When Questlove was editing his electric Grammy-nominated documentary Summer of Soul, which uses long-lost footage of music legends like Stevie Wonder, Sly Stone, and Mahalia Jackson to tell the forgotten story of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, he wasn’t just thinking about the past. He was thinking about the way that moment, near the height of the sixties tumult of protests, riots, and assassinations, was “an exact mirror” of the summer of George Floyd.
“Because of where we were politically,” the Roots drummer and first-time director says, he knew that the movie would connect with millennials and Gen Zers who might not know who Mavis Staples is, but were “actually living through those times.” The concert, which took place over six weekends and was filmed by Hal Tulchin, who could never find a buyer for what he dubbed “the Black Woodstock,” served “as a bandaid over a bullet wound,” Questlove says—“a means to keep people calm, give them some joy, and prevent them from rioting, as they did the year before.”
Summer of Soul was followed this fall by the release of Questlove’s latest book, Music Is History, an exploration of the songs that defined the past half-century of American culture. The two projects share the goal of explaining the sometimes forgotten importance of iconic artists, and together they show the famously knowledgeable musician embracing a role he long resisted. He talked to GQ about the personal transformation he went through during the pandemic, the preservation of Black culture, and the making of Summer of Soul.
GQ: Why did the forgotten legacy of the Harlem Cultural Festival feel like a story for 2021?
Questlove: One of the main concerns I always had in the back of my mind was, how is this going to resonate with millennials and Gen Z? And at the time, my only connection was, I knew Drake is related to Larry Graham [the bassist for Sly and the Family Stone; Graham’s brother is Drake’s father], so maybe I could try and make a connection there. Or do I get Beyoncé to try to explain to Gen Z how important gospel singing is? That was the route I was going to go before.
But because of where we were politically, where we were with the protests, where we were with the elections, where we were with just knowing if we were going to live or die, once I realized that Gen Z and millennials were actually living through those times, that was all the connection [I needed]. I didn’t have to get Drake to explain his uncle. Gen Z and millennials were living through it.
Talk a little bit more about those connections. There was a major moment of protest last year, and a major moment of protest going on when this concert happened.
It wasn’t lost on me that this is an exact mirror. This concert was put on, I guess you could say, as a bandaid over a bullet wound, a means to keep people calm and give them some joy. We never really credit what a day of joy can bring to somebody. Literally, this concert was thrown as a means to keep people from rioting as they did the year before [in 1968]. We had conversations like, “Well, should we go to Black Lives Matter marches and record those as well, mix them in?” That would’ve been pandering, and I actually do have faith that people discover things on their own without you having to spell it out.
You’re a guy who likes lists. If you had to rank this concert among the great festivals of the ’60s and ’70s, where would you put it?
Here’s one thing. You guys have only seen maybe 15 percent. I started with 40 hours [of footage]. It took five months to process the original two-inch film. While that was happening, I was looking at old transfer copies on VHS, because Hal Tulchin tried to sell this film in the past.
In watching that footage for five months straight, I decided everything has to give me goosebumps to the level of Mavis Staples, or Nina Simone, or Stevie Wonder doing a drum solo. And once we had 30 of those, then I thought, Okay, we could start here. But [the first cut] was Woodstock-size. It was 3 hours and 25 minutes, I think. The one thing that I dropped altogether that probably saved us about 25 minutes was the comedy aspect. Drum solos were [also] a big thing.
So you guys have only seen 17 percent. In my opinion, this was a very, very solid affair. Every act put on their A-game. And these weren’t A-list acts. Stevie Wonder wasn’t a household name yet. He had hits out the ass, but this wasn’t Superstition Stevie Wonder.
I think that also being in Harlem makes you put your best foot forward, because of the myth of the Apollo Theater. If you weren’t good, you could get booed by the audience.
There were a number of flat moments in the Woodstock film, in my opinion.
Oh, yeah! Absolutely.
There are no flat moments in this documentary. When Hal Tulchin was trying to sell the footage, he called the festival the Black Woodstock. You decided not to use that title. And you’ve said that if people had crashed the gates to get into this festival, like they did at Woodstock, then the media reaction would’ve been very different. Can you talk a little bit more about the differences between the two festivals, and what they meant?
I definitely know that when you talk about Woodstock, you’re really talking about Woodstock the movie. And there’s a big difference between Woodstock the festival and Woodstock the movie. I don’t think that Woodstock was put together to be the definitive statement of its generation. At the time, festivals were becoming a thing. You saw what happened to Dylan in ’65 at Newport when he tried to introduce electric equipment. So, every generation wants their soundtrack. With all the footage that Coachella has, perhaps in 2040, the first year of Coachella might be rewritten as the definitive statement of millennials.
The Harlem Cultural Festival was planned as a means to just cut people a break. You know what I mean? Give people a break. Let’s have some happiness, which you can’t overstate the value of. I know it might sound silly in hindsight, like, Yeah, we did it just to give people a piece of happiness. But that’s how important a statement like that was in 1968 when everyone that you believed in is dying. Not to mention you’re facing a war in which a lot of your loved ones are dying. And there just doesn’t seem to be any hope.
You’ve talked about the concept of Black joy in relation to this festival.
People ask all the time, in terms of this film not coming out [before], did that do us a disservice? It did kind of do us a disservice, but I also feel as though what took its place wound up resonating more. What wound up being the Black Joy Central, at least the world’s first view of it on a national level, was the television show Soul Train. It should have been the Harlem Cultural Festival, had it got the Woodstock treatment. But, instead, we have Soul Train. And that’s gone a long way because Soul Train built careers and legends out of these acts and soul music that we love.
The story seems like a natural one for you, given your encyclopedic knowledge of music history. Do you see yourself embracing this role of historian in the future?
You know, it’s weird. If I were allowed to program where my life would’ve gone once I graduated school, and you asked me where I saw myself at 30, 40, and 50, chances are I would’ve said, I’m going to make some records with my best friend from high school, and we’re going to sell out stadiums. We’re going to be bigger than Led Zeppelin.
And yet, my journey winds up being everything but that specific statement. I didn’t grow up thinking I’m going to be the next Doc Severinsen on The Tonight Show, or that I’d even have a New York Times bestseller, or any of these things. I had no vision for something bigger. I just wanted to start a band and play the home stadium where Rocky was [set] in my hometown of Philadelphia.
I was slow to do this because I always felt that no one likes a know-it-all. No one likes a hall monitor or a teacher’s pet. I’m the guy on the internet, like, Ah, ah, ah! That was 1973, not 1975. I’m the guy that complains anytime a music supervisor of a movie or television show has the wrong music queue-up. Every girlfriend I ever had does her eye-roll, like, Yes, we know the history of how Kool Herc threw a party for his sister and invented hip-hop. Because I’ve seen so many eye rolls with it, I was very slow to do it. But I mean, clearly, the universe has bigger plans for me. And I think the lesson I learned last year is just not to argue with the universe.
How would you like to see Black culture preserved and archived? In an ideal world, what’s your fantasy?
I come from a generation which assumed that history’s going to be transferable and passed down. My second year [teaching] at NYU, my first question to the class was, “How many of you know what this record is?” And I held up a copy of Thriller. This is a class of 23 [people], and mind you, my students are like Maggie Rogers and Take A Daytrip, who produced Lil Nas X.
At least seven of my students now make more money than I do. You know what I mean? They have empires. And, of those 25 students that particular year, only seven truly knew. The rest were like, “Yeah, my parents own that.” Or even worse, “My grandparents own that record.”
And, oftentimes, we’ll just say, like, Ah, Gen Z don’t know shit. They’re narcissistic… But it’s on us to teach. But find a way to teach that’s not like the annoying finger of the hall monitor. So I’ll say that, yes, Black culture is somewhat disposable because it’s not seen as art. But I will say that it’s also on us to teach with facts.
You write in the book about how you used to be too cool for things like the Grammys. Why have you come to see these sorts of industry accolades as more important than you did in the past?
I think oftentimes, as humans, we are programmed to live in the word no, because no is safety. And if you live in safety, you live in fear. People that live in yes aren’t afraid to make a mistake in public or fail in public. And they’re generally happier. Now that I’ve done a lot of work on myself, I will say that a lot of that is also just defensive posturing. You know, “I’m going to reject you before you reject me.” A lot of us artists feel like we don’t deserve good things that happen to us. And it’s often seen as the cool thing to say no first, because we’ve been told that there’s honor in that. Or that’s integrity. I don’t think that’s integrity anymore. I think that’s fear.
It’s weird because, now that I’ve learned that lesson, I’m looking at everything that I thought was cool. I’m looking at Prince only doing one interview every five years. I’m looking at Miles Davis cussing out audience members and turning his back to the audience. I’m looking at all those things now and trying to see if that’s just fear talking. I’m looking at interviews where artists talk about why it took them 10 years to come up with this record. And I’ve realized that when you’re an artist, you’re vulnerable. And a lot of us aren’t ready for that level of rejection, so we invent cool.
I went through a transformation during the pandemic where I was one of those people that lived in no. And now I’m doing a simple switch. I want to see what living in yes is like. And this is the result of it. This is what happens to you when you live in yes. There’s a whole new world you never knew before.
Let me ask you one more question. Is there going to be another D’Angelo album?
You have to ask D’Angelo. If he comes a-callin’, I’m there for him. But he’s the king of one statement per decade, so…
It’s been seven years already.
Yo, it’s so funny you said that. Just yesterday, I did the math in my head and realized that Black Messiah came out in 2014. Yeah, it’s going to be another 10 to 15 years. I hope not, because he’s such a life-changing artist. But I know he moves on his own time, so I’ve got to respect his own time.