How Questlove Remixed the Soundtrack of 1968 for the Summer of George Floyd

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.

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