Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Questlove reflects on his journey with 'Summer of Soul,' now nominated for an Oscar

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally today, in the summer of 1969, an historic music festival took place in New York. No, not Woodstock. The one we're talking about was in Harlem.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UPTOWN")

THE CHAMBERS BROTHERS: Welcome to the heart of Harlem - Soulsville, U.S.A. (Singing) Going uptown to Harlem.

MARTIN: The Harlem Cultural Festival featured legendary artists that included Stevie Wonder, B.B. King, Mahalia Jackson, Nina Simone, Gladys Knight and the Pips, the Staples Singers, Sly and the Family Stone. And that's just to name a few.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #1: (Singing) Going to take you higher.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Higher.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #1: (Singing) Higher.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Higher.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #1: (Singing) Higher.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Higher.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: The festival took place over six weekends and drew a total audience of hundreds of thousands of people. But the thing is, it seemed all but forgotten, at least by members of the broader public who weren't lucky enough to be there. And we might not be talking about it now, either, if it weren't for Ahmir Thompson, a.k.a. Questlove, the musician, songwriter and music journalist who you probably know as founder of The Roots, the house band for "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon." Well, Questlove didn't know about the festival, either. But once he found out, he turned hours of vintage footage of the event into a critically acclaimed documentary called "Summer Of Soul," and that film is now nominated for an Oscar.

When we spoke to Questlove last week, he told us about Tony Lawrence, the man who organized the Harlem Cultural Festival. And remember; this was 1969, just over a year since the assassination of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, a fact Questlove notes was very much on Lawrence's mind.

AHMIR THOMPSON: He was an everyday guy - very charismatic lounge singer. And he had a dream that a music festival is the answer to heal a community in pain because by that point, the city of Harlem was burning because of Martin Luther King's assassination. And in this particular case, Tony Lawrence a year later says, you know, if we throw something for the kids, then perhaps, you know, they'll need something to look forward to every week, and, you know, they won't be too preoccupied with taking it out on the property.

MARTIN: The thing about the film that I think is so - well, first of all, the remarkable array of artists, the fact that it's - the musical quality is so good and the work that you did to sort of bring it back to life, but it's just - it's so remarkable. But I do want to point out the way you marry - because, you know, we're journalists here, and, you know, we're into the news - the way you marry the events that are going on around it with what is happening on stage, right? And there's this great moment in the documentary when the duet of Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples sing "Precious Lord" with the Operation Breadbasket Orchestra and Choir and Ben Branch. And I just want to play a little bit of that, and then I want to talk a little bit more about why that moment is so special.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "SUMMER OF SOUL")

MAHALIA JACKSON AND MAVIS STAPLES: (Singing) Oh, Lord. Oh, Lord, I need you. (Vocalizing). Precious Lord, take my hand. (Vocalizing).

MARTIN: I know that everybody I've talked to about this film and this particular sequence is - people get chills. But one of the remarkable things about it, it starts with the Reverend Jesse Jackson talking about the day that the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was killed just a year earlier and the person he spoke to last and his favorite song. Would you just talk a little bit about that sequence? And I was, of course, wondering how you felt when you first saw it.

THOMPSON: Well, here's the deal. This was a pivotal moment in my life and the process of making this film because, you know, I was shredded in so much doubt that this thing even happened. I wasn't sure it happened. I didn't know if I believed these guys, these strangers trying to convince me they got 40 hours of footage of this thing. And they plug in the hard drive, and they show me the footage. And the first thing I ever see is Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples, who, incidentally - not many people know this, not fun fact - we found out that it was supposed to be Aretha Franklin that's singing with Mavis Staples - with Mahalia Jackson - and a last-minute cancellation. So this really wasn't planned, which makes it all much more magical. So just keep in mind that Aretha is supposed to do this with her.

Now, when I interviewed Jesse Jackson in Chicago about this moment, even without me asking, the one element he wants me to get right - it's like he insists on getting this one fact straight. And the fact is, he says, a lot of people have sort of made a myth about what had happened April 3, 1968, which is the night before, where he gives the mountaintop speech, which feels like - he almost has a premonition that he might not make it. You know, he does this speech where, like, you know, might not make it to the mind (ph), might not make it there with you, but we're going to get to the mountaintop.

And, you know, people sort of had this - like, this omen, sort of premonition that he was predicting his own death. And he would die in 24 hours after saying that. But he was like, no. Actually, the opposite is true. He was like, the last three minutes of Martin Luther King's life, like, he was letting out the biggest belly, gut laugh that one could - like, they were having a pillow fight. They were - he basically wanted to tell me that Martin Luther King was living in his joy when he got assassinated.

Like, they were - I guess Jesse Jackson was objecting to wearing a tie to dinner. He was like, yo, can't we just wear our - well, they call them dungarees - jeans. Can't we wear our dungarees and our T-shirts? Like, why do we got to always dress up in suits to have some soul food? Like, can't we just wear regular clothes? And then I think Andrew Young threw a pillow. And them Jesse threw a pillow. And then it's like these four gentlemen are having a pillow fight, and they're, like, ranking on each other, like playing the dozens and, you know, your mom is so fat you need to - you know, that sort of thing.

He told me - he's like, yo, Martin Luther King was laughing, having a good time. And we was laughing and joking around with each other. Like, this wasn't a thing where we was just sitting around moping like, oh, no, the end is going to come. Like, no, he was living in his joy. And that's what I realized - like, my whole perspective changed.

MARTIN: You've told us a lot here. It's fascinating because on the one hand, it's a beautiful story about Dr. King, and it's important that Reverend Jackson wanted that truth to be told and held, right? And so that's a lot. It's just - all these years later, he wanted that to be held and understood. And, yeah, it's just - that's a lot. You've told us a lot right there.

THOMPSON: I think it's important because oftentimes when we talk about civil rights, you only see our pain. You see the bloodshed. You see the dogs attacking us. You see us hosed down. You see us getting shot and in jail, mired in violence. But Black joy is such an important component to our story. And without that, we're not seen as human.

Like, a lot of America's first views of us are just watching us in movies and watching us on the news. And that's how they form their opinions. And without really, truly getting to know us and really empathizing with us, that will happen. So for me, that was one of the biggest shockers that - I was like, wow, like, Martin Luther King knew how to play the dozens and had a pillow fight? That's crazy.

MARTIN: How about that?

THOMPSON: Like, it just totally changed my whole, you know, perspective.

MARTIN: You know, it hasn't gone unnoticed - it's been a part of the reception of the film - the fact that this footage was - I don't know if lost is the right word, but essentially unseen for 50 years to being nominated for an Oscar. And you can't also ignore the fact the only other concert documentary to win this award - like, "Summer Of Soul" is nominated in best documentary feature category. The only other concert documentary to win this award was "Woodstock" in 1971 and - about that other concert that took place in the summer of '69. And, you know, there are those, you know, who feel that, partly, Woodstock kind of stole all of the - I'm sure there are a lot of reasons, but the feeling was that there were only going to be one event that was going to capture the public's imagination, and for whatever reason it was going to be Woodstock. And I just wondered, how does this land with you? I mean, do you feel - on the one hand, this footage is now being so well-received. The film is being so well received. On the other hand, there is that sense of 50 years when it could have been seen. Do you feel - I don't know. What do you feel about that? Is it vindication? Is it triumph? What do you feel?

THOMPSON: I made this movie - you know, when they offered it to me, I was shrouded in self-doubt. At the time, Prince, you know, was - he released his autobiography. You know, he at least did four chapters. And he talked about the moment where he became Prince, and he knew that, watching Santana, that was the moment that changed his life forever. And he was like, that's what I want to do. When I grow up, I want to do that. I want to create that magic. And I was just like, man, like, if my idol became my idol from watching a Santana clip from Woodstock, then what could have my life been into if this festival - edited correctly, of course - would have seen the light of day, if somebody felt compelled enough to give us a seat at the table as well?

And I'll say that one of the hardest things about this film - a very last-minute, 11th hour title change. This film was called "Black Woodstock" all the way until literally the last two hours of us locking this film, saying, OK, now our film is done. And I stopped them. I was like, we can't name this "Black Woodstock." Like, this deserves its own platform, its own light.

MARTIN: Well, congratulations. That was Ahmir Thompson, a.k.a Questlove, the now Oscar-nominated director of the documentary "Summer Of Soul," which is streaming now on Hulu and Disney+. Questlove, thank you so much for spending this time with us today.

THOMPSON: I appreciate it. Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #2: (Singing) We got to get a groove going, got to get a groove going, baby, Lord. Got to do it - baby, yeah. (Vocalizing). Oh, yeah. Everybody clap your hands. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

More from Hawai‘i Public Radio