Emma McIntyre / Getty Images for Recording A
Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson emerges from the pandemic a changed man. The co-founder of The Roots and the musical director of Tonight show did something he never thought he would do: he bought a farm in upstate New York.
“The last year has really been a big lesson for me in terms of self-esteem,” Questlove said. “I was world famous for being a machine.… I thought chaos was the only way for me to exist. But now I embrace stillness and hear myself think.”
Now Questlove has ventured into a new arena: he made his directorial debut with the documentary Summer of the soul, which tells the story of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, a series of six free concerts held in what is now Harlem’s Marcus Garvey Park.
The festival, which became known as “Black Woodstock”, featured performances by some of the biggest names in black music, including Stevie Wonder, Sly and The Family Stone, Nina Simone and BB King. But footage of the concert was not widely released, and the memory of the festival faded from history – until the Thompson film.
He says one of the best things about the documentary is the number of people who contacted him to tell him that they had unexpectedly seen a loved one among the 300,000 viewers. One person spotted their brother, who later died in Vietnam.
“They never had a photo of him. And somehow we had a close-up of him for about six seconds,” Questlove said. “So it was very moving for them to see him as a 19 year old. So every day that happens, people get their memories back.”
Read the edited and condensed interview highlights below, and listen to the full chat in the player above.
How Tony Lawrence, the festival’s organizer, managed to get such an incredible lineup
“Somehow he just managed to leverage one promise over another based on what we call ‘FOMO’, the fear of failing, like that. He was his friend. his level of, negotiation but really just the daring to dream.
“Looking at the contracts, I was really shocked at what life was like in 1969. Like who knew you could get Sly and the Family Stone for just $ 2,500? I wouldn’t even pay my first DJ for that. . I realize the inflation was still there, but yes – Mahalia Jackson was the highest paid at $ 10,000. “
Why the Black Panthers provided initial security at the Harlem Cultural Festival
“The Panther,” Bullwhip said, “I think was a young teenager back then. And he explained to us that at the very beginning, the police did not want to ensure the safety of the festival, mainly because of what had happened. the year before – of all the cities that were somehow turned upside down in the aftermath of Martin Luther King’s assassination, Harlem was probably the hardest hit when it came to the riots. “I don’t want to be close to that, because we’re going to be outnumbered” and that sort of thing. But I think over the weeks, the second week, then [the police] realized, like, we’ll provide security.
As a result, there were absolutely no incidents, which I hate to say but comparing it to this other festival [Woodstock], if even five percent of the things that happened in Woodstock happened at the Harlem Cultural Festival, then you may have heard of that festival.
On what surprised him most when watching footage from the Harlem Cultural Festival
“I would say the performance of Sly and the Family Stone is probably the most shocking to watch at the time, because… until then black performers were hyper aware of their presence in the world, even though it was ‘was the professional sense. And so the kind of rule # 1 was always this kind of unsaid, “I come in peace, I’m not a threat,” kind of disposition that most blacks should have in their life. workspace, especially during this period period.
“Motown was particularly notorious for sending all of her acts to glamor school and so on, and all of their disposition was basically like, you have to wear a tuxedo all the time.… And so the fact that Sly the Family Stone is performing. in their street clothes is such a shock to the public.
“And then suddenly watching them have more excitement than the kids at the end of a set, that’s almost how it should be taught in every college, like how to really engage and play and really have a plan that is unmarked and unprecedented and really execute it to perfection. “
On learning all kinds of music, stemming from the social survival of white peers
“I knew very early on that my survival in the world I was creating really depended on my level of education, on what I knew, so that I could fit into this world. If you’re in grade two and a group of your white musician friends are playing “Smoke on the Water”, I need to investigate and study this.
“A good example is [that], to watch Billie Jean on MTV, I had to sit for four hours of Def Leppard, Phil Collins, Thomas Dolby … Just sitting there waiting for Michael Jackson to come in and all of a sudden all this other music s ‘seep into me. … So I think in my case it was all about social survival about how to relate to my friends in school. But once the hip-hop comes along, it’s like, oh – whatever I learned, I’m just going to add it to this pot of stew I’m making. In a way, it’s real love, but in many ways, it’s survival. … I’m sure if I didn’t have this range of knowledge I probably wouldn’t be chosen to be a part of it Tonight’s show. “
Learning how white people see him as a threat
“This is one of the first lessons I learned in my life. Every black parent needs to have this conversation with their child. And the way you internalize that information might affect you.… One of the first lessons that you do. I had to learn about myself was how much of a threat I was, and it’s strange. Like being a kid who constantly [was being told] ‘You’re so cute! His afro! ‘ and pinch my cheeks and all that stuff.
“And then one day you are 11 years old and your father [sits down and tells you], ‘You’re not cute anymore.’ And that’s all I kept with me, like, ‘Oh, I’m not cute anymore. I am a threat. And all my life that never left me, to the point that if I’m in a dark parking lot I’ll sit in the car for hours on end because I’m afraid of the threat I posed to people – when women are walking in the dark parking lots of the hotel where I am staying or that sort of thing. – I’ll let you take the elevator. I will go alone in this one. And so all this lifestyle, which affects you as an adult. “
On changing his signature hairstyle, an afro with a big pickaxe
“I kind of took it off.… I just think I was sick of looking for it. How the panic of ‘I have to go back and find my afro choice’ really got on my nerves.
“And when I was in quarantine, I pretty much wore my hair braids, just so I didn’t have to deal with the nightmare of doing my hair for an hour every day. Every now and then I pull out my afro, but I’m kind of enjoying the anonymity of what life was like, wearing a mask and having my hair braided, like the places I could go without being recognized. It was pretty awesome. So I’m enjoying my news. freedom without being like Questlove. “
Take the time to take care of yourself during the pandemic
“If that hadn’t happened, I probably would have been on a fast track to the next life. As you can see with all of my peers in hip-hop, a lot of us… thought that wasn’t happening. getting shot in the club was the victory. ”Ah, okay. I am 35 years old now. I’m too old to get shot in the club “because that was always a concern in the 90s. Now there’s a new” shot in the club “, which is strokes, stoppages heart, our mental health and so on. … A lot of us can’t even get past the age of 60, so a lot of my hip-hop peers die … in our fifties. Like 10 one year. So it’s a fight to the end. I’m probably in the best place I have [ever been] at present. I have lost over 100 pounds. I am happier. I’m just happy to be alive. “
Heidi Saman and Kayla Lattimore produced and edited the audio for this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper, and Andrew Flanagan adapted it for the web.