staple Singers, The Edwin Hawkins Singers and many others.

The festival was the brainchild of a local singer and promoter named Tony Lawrence. In hindsight it was unofficially considered the “Black Woodstock,” as that legendary counterculture music and arts festival happened at about the time of the second-to-last show of the Harlem Festival. Film producer Hal Tulchin filmed the entirety of the festival, certain that such a historic grouping of acts would make for a fantastic movie. After years of trying unsuccessfully to sell the project, all of the footage was stashed away in a basement, where it has sat unwatched ever since.

That is until it crossed onto the radar of Questlove, who has finally put together the film that Tulchin had dreamed of. Summer of Soul uses a good amount of the festival footage that the world has long been starved for and places the festival into a greater historical and social context of being African American in 1969.

A week before Summer of Soul was due to be released to theaters and Hulu, we were one of the lucky media outlets who had the opportunity to take part in a virtual press conference with Questlove to discuss the film.

How did you learn about the unaired footage of the festival?

I first inadvertently saw the footage back when the Roots first went to Tokyo in 1997. My translator for that tour, who knew I was a soul fan, took me to a place called the Soul Train Cafe. Unbeknownst to me, I was watching two minutes of Sly and the Family Stone’s performance. Because it was what I know to be camera two – which was like the bird's eye view, nosebleed section – I didn't know I was watching the Harlem Cultural Festival. I just assumed that all festivals in the 60s were from Europe, because America really didn't have that culture yet. [I was] only to find out exactly 20 years later, when [producers] David Dinerstein and Robert Fyvolent told me that they had this footage, and they wanted me to direct the film. So, first seeing it without knowing it in ‘97 and presented to me in 2017. Even then, I didn't believe it was real.

What part of the process in making this film did you feel the greatest shift within yourself as an artist and storyteller? Was it looking through the footage, interviewing talent, festival attendees, piecing it all together, [or] the dialogue you've had with those who've seen your film?

(laughs) Without being all touchy feely with it, this project more than anything has helped me develop as a human being. For all the journalists out there, you know that sometimes artists can be really neurotic, living inside our heads. It's weird that even though I wrote the Creative Quest book, there was one point where I caught myself going back through chapters five through eight, mainly dealing with how creativity is transferable. I will not hesitate to admit that of all the things that I've done creatively, this is the one that I was really, really nervous about. And by nervous, I mean scared. Partly because I'm a perfectionist.

What I will say is that this film has really brought out an awareness and a confidence in me that I never knew that I ever had. A lot of the times, everything that I do creatively is behind a shield. Behind the drum set. Behind my Dad. Behind Black Thought. Behind Jimmy. Behind turntables. With the exception of teaching at NYU, you guys have never experienced me one on one. I have the safety of Instagram or a book. There's always a barrier that gets you from getting in there. That's how I thought I liked it. I will say that the amount of confidence that I got as a human being, this was a game changer for me.

Not saying that I'm going to go through life without fear and do Will Smith’s canyon jump or something like that. But on a technical side of things – despite this long ass answer I'm giving you – I also learned the power of editing. Most Roots albums are these gargantuan everything but the kitchen sink [affairs]. That’s what I'm bringing to the table. My first draft was like three hours and 35 minutes. This is where I really learned that less is more and less is impactful. The three hour and 35-minute version of the film probably wouldn't have hit you in the gut more than a very succinct two hours. Sorry, for that long answer. (laughs)

Why did you choose to focus much of the film on gospel music and the faith that has been in the background, if not the foreground of some of the performers?

Okay, that's a weird way to look at it. As far as I'm concerned, there was a perfect balance of soul music, of free jazz, of salsa music. The one genre that I truly left out was comedy. It would have taken me a good 20 minutes for me to really make sense of how the humor of the day worked for that audience, why they were killing. However, for me, the gospel aspect of it, I see gospel and free jazz as one and the same thing. I'm a guy that's always doing litmus tests with people, as far as like testing music out on them. I'm always making playlists for people. I'm DJing for people. You think you're just dancing to music, but I'm really testing people. There's no time in which I'm presenting music in which I'm not conducting an experiment. You just think that I'm DJing. Or you just think that I happened to put the song on. I'm really looking for reactions to see what people respond to.

There's one thing I always noticed, when I play soul music, really intense old music for younger people, they tend to find James Brown yelling humorous. (gives a James Brown screech) That's funny to them, because we live in a meme GIF culture, so those three seconds of something out of context can seem funny to people. There is a lot of… I guess what we can call primal musical expression or primitive exotic expression or just layman's terms, people acting wild. I wanted people to know that was more of a therapeutic thing than anything. If it's a gospel singer that's catching the spirit. If it's Sonny Shorrock doing one of the most atonal, destructive, violent solos I've ever seen on a guitar – which is weird because they rejected Jimi Hendrix playing here. He's the only one that asked to play, and they said no. But somehow, Sonny Shorrock got on. I wanted people to know that this just isn't black people acting wild and crazy, that this was a therapeutic thing. For a lot of us gospel music was the channel because we didn't know about dysfunctional families and therapy and life coaches that we have now.

Did you have to fight to get the “A Questlove Jawn” credit approved?

Yeah, I had to register that with the DGA [Director’s Guild of America] and they approved it. Actually, that was my production partner, Joseph Patel. (laughs) It was this suggestion. I was really trying not to insert myself in the film. In the very beginning, when I was showing drafts to people, a lot of the complaints I got were like, “Well, wait, you're not in this. We need to hear your voice.” So I begrudgingly put my voice in the very beginning of the film, asking the first question. That candid moment that I had with Musa Jackson [a local Harlem resident who was at the festival as a boy] at the end? We yelled cut, but I didn't realize that they kept the tape rolling, so that was the actual real conversation that we were having. That was such a game changer, icebreaking moment. We realized that not only is this a movie, but we got to hand him his history back to him. We were just having a conversation, and the cameras happened to be running, so we kept it in there.

I was really careful not to insert myself in the story. I wanted this to stand on its own. I also know… or maybe I'm just in my head… I guess I imagined there was a jury of people just waiting on the sideline. At the very last minute, I let A Questlove Jawn go through and now I got to wear this every day. (Motions to his t-shirt.)

Which of the performers in the film would you most want to have played with?

Of course, the Captain Obvious answer is Stevie Wonder. But I will say that there's 40 hours’ worth of performance captured. You guys really only got to witness maybe 10 to 15% of it. As far as musicianship and intensity, BB King’s set was on fire. If I were vicariously one of those drummers during the set, I would have probably really enjoyed [it]. My art was closer with BB King’s set, as far as just the musicianship and whatnot. So yeah, I enjoyed his [act] a lot.

As a DJ, you're someone who tells stories via music. Were there are parallels between using those muscles, mixing music and the discipline in which you approach this wealth of footage, assembling it in a way so that it tells a story and has a narrative balance?

Me being a DJ is exactly what informed me on how to tell the story. I remember back in school, when we were learning about the story arc – establishing, rising action, climax, falling action, ending. I couldn't quite see it in the way that my teachers back in school wanted me to see storyline. So again, I actually had to refer to Creative Quest. It’sso weird, like I was out of my head for that one second. I couldn't blame it on also surviving in the pandemic. We really started the editing process at the top of the year which you’ve got to devote half the time to your survival and your family survival, and oh, also this movie. I will say that there was a point where I was wondering, could I take the same approach that I take to DJing, or putting a show together with this movie? That's exactly what I did.

For starters, for five months, I just kept it on 24-hour loop; no matter where I was, in the house or in the world. If anything gave me goosebumps, then I took a note of it. I felt like if there were at least 30 things that gave me goosebumps, we could have a foundation. I tend to work backwards. Whenever I'm given a project, the first thing I think about is what is the last 10 minutes of the show or the set that makes the person who goes home think like, “Man, that was incredible?” Usually the last 10 minutes of a show or presentation is your chance to [do a] Men in Black flashy thing [to] your audience. I've had disastrous Roots shows where I knew, okay, if I make these the last few songs and do these certain things, they'll forget about what happened in the middle of the show. That happens a lot. That's a trick I play.

I wanted to make my entry in the film world like my version of inserting myself in this film without me seeing it, in a TikTok way. Tell me you're the director of this film, without telling me you're a director. [The entry] was Stevie Wonder's drum solo. I figured that was the best way for me to crash land into your lives as a director without really it being about me. We have not seen Stevie Wonder in this light of a drummer. I thought that was the perfect beginning. That's pretty much how I crafted the show. I searched for my ending. I knew what I wanted my beginning [to be]. Then I worked backwards. I edited and paced this film backwards, as opposed to the other way.

In the film Sly and the Family Stone is described as “transformative cool.” Later there's talk about the power of freedom music in 1969. Which artists or music genres do you see continuing that tradition of transformative cool and freedom music?

It's weird, when Greg Taylor said that Sly was transformative cool, he actually dropped a mighty seed in my head. Subsequently, while doing this film, I'm also working on my next book. I feel like such a product guys, but that's how I work. It's almost like I'm using the Prince manual. He already had Around the World in a Day ready right when Purple Rain was out. So right now my mind is on October to March of next year. I'm promoting what I did last year. But when he said transformative cool, and I really wanted to start to investigate. Oftentimes you think counterculture, you think hippies or white people whatnot. I wanted to investigate the black side of things.

I saw an article by April Walker and she's describing a black woman that comes on the train. She's trying to describe what cool is. This very beautiful black woman gets on the train. She noticed that four key people positioned on the trains were ogling her. From April's point of view, the more that this woman ignored the gaze, the more she became cool, because cool is more about what you leave out instead of what you bring in.

And Sly – preface, I'm now working on a Sly film – I'm just realizing that Sly’s role in the counterculture process in the Bay Area really starts in 1962. All those hippies that will come of age as teenagers, and young people, when they're 13, 14, 15, they're listening to Sly as a disc jockey. His radio show was really different back then. Like, he was really unhinged, talking about the man and going against the system. Stuff you weren't supposed to talk about in 1963-64. His version of cool was more about not being of the system. Being cool is what you leave out, not what you bring in. That's what I'm trying to process and learn right now. I hope I answered that question.

How much work did it take to make the audio work as well as it did in the final cut of the film?

There are two million-dollar questions of this film that are still unanswered. One, as hard as I tried, I could not get any direct connection to Tony Lawrence [who ran and hosted the festival]. I don't know if he's alive or dead. I don't know where he lives. Nothing of his legacy. The only paper trail I have of him are just other people that we found. The other thing was, how could that audio be so pristine? This is not to discredit our wonderful sound team, especially Jimmy Douglas, who is to me the God of engineers. He's the only engineer I've ever used on my albums which I never had to micromanage. I just send him the stuff. He knows what to do. He sends it back to me. And I have no complaints.

But I'll be honest with you, we had to do maybe 2% adjustment on the audio. The audio that you hear with the music is the dry rough mix, the soundboard, the reference mix. It sounded perfect. For the life of me, I can't figure out how 12 microphones were utilized in a way so powerful, especially the Stevie Wonder set, three of those microphones are on his drum set that he only uses once. The other three on his other drummers, so six microphones for two sets of drums. Then the other six – Stevie's vocal, one mic for the amp, the guitar and the bass combined. The rest are on the orchestra. I'm trying to figure out for the life of me, why is this sound so crisp and pristine? It's to the point where I'm almost tempted to strip down the Roots ourselves. I called my production manager telling him like, “Yo, they only used 12 to 15 microphones this whole production, and it sounds perfect. How many do we use?” And with a straight face, he was like, “All eleven of you? You guys use 103 mics.” (laughs) So 103 outlets. Yeah, I'm trying to figure out if The Roots as a band can even survive with just 15 microphones.

You've talked a lot about erasure of black history and the way this footage was just disregarded. Back in 1969. Woodstock got all the press, and the moon landing was huge. What are the keys to pushing back on similar erasure today and beyond?

Well, this. This is a step forward. This is the first time that I'm really seeing conversations that were never had before, especially post-pandemic. We weren't talking about mental health for black people, and we really weren't speaking of black erasure. Of course, previously, years before we sort of coded it as cultural appropriation, which was a really politically correct way of saying that. In the 80s, we would just say like, “Yo, man, why you always bitin’ my shit” or whatever. It was always draped in slang so that you couldn't see the heart or the sincerity of what the problem was – be it TikTok content or be it a festival.

I know this one thing. This isn't the only story out there. Probably the most shocking thing that I've learned in the last month, like in the last three to four weeks, I've gotten DMs from professors at universities letting me know, that bla bla bla bla bla, shot concert footage for 20 hours for something that they did over in New York. Then there's the da da da festival and all this. So this isn't the only footage that's just laying around unscathed. There's about six to seven others.

So, maybe this film can be an entry, a sea change for these stories to finally get out. Really, for us to acknowledge that, yes, even something as miniscule as content on social media, or as giant as one of the first ever black festivals, [it] is important to our history. The conversation is being had now. Normally the process is that we talk about it for three months, and then we forget about it. That'll remain to be seen. I know as for me, I didn't come into this wanting to be a director or any of those things. I do believe that, again, creativity is transferable. This is not my last rodeo with telling our stories. If anything, I'm more obsessed now than ever to make sure that history is correct, so that we don't forget who this artist is, or [what] that event is.

Do you think something like the Harlem Cultural Festival could be or would be put together today?

Yeah. I mean right now festivals are all the rage. Not to toot my own horn… I can say that The Roots Picnic [an annual festival in Philadelphia] is in the vein of the Harlem Cultural Festival. The Broccoli Festival in DC, that's probably the belle of the ball right now. Their festival is very similar to that. We're starting to see regional local festivals on this level happen now. In the last five years, there's another festival that we do in Alabama, my mind's drawn a blank right now. But yes, I do believe that America is catching up with festival culture.

The prime reason why the Roots had to pull a Hendrix and move to Europe – the UK, we lived there from ‘93 to about ‘97 – was basically because over in Europe there were over 700 festivals to choose from. Living in a country in which being a band was a rare thing at the time – we were like one of seven groups with a record deal. Right now, I think with a major record deal, it's Migos and the Roots (laughs) as far as non-solo acts, or, I mean, even groups. I'm not even talking about a band, but just people collaborating, that's a rare thing. So we had to move to Europe for four years, because we knew that festival culture was a thing in Europe.

In moving back to the United States, the first thing we said was if we have to show the world what we learned, what is that thing? That's why we wanted to do the Roots Picnic, to let people in our town know this is how it is over there. Now festivals are a thing.

What format was the festival recorded on? Can you describe the storage environment where the film was actually stored? Were you ultimately surprised that the film had not decayed over that time?

It was really forward thinking. Normally in 1969, if you're going to document something, chances are you're going to use 16mm [film]. It was Hal Tulchin’s [the original director of the festival footage] idea to film this on video because it's for television. So the quality looks like that of soap opera, that sort of videotape, which was brand new at the time. Of course, in the 80s, the mini cam became the norm. Back then, it was two-inch reels, but man, these reels were so heavy. The reels could hold about an hour worth of footage. I'll say that one of those canisters had to been about 17 pounds. So even that scene at the very end, where we had to show all the tapes piled on to each other – that was that was a damn workout. (laughs) That was like lifting boxes back and forth and you had to be very careful.

The basement environment that Hal Tulchin kept his tapes, it was pretty safe. He had it in a dry room in his basement. I think at the time in 2018 there were only five machines in the United States that were still working. And I believe seven people who even had the expertise and the knowhow on how to treat the film. It was a five-month process. I'm watching the video transfer of this movie, because Hal probably spent a good nine years trying to sell this thing. I think he gave up around like ’77 [or] ’78. Maybe there was one go around at a possible 20th anniversary thing or whatever. So they had made copies of it on VHS somewhere in the early 80s.

During the time that we sent this out to be – you got to bake the film, sort of moisten it a little bit so it doesn't snap. They had to practically with every frame lightly brush so that none of the film would be distorted. All but one reel, everything was damn near perfect, which was a miracle. The Staple Singers reel… The Staples were the only act that performed twice. Their first performance coupled with the rain; the quality was a little weird. But for the greater good, we still had to include it.

The interviews, the big reveals, especially the Fifth Dimension, can you talk about your reactions to their reactions and how that shaped the film emotionally going forward?

I'll say that the emotional component of the film was something that I wasn't preparing for. I really didn't know what's going to happen. It wasn't like the Barbara Walters moment where you know she's going to ask that question. It's like a carrot on the stick. I'm not going to cry, I'm not going to cry, that sort of thing. But only in conversation if they touch on something, I might have investigated. The emotional trigger moment, at least for the Billy Davis and Marilyn McCoo portion – I couldn't quite put my hand on it but my memory of all the Fifth Dimension performances I saw [previously] were composed and steady and very posh and sophisticated. This performance of theirs at the Harlem Cultural Festival was closer to that of a gospel revival. With the exception of one of their songs on their solo records – a song called “Like Your Love” – I've never heard Billy Davis Jr. use his raspy gospel baritone. That sort of James Brown-ish, “Sock it to me” thing. I thought that was humorous. I was like, wow, Billy, I never heard you use your gospel register before. They kind of opened the door and said, “It's because we were comfortable, and excited to be there. It wasn't the pressure of, we're on The Ed Sullivan Show. Or we're on the Jack Paar Tonight Show.

I had a memento moment, as they're describing this. One, personally, I related to it. Because I realized… Oh, so black people have to code switch all the time. It's not just in the office space, but even in entertainment. I related to that. I'm a guy that has to adjust this show. If we're touring with Beck, we got to do a show a certain way. If we're doing Wu Tang Clan, certain way. If it’s System of a Down, certain way. Then next week is Erykah Badu. No one has more stress. I call my agent; okay, what part of town are we in? What's the audience look like? I have to code switch shows. All my shows aren't transferable to each audience. I have to adjust it for every place we go to. I noticed that. That was their way of telling me that they too, had to go through that pressure.

Probably the most telling moment of that festival that goes over people's heads was when I'm looking at David Ruffin’s performance. It's the middle of August, and he's wearing a wool tuxedo, and a coat. I'm like, why? It hit me that back then you had to be professional, even to the detriment of your own comfort. Meanwhile, the most revolutionary performance to that audience, nothing will beat watching camera four of the Sly and Family Stone performance. When all the kids are losing their minds. It would be like if I were to take my nieces and nephews or kids today [to] a Migos concert, and as a 50-year-old, I'm like, they're not Wu Tang clan, but they're alright. And watching kids go crazy. That's what adults were doing to Sly and Family Stone. They'd never seen a black act not wear a tuxedo. They were wearing their regular clothes, not to mention the intersectional and all that other stuff with the group that they never seen before.

Opening that door, also with Musa Jackson. He was five years old at the time. I was a little bit like, what five-year old’s going to give me insight of the emotional deepness of being there? The thing that won me over was he's like, “This is my first memory ever.” But he wasn't sure he had it, so we purposely didn't show him any footage. We took all the photos down. He saw none of this stuff for reference. He just came into a dry room. We just said tell us everything you know. He spoke and it was like, yo, he's saying he's saying it exactly like he remembers. So then once we showed him the footage, suddenly the tears started welling because for him as a 57-year-old, he didn't know if he remembered it. He didn't know if anyone believed him. Like if I didn't believe this happened as an adult, who's going to believe a 10-year-old like, “yeah, I saw Sly and the Family Stone and Nina Simone the other week in Harlem.” No one's going to believe that. My friends will lie about going to the Victory tour by the Jacksons like, “yeah, we saw Michael Jackson.” No, you didn't. You lied. So for him, it was like that little boy that cried wolf exoneration moment. I knew this happened! That's why I started crying. I didn't realize there was a heavy emotional component, really, until we allowed people to give commentary. I'm so glad we made that decision, instead of not doing that.

Copyright ©2021 All rights reserved. Posted: July 1, 2021.

Photos #1-2 ©2021 Jay S. Jacobs. All rights reserved.

Photos #3-9 ©1969/©2021. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. All rights reserved.

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