Questlove Talks 'Summer of Soul' : It's Been a Minute There were two big music festivals happening in the summer of 1969. While one defined an entire generation of culture and music... the other remained obscure — the only recorded footage placed in a basement that was said to have sat, unpublished, for decades. That is, until Questlove's first documentary Summer of Soul came out last year. In this episode, Sam chats with Questlove about the recent release of the film's soundtrack, the long history of Black erasure, and the memorable performances from the likes of The 5th Dimension, Stevie Wonder (playing the drums!), Mavis Staples, Mahalia Jackson, and Nina Simone.

Questlove's 'Summer of Soul' brings lost music back to life

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1075850442/1076952764" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

SAM SANDERS, HOST:

You're listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. I'm Sam Sanders.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SANDERS: All right. I want to take us to 1969, the summer of 1969, the summer that we went to the Moon...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NEIL ARMSTRONG: That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.

SANDERS: ...The last summer of a truly historic decade, and the summer that saw a really big, groundbreaking music festival in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST: ...Festival. Cars are being abandoned on highways leading to the resort area...

SANDERS: I know the festival you are thinking of right now, and it's not that one. This music festival did not take place upstate, and it wasn't just a few days.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SANDERS: This one happened in Harlem, summer of '69, every weekend for almost two months. Back then, it was called the Harlem Cultural Festival.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "SUMMER OF SOUL (...OR, WHEN THE REVOLUTION COULD NOT BE TELEVISED)")

TONY LAWRENCE: Welcome to the Harlem Cultural Festival, here in Mount Morris park, in the heart of Harlem.

SANDERS: But now, Questlove calls it the Summer of Soul.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: Here we go again. We got to get to going.

SANDERS: OK. Hear me when I say this - the Harlem Cultural Festival had everything, Stevie Wonder playing the drums like he had three sets of arms...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SANDERS: ...Mavis Staples and Mahalia Jackson singing a duet together with Jesse Jackson's band backing them up...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAKE MY HAND PRECIOUS LORD")

MAHALIA JACKSON: (Singing) Hey.

MAVIS STAPLES: (Singing) Hey.

SANDERS: ...Nina Simone bringing the house down, almost issuing a call to arms for Black people.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NINA SIMONE: Are you ready to call the wrath of Black gods?

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: Are you ready?

SIMONE: Black magic to do your bidding?

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: Are you ready?

SIMONE: Are you ready to use whatever is necessary?

SANDERS: The whole thing was epic. Questlove made a documentary about the festival called "Summer Of Soul".

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SANDERS: It came out on Hulu last year, and now Questlove is out with the soundtrack to this movie, which is just as incredible. We're going to talk about all of that in this chat, and we're going to spend a lot of time talking about why so many Americans, before this doc, had no idea one of the greatest music festivals of the past century ever happened. I am so excited for this one. Here's Questlove talking "Summer Of Soul". Enjoy.

So I want to talk a lot about how no one really knew that this whole thing happened for a very long time. But I think first, we have to place this cultural festival in time. So it happened at a very particular time, 1969, this transition from the '60s to the '70s and all that entailed. And it also was this moment of big shift in Black consciousness as well, right? Like, I mean, the film talks about this moment in which there was a move from Negro to Black; a lot of things were changing in terms of what it meant to think of yourself as Black. Correct?

QUESTLOVE: Yeah. So I would actually say that this is a pivotal moment in time in which everything is changing. One could say that this could be - '69 could be the end of the civil rights chapter as we know it, even though a lot of the issues that went unaddressed would still be here 50 years later. However, you're seeing a moment in time in which once, you know, Martin Luther King when he is assassinated...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROBERT F KENNEDY: ...The people who love peace all over the world. And that is that Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight in Memphis, Tenn.

(SCREAMING)

QUESTLOVE: And all of America's inner cities are in turmoil - rioting, cities burning, protesting, anger in the nation...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LYNDON B JOHNSON: America is shocked and saddened by the brutal slaying tonight of Dr. Martin Luther King. I ask every citizen to reject the blind violence that has struck Dr. King, who lived by nonviolence. I pray that his family...

QUESTLOVE: ...And that feeling of basically hopelessness. So in the case of this film, this festival was allowed to happen because there was concern, in New York City, on whether or not it would be another hot summer of civil unrest. And this clearly shows you the dividing line. Is it the Martin Luther King patience approach, or is it the Black Panthers' fist on a desk - now - not now, but right now - approach? And as a result - I'll probably say that in the festival, no moment captures it better than when an unplanned, unannounced Sly and the Family Stone takes the stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LAWRENCE: Ladies and gentlemen, the internationally known, the dynamic Sly and the Family Stone.

(APPLAUSE)

QUESTLOVE: With camera four, which is the audience camera - that really tells the story. So when Tony Lawrence, the festival organizer, does this long, built-up announcement and says, Sly and the Family Stone and they walk on stage, if you look at anyone that seems to be over the age of 25, it's the absolute of horror in their face, like (gasps), like aliens...

SANDERS: Really?

QUESTLOVE: ...Just went on stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SING A SIMPLE SONG")

SLY AND THE FAMILY STONE: (Singing) I'm talking, talking, talking, talking in my sleep. I'm walking, walking, walking...

QUESTLOVE: People younger are losing their minds, so it's almost like if I were at a Jeffrey Osborne concert and then suddenly, the announcer's like, wait, wait, that's not all, ladies and gentlemen. We have Megan Thee Stallion here, too. And then, like...

SANDERS: (Laughter).

QUESTLOVE: ...Anyone younger is like, losing their mind and the adults are like, wait, wait, I came for Jeffrey Osborne. What's happening?

SANDERS: Yeah.

QUESTLOVE: And it's only because Sly - first of all, you know, they had never seen an intersectional group before, where women are playing major roles, not just tambourine...

SANDERS: Well, there was a woman playing the trumpet.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SLY AND THE FAMILY STONE: (Singing) You look dreadful when you cry...

SANDERS: ...The, like, guy playing the drums was white. It was a whole mash up.

QUESTLOVE: Yeah, like they weren't used to white and Black people together...

SANDERS: Yeah.

QUESTLOVE: They weren't used to women playing trumpets.

SANDERS: Yeah.

QUESTLOVE: They weren't used to seeing people in their street clothes. Like, that alone - I didn't realize like, how radical they looked with their, you know, Haight Ashbury boots on and their fringes and their wild afros. And, you know, I thought that was just normal everyday hippie stuff.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERYDAY PEOPLE")

SLY AND THE FAMILY STONE: (Singing) I am everyday people.

QUESTLOVE: Sly and the Family Stone just came off as aliens. And so I'll say maybe for the first two or three songs, the adults in the room were sort of like, I don't know, this might be some kid stuff. And then midway through - like, after the third or fourth song, Sly instantly turned on the charm. So yeah, this film is about how, you know, what we term as Black people, what we term as Black joy, this is where that sort of the impetus the seed is grown there. And, you know, at the time, Harlem, USA, was sort of the capital of Black America.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERYDAY PEOPLE")

SLY AND THE FAMILY STONE: (Singing) I am everyday people.

SANDERS: Well - and, like, you can see even in the different performances that not division but classification. You had some folks that were playing the same festival that came out of the Motown school. They were polished...

QUESTLOVE: Yes.

SANDERS: ...They were wearing a suit and tie. And then you juxtapose that with Sly and their look, which would kind of, like, take Blackness into the '70s.

QUESTLOVE: Yes.

SANDERS: But both sides got along splendidly. And it seemed, like, in spite of the differences between the performers, there was a unity there for the whole thing that seems uncommon, especially knowing the other festivals during that time usually devolved into some kind of chaos.

QUESTLOVE: Yeah. To your point, to show you how the status quo was, a guy like David Ruffin...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY GIRL")

DAVID RUFFIN: I'd like go back to the olden days.

QUESTLOVE: ...Would rather rock a wool tuxedo in the middle of August, you know, much to the detriment of his own comfort, you know, in the name of professionalism.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY GIRL")

RUFFIN: (Singing) Whenever it's cold outside, I've got the month of May. Can I get you to sing along with me one time?

QUESTLOVE: But I will say that probably - yeah, for me, I was wondering, like - I think the idea of diversity is what we're dealing with now. Like, if you take a festival like Coachella, I think their idea of diversity is sort of like, OK, let's pick that one or two acts from, like, 25 years ago. Like, OK, we'll have Lauryn Hill or Outkast. But even then, it's like when they choose the diversity artist, it's someone that sold millions that was very popular. But back then, I was really, really shocked at how open the audience was. And, you know, for an example, when you see an act like Ray Barretto...

(SOUNDBITE OF RAY BARRETTO SONG, "TOGETHER")

QUESTLOVE: I could tell even then, even he had just minor trepidation. Because even his act was draped in I come in peace (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TOGETHER")

RAY BARRETTO: (Singing) All right now. This is something that...

QUESTLOVE: They were definitely there to let you know, like, Spanish Harlem is a part of this community, too. And you know, we might not socialize in our everyday life, but, you know, I'm here to let you know that we have the same struggles as you do. And you clearly see that happening, as well. Like, they were open to everything.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TOGETHER")

BARRETTO: (Singing) But in every face, in every face I see, I see a part of you and a part of me. Together - get together.

SANDERS: And that's what was so beautiful to see. You know, this festival is happening in 1969. Woodstock is a few weeks later. And people forget every Woodstock, even the first one, was kind of a mess. But then you look at this festival, there's no drama, there's no...

QUESTLOVE: Right.

SANDERS: ...Fighting, there's no violence, there's no mud. And like in many ways, you would expect it to not go down that well. Like, the Black Panthers were doing security for this event, you know? Like, it was happening in a period of social unrest. What made this festival work so well and be so kumbaya in this moment?

QUESTLOVE: You know, I was going to say that "Woodstock" the movie did more for Woodstock and did more for defining a generation than Woodstock the actual event. "Woodstock" the movie was a perfectly edited three-hour event of a 72-hour event that was really marred with a lot of problems - with weather conditions, with hygiene conditions, with drugs, people bumrushing the gate. You know, there were a lot of arrests. There was OD'ing. Like...

SANDERS: They had to airdrop food and water by the end of it, right? It got that bad.

QUESTLOVE: Yes, exactly. Like, aesthetically, what made Woodstock a success was the film. I always say that if one of the things that happened at Woodstock, had one of those things occurred at the Harlem Cultural Festival, then you would have probably heard about the Harlem Cultural Festival. On the other hand, this got absolutely barely any press. Even when the film was presented to me, I wasn't truly convinced that it happened in the first place.

SANDERS: Really?

QUESTLOVE: And, you know, I had to call a lot of people and ask them, and have you heard of it? And those people didn't hear about it. And if you Google...

SANDERS: So you didn't think it was true at first?

QUESTLOVE: Come on, man. You trying to tell me that 300,000 people gathered in one place and I can't find one photo on the internet? That's crazy. And the thing is, is that they actually - you know, come to find out that there was one local station in Buffalo that purchased an hour of the concert. And they showed it at, like, midnight on a Sunday, which no one's seen it.

SANDERS: Yeah.

QUESTLOVE: So when I speak of, like, Black erasure, I'm talking more or less from the standpoint of how easily dismissible this particular event was. And so for me...

SANDERS: To hear - mmm hmm?

QUESTLOVE: ...It was important to really, really show an aspect of our story as Black people that you rarely, rarely, rarely get to see, which is Black joy, you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

SANDERS: Coming up, we break down that unforgettable performance from The 5th Dimension.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

SANDERS: I want to talk about some of the performances from the film and in the soundtrack. I've got two that I really want to dig into, and you can tell me what I want to go through first.

QUESTLOVE: Sure.

SANDERS: The 5th Dimension performance, which makes me cry every time I see it...

QUESTLOVE: Yeah.

SANDERS: ...Or Mahalia and Mavis singing "Precious Lord Take My Hand" together with Jesse Jackson's band backing them up. Mind blowing. Mind blowing.

QUESTLOVE: Yeah, it's - absolutely. So OK, in the case of The 5th Dimension, of all the acts on the Summer of Soul Festival, the most popular act in terms of chart positioning was indeed The 5th Dimension.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "SUMMER OF SOUL (...OR, WHEN THE REVOLUTION COULD NOT BE TELEVISED)")

THE 5TH DIMENSION: (Singing) Don't you hear me calling to ya? Don't you hear me calling to ya?

QUESTLOVE: So big, in fact, that they were more or less seen as a pop group than they were seen as a soul group.

SANDERS: And their hit, which we should say, it was at No. 1 around the time of their performance, right?

QUESTLOVE: Yeah, so...

SANDERS: Their biggest hit.

QUESTLOVE: ...At the time, "The Age Of Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In" (ph) was No. 1 in the country at the time when they were performing it.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "SUMMER OF SOUL (...OR, WHEN THE REVOLUTION COULD NOT BE TELEVISED)")

THE 5TH DIMENSION: (Singing) When the moon is in the seventh house and Jupiter aligns with Mars.

QUESTLOVE: And so it was important for The 5th Dimension to do this concert because they felt as though, you know, they were rarely offered a chance - well, first of all, to get an audience of this magnitude, of this size, really wasn't heard of back in the day. If you are an artist performing, you know, your highest best bet is to do the top tier of the chitlin circuit. And that means the Uptown in Philly, the Apollo in Harlem, the Regal in Chicago, you know, the Howard in D.C. Those theaters were seen as sort of the high watermark. And so as a result, for The 5th Dimension, when we let them see the footage, especially with Marilyn McCoo, it touched her in a way that I instantly recognized.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "SUMMER OF SOUL (...OR, WHEN THE REVOLUTION COULD NOT BE TELEVISED)")

THE 5TH DIMENSION: (Singing) Age of Aquarius. Age of Aquarius. Aquarius. Aquarius.

QUESTLOVE: It showed me that even when Black people are on an entertainment platform and at the top of their game, they still have to code switch. I felt familiar with that because, you know, in my years of touring, one day I'd be with the Beastie Boys, and we'd have to change our show, and the next day, we're with A Tribe Called Quest, and we have to change our show, and the next day we're with Rage Against the Machine, and we have to change our show, and the next day we're with Erykah Badu, and we have to change. Like, we were constantly code switching just to feel safe in front of an audience. So when Marilyn McCoo is responding about what it felt like to sort of be ostracized of not being Black enough, I really identified with the stress that it is to even do your craft and not know who the audience is that you're going to meet out there. Will they be receptive, or will they not be? So when they were receptive, that really touched her.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "SUMMER OF SOUL (...OR, WHEN THE REVOLUTION COULD NOT BE TELEVISED)")

THE 5TH DIMENSION: (Singing) Talk to me.

MARILYN MCCOO: We were constantly being attacked because we weren't, quote-unquote, "Black enough." Sometimes we were called...

QUESTLOVE: And even in watching, the tears started pouring. So that was a vulnerable moment that I didn't plan on having, like that Barbara Walters - make sure I ask a question that you cry over. Like, it just instantly happened.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "SUMMER OF SOUL (...OR, WHEN THE REVOLUTION COULD NOT BE TELEVISED)")

MCCOO: That was one of the reasons why performing in Harlem was so important to us - because we wanted our people to know what we were about, and we were hoping that they would receive us.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AQUARIUS/LET THE SUNSHINE IN (THE FLESH FAILURES)")

THE 5TH DIMENSION: (Singing) Come on, let...

SANDERS: Well, and, like, what was so beautiful to me in seeing that happen - so it's not just The 5th Dimension come in to do their big hit, and the Black crowd loves the song.

QUESTLOVE: Right.

SANDERS: They bring members from the audience on stage. And you see the members dance with these Black boys and Black girls. And it's just so beautiful. And it's - I don't know. It's...

QUESTLOVE: Yeah, I asked them. I said, well, two things I noticed here. One, I didn't know that Billy Davis Jr. had a gospel preacher's growl - hey.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

QUESTLOVE: All those things. And two, like, you guys are doing modern dances. You're, you know - you guys are so poised and postured and sophisticated when you're on "Ed Sullivan," when you're on "The Tonight Show." And, you know, finally, they could just relax and be themselves. And that performance is night and day from any other performance. Now, in the case of Mavis Staples and Mahalia Jackson...

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "SUMMER OF SOUL (...OR, WHEN THE REVOLUTION COULD NOT BE TELEVISED)")

MAHALIA JACKSON AND MAVIS STAPLES: (Singing) Lead me on.

QUESTLOVE: ...That's a moment that also wasn't planned. I found out later that a no-show to the festival was Aretha Franklin.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EIGHT DAYS ON THE ROAD")

ARETHA FRANKLIN: (Singing) I'm tired...

SANDERS: Wait. Stop.

QUESTLOVE: Oh, I...

SANDERS: Why didn't she show up?

QUESTLOVE: ...Got a lot of stories of no-shows and - (laughter).

SANDERS: Wait. Wait. Why didn't she...

QUESTLOVE: And almosts and shoulda, woulda, couldas (ph).

SANDERS: Everybody was there. Wow.

QUESTLOVE: Aretha Franklin was set to perform at the Harlem Cultural Festival and, at the very last minute, was kind of an 11th-hour drop out.

SANDERS: OK.

QUESTLOVE: And just in a sort of a scramble moment, Tony Lawrence asks Staple Singers if they can perform an additional week to sort of replace Aretha Franklin. And so Mavis Staples - you know, I kind of - I'm kind of glad that moment happened. I'm kind of glad that Mavis Staples got that moment...

SANDERS: I'm very glad it happened (laughter).

QUESTLOVE: ...In the sun.

SANDERS: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "SUMMER OF SOUL (...OR, WHEN THE REVOLUTION COULD NOT BE TELEVISED)")

STAPLES: (Singing) Take my hand, precious Lord, and lead, lead me home.

(APPLAUSE)

QUESTLOVE: But yeah, there's another story of - you know, Sly and the Family Stone wasn't scheduled to be on, and I found out that Jimi Hendrix had requested...

SANDERS: Now, that was crazy to me. Yeah.

QUESTLOVE: ...To perform as well.

SANDERS: And they said no.

QUESTLOVE: I don't know if he was declined because he was too radical or if it was the spacing, but Jimi Hendrix will actually wind up doing three after-parties. So when the festival is over, Jimi will do three weeks of Harlem nightclubs with blues great Freddie King. And...

SANDERS: Wow.

QUESTLOVE: ...The last...

SANDERS: Where's that tape? Where's that tape? (Laughter.)

QUESTLOVE: I wish. There was one person that, like, documented the moment, but there's no tape of it. And the last close-but-no-cigar moment was Week No. 6, the production company that Hal Tulchin had hired gave him a note saying that we won't be able to shoot the last week of festivals, so you might want to readjust your lineup. You know, they were saving, like, the big guns for the last week. And so they had to do a lot of scrambling to make sure that the first five weeks was action-packed with the celebrities they wanted. And the last week would have been, quote, "the throwaway week." And unfortunately - I mean, it's New York City, so you know someone's a star - that was an 18-year-old Luther Vandross' very first performance...

SANDERS: What?

QUESTLOVE: ...That we didn't get a chance to - (laughter).

SANDERS: What?

QUESTLOVE: Yeah. Luther Vandross performed the last week of the Harlem Cultural Festival.

SANDERS: What was he singing? This is before he's Luther.

QUESTLOVE: So he was part - now, here's the irony of it. The irony is that the production company could not shoot the last week of performances because they had to shoot a pilot of a television show that Hal Tulchin begged them - like, look, man; forget that show. We'll pay you more money and - duh, duh, duh. It turns out that show was the pilot of a show called "Sesame Street."

SANDERS: Oh, my God (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

LISTEN MY BROTHER: (Singing) Come on, children. Give us a hand.

QUESTLOVE: And what's even weirder is that Luther Vandross and his group called Listen My Brother is actually on the pilot episode of that "Sesame Street."

SANDERS: What?

QUESTLOVE: Singing about the number 20.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

LISTEN MY BROTHER: (Singing) ...Don't be slow. We're going to count to 20, and here we go. Hey. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20.

QUESTLOVE: So all those people...

SANDERS: Oh, my God.

QUESTLOVE: ...That are in "20 Feet From Stardom," all those greats that backed up Luther Vandross, like Fonzi Thornton, they were all just a unit of New York singers from Harlem and Brooklyn that formed a group called Listen My Brother. And, you know, for the next 10 years, they will be the go-to singers that you would use if you want background vocals.

SANDERS: Wow.

QUESTLOVE: Just so happens that 15 years later, Luther Vandross winds up being a - getting out of the background singer mode and into his own stardom. But yeah...

SANDERS: Wow.

QUESTLOVE: ...That was their debut.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

SANDERS: All right. Coming up - why the Harlem Cultural Festival of 1969 is actually timeless and still relevant today.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

SANDERS: You know, I think what I love most about the film and the soundtrack is how it speaks to all of the different kinds of Blackness there were and are in the community. You have gospel artists and secular artists.

QUESTLOVE: Yes.

SANDERS: You have clean-cut artists and folks like Sly and his crew. You have different ages. There's such a diversity in this concert itself, and this film is a reminder to viewers that the very idea of Blackness and what it means to be Black, it's always multifaceted, and it's always changing. And there are always these tensions within and outside the community of defining it, you know?

QUESTLOVE: Yes.

SANDERS: And I wonder...

QUESTLOVE: Yeah, we learned two years ago...

SANDERS: Oh, go ahead.

QUESTLOVE: ...That we're - one of the most said statements I've heard in the election cycle and going forth is that we are not a monolith.

SANDERS: Yeah.

QUESTLOVE: You know, we're not...

SANDERS: Yeah.

QUESTLOVE: ...Just one group of people through one filter...

SANDERS: Yeah.

QUESTLOVE: Like, there's different facets and different chambers of our experience. And this film, I feel, captures it.

SANDERS: Well, and it captures the way that those dialogues can happen in a nice way. You know, like, everyone got along while having...

QUESTLOVE: Right.

SANDERS: ...All of these differences. I wonder, though, in terms of this ongoing conversation about what it means to be Black and how we negotiate that, what has changed in that conversation for you the most since "Summer Of Soul" to, let's say, now?

QUESTLOVE: Well, OK. So I will say that time is probably - if you'd asked me, like, who's the star of the film? - I would say actual time is because, first of all, you know, it's being captured in a paradigm shift moment where the civil rights is ending and Black Power is starting. And then at that, we can talk about Black erasure, and why did it take 50 years for this film to stumble out the gate? But even when we're crafting the film together, you know, it kind of had a different idea of what the film was going to be before March 16 of 2020.

I think at the very beginning, maybe in 2017, 2018, I'm thinking, you know, just put 17 cool songs together and slap a tag on it. And then around 2019, we decided, like, OK, we should really give context. Like, you're going to have to do some explaining on why these things are happening on stage because, you know, even myself - I was like, well, why don't I know about this festival? And then I want to know things about, like, what were travel arrangements like? And I want to know about, what's Stevie Wonder thinking at this moment? You know, what's Sly and the Family Stone thinking about at this moment? Like, there's so many questions I had.

And then all that came to a screeching halt on March 16 of 2020 when the world sort of stopped, and we had to start all over again. And in the back of my mind, I'm always thinking, I don't know if we're going to reach Gen Z with this. Like, anyone born after 1995 - I don't know. Maybe this is - maybe this film is only for Baby Boomers and Generation X. And then the summer of 2020 happens, and then when George Floyd happens and when Breonna Taylor happens and then when protest happens and then when the coronavirus spreads - and then there's distrust of the government, and there's the election issues. All these things that were happening in 2020 were the same things that were happening back in 1969, you know, when the Nixon administration started to steepen (ph). And suddenly, I was like, wow, we don't have to call up Drake to ask him to talk about his uncle...

SANDERS: (Laughter).

QUESTLOVE: ...Playing bass with Sly and the Family Stone. Like...

SANDERS: Thank goodness (laughter).

QUESTLOVE: Yeah. Like, I don't have to pander and be like, hey, can you talk about your uncle Larry Graham real quick playing bass right here? Like, we don't have to do that because now I feel as though second-generation millennials and Gen Z currently living in the conditions that were the same exact parallel conditions 50 years ago. And so it's all about timing 'cause, again, if this film is done for the 50th anniversary of 1969, chances are it would've just been a concert film with no context whatsoever.

SANDERS: Did you expect the success for this film that it's received?

QUESTLOVE: You know, I'm going to tell you for a lot of us, the pandemic was - if you don't decide to do personal growth, then the universe will decide for you. Putting this together really did a lot for me as a human being in terms of my confidence in being a storyteller. You know, a lot of things that I do creatively and a lot of things that artists do creatively - like, you know, it's often met with trepidation and sort of fear. And, you know, I am worthy to do this? Should I do this? I've never done this before. Why do they trust me to do this?

There's a lot of being - dancing in my own head and swimming and talking myself out of a good thing that most artists do because what if it doesn't work? What if I fail? Then I'll fail in front of people. I can't do that. So, you know, for me, yeah, I will say that this film really, really - you know, I was living very, very small, squishing myself and living in my smallness. Am I worthy? Am I worthy? And this film helped me to graduate that line to, I am, you know?

SANDERS: Yeah.

QUESTLOVE: When you're watching Jesse Jackson do these affirmations (laughter), he can't help but rub off on you. And that's the lesson that I learned from the film, the fact that Tony Lawrence had a dream. You know, I'm going to put this festival together, and I'm going to document this festival so I can show the world how beautiful Black is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OH HAPPY DAY")

EDWIN HAWKINS SINGERS: (Singing) Oh, happy day.

QUESTLOVE: And that dream came true.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OH HAPPY DAY")

EDWIN HAWKINS SINGERS: (Singing) Oh, happy day.

QUESTLOVE: It stumbled out the gate. But damn if it's not headed to the finish line and almost to the winner's circle. Like, this is the most beautiful story of the tortoise and the hare ever told. And you know, now I'm ready.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OH HAPPY DAY")

EDWIN HAWKINS SINGERS: (Singing) He taught me how to watch, fight and pray.

SANDERS: Thanks again to my guest, Questlove. The soundtrack to "Summer Of Soul" is out now. And you can also check out the documentary on Hulu. I most highly recommend it. All right. This episode was produced by Jinae West and edited by Jordana Hochman. And special, special thanks to Lars Gotrich over at NPR Music, who brought this whole thing together.

All right. Listeners, don't forget this Friday, we are back with another episode, and we want to hear the best things that happened to you all week for that one. Just record yourself and email that file to me - samsanders@npr.org. That's samsanders@npr.org. All right, listeners, till Friday. Thank you for listening. I'm Sam Sanders. We'll talk soon.

Copyright © 2022 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.