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Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson on how sifting through 40 hours of archival footage of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival — where legends like Nina Simone and Stevie Wonder performed in the same summer as Woodstock — led to his debut documentary, “Summer of Soul.” Plus, how the parallel protests of 2020 and 1969, as well as a focus on Black joy, helped to shape the film, and why he still considers “The Tonight Show” with Jimmy Fallon his creative epicenter.

Mark Olsen: Hello! I’m Mark Olsen.

Yvonne Villarreal: And I’m Yvonne Villarreal. You’re listening to “The Envelope,” the L.A. Times podcast where we go behind the scenes with your favorite stars from TV and film.


Olsen: So, Yvonne, tell me what you know about Woodstock.

[Archival clip from the Woodstock Music and Art Fair in 1969: Joe McDonald singing “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag.”]

Villarreal: Oh, my gosh, Mark. Well, I hope you’re not talking about the disaster that was Woodstock ’99. But when I think of the original Woodstock from 1969, I think of this lore of love and peace and the coming together of these amazing performers that sort of set the bar for music festivals that came after it.

Olsen: I mean, Woodstock is undoubtedly one of the most famous music festivals in history. But what if I were to tell you that the same summer — just 100 miles awaythere was a different festival with performances from legends like Nina Simone, the Staple Singers, B.B. King, Stevie Wonder and lots more?

[Archival clip from the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969, as featured in “Summer of Soul”: “Welcome to the Harlem Cultural Festival here in Mount Morris Park in the heart of Harlem.”]

Olsen: It was called the Harlem Cultural Festival, and it was all captured on camera. In fact, 40 hours of video footage sat in a basement for decades until our guest helped lift it from obscurity.

Today I’m speaking with Ahmir Thompson, better known as Questlove. He’s a drummer and founding member of the Roots, the house band on “The Tonight Show”; two-time musical director for the Academy Awards; DJ; author. And recently he made his directorial debut with a documentary about the Harlem Cultural Festival called “Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised).” And what’s interesting is that, even though Ahmir began working on the film back in 2017, he told me his relationship with the Harlem Cultural Festival really began decades ago.

Ahmir Thompson: If we go back 20 years earlier to 1997, this is the very first time that the Roots are in Tokyo, Japan, and my translator—marveling at my large afro—says to me, “You look like you’re a fan of the TV show ‘Soul Train.’” I said, “Yeah, absolutely. I’m obsessed with that show. I grew up with it.” And she says, “I’ve got to take you to the Soul Train Cafe.” I was like, “Wait, there’s the Soul Train Cafe in Tokyo, Japan?” And it’s like a themed restaurant. You know, they have all of these television monitors, and the table I would be sitting at was showing footage of Sly and the Family Stone at the Harlem Cultural Festival.


At the time, I didn’t know it was the Harlem Cultural Festival. You know, it was called the Black Woodstock. Like, that fabled Black Woodstock concert with Stevie Wonder and Sly and the Family Stone and dah, dah, dah. Twenty years later, David Dinerstein and Robert Fyvolent came to me, and I snuck to the next room and started calling people on the phone like, “Yo, you ever heard of Black Woodstock?”

“Nah, I never heard of it.”


You know, like I wasn’t convinced that it happened. I didn’t believe them. I just thought they were trying to game me for some good Fallon tickets or something. I was like, “All right.” And then they came back next time with 40 hours of footage in a hard drive. Like, “Here, look at this.” And that’s when it got real. It was heart-melting and overwhelming and scary and awesome at the same time.

Olsen: And tell me a little bit more about when you watched that footage for the first time. I mean, 40 hours is a lot.

Thompson: You know, I always give the example: I love Peanut Butter Cap’n Crunch more than anything on earth, but if I were to eat like nine bowls of it in a row, I’d be sick. I wouldn’t like it. I’d be tired by bowl three. You know what I mean? So that said, I was like, “How do I ingest it? Like, what’s the process?”

So what I would do is I have a special hard drive that hooks up to all the screens in my house. Also, I can view it at work, in my dressing room, in my studio. And if I want to look on my phone, I could do the same thing. So for five months straight, I just kept this thing on a constant 24-hour loop. Even when I was asleep. Wake up, look at the tel —“Oh, damn. OK. Write that down.”

I had 30 of those by month five, and then felt like I had at least a foundation to tell a story. It had to give me goose bumps. That’s the important thing.


Olsen: What were you looking for? What was the kind of the “wow factor” that you wanted from those performances?

Thompson: The very first thing that was on the loop was gospel day.

[Archival clip from the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969, as featured in “Summer of Soul”: The Edwin Hawkins Singers singing “Oh, Happy Day.”]

Thompson: And every last one of those performances was just mind-blowing, mind-blowing, mind-blowing, mind-blowing. I also do things backwards whenever I do any project. My first question is, “What do you want the audience walking away with, like in their stomachs? What’s going to floor them in the last 15 minutes?” And talk yourself backwards and work your way to the beginning. But when I got to Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples … when I saw it, initially I said, “Oh, this is my ending.”

[Archival clip from the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969, as featured in “Summer of Soul”: Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples singing “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.”]

Thompson: And really, up until April of 2020, that was pretty much my story arc. My initial draft was like three hours and 30 minutes. And, you know, everyone was like, “Hey, man, great job. It was really entertaining.” Like, there’s a response I’m used to getting, like, I was waiting for like, “Yooooo!” And I didn’t feel that. I asked my girlfriend …


“Give me your, your —”

She was saying, “It was nice, babe.”

I said, “Yeah, but it wasn’t mind-blowing, right?”

And you know, thank God for my girlfriend’s rigorous honesty. She says, “You know what? If you’re trying to connect with someone younger, then you have to speak their language.” The Hollywood ending, you know, the kind of “Kumbaya” safe plan landing ending would have been Mahalia.


[Archival clip from the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969, as featured in “Summer of Soul”: Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples singing the end of “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” and crowd applause.]

Thompson: But what’s happening right now in the world is more like Nina Simone. And she said, “I guarantee you, your film’s going to feel way different if you make that switch.”

And as soon as we made that switch, then suddenly it was a whole other movie. And that’s only because the day that we made — that was when the George Floyd situation happened in Minnesota. And America is so different that day. Suddenly this film became like a refuge or an escape from real life.

Olsen: And you just mentioned your girlfriend and this note that she gave you — that she mentioned that if you want to connect with younger people to sort of reframe the story — and was that part of the goal for you? Like, did you want this movie to be connecting to a younger audience?

Thompson: So the thing is, is that, you know, the No. 1 question was who’s coming to see it. So when I’m asking, “What feelings do you want your audience walking away with?”

Back when I was teaching at NYU, you know, my students were rather young, and you can’t take for granted that they know what a “Thriller” is or who Run or DMC is. And it’s like, all right, boomer. What’s important this week, Public Enemy. Great. OK. You know, how do you make this resonate with them? That this is not just another history film about old people in their time. Once George Floyd comes to the conversation, I’ll just say that you really, truly couldn’t tell what was real on television and what was our film footage. It was interchangeable.


[Archival clip from Nov. 14, 1969: Protesters demonstrate in support of the Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam.]

[Archival clip from May 9, 2020: Demonstrators chant “George Floyd! George Floyd!” during a protest in downtown Houston.]

Thompson: Gen Z has it the hardest because they’re living in the same conditions. They’re out in the streets fighting. They’re out protesting, just like their elders did 50 years before. Suddenly everyone had someone to relate to, or connect to. Protest. Civil unrest. Trust in the government. Black eraser, like all those things. Do our stories matter? So once that connection came, then I knew that this film was absolutely relatable to anyone watching. You either have empathy, or you live through it, or you respect it, or you admire that time period, or you’re currently in those struggles. We’re telling your story.

Olsen: Hmm. Because I think, beyond just the performances in “Summer of Soul,” I think one of the things that has really captured people in watching it is the way it becomes this portrait of that moment. And you mentioned how, as you were editing the film, you couldn’t help but be seeing these connections between the summer of 1969 and the summer of 2020. But for you, what are those connections? What did that come to mean to you?

Thompson: You know, there was a brief moment, there was a brief moment where I was like, “Should we take cameras down to the protests?” Like, should we connect the two? That sort of thing.

And, rule No. 1 with the entire staff — with the entire production, entire staff of “Summer of Soul” — was like, “Yo, full transparency guys. This is my first time driving. Feel free to be the annoying backseat driver. And let me know if I fall asleep at the wheel, let me know when something is amateur hour. Let me know if something is a cliche.”

And so, in this case, I was told immediately, it’s like, “No, that’s when you have to spell it out for people.”

It’s moments like that where I could have easily left 1969 to rush 50 years later and start the narrative there. But it’s almost like — you didn’t have to do that. You absolutely did not have to do that because, simply put, this movie just wrote itself. And as it was happening, it made ‘69 more legit.


And for me, I’ll say that the main two things that I wanted to walk away from leaving you with is one, how important it is for artists to use their voice. So, you know, I think that local community leaders, our informed local community leaders, are important. Even if it means just giving up your time to do something that you believe in — be it music education, or fight poverty or food insecurity, anything you could do to help — then use your voice.

Hopefully, if this can plant a seed on how to not ever repeat history again, then job well done. You know, and that, to me, is the most important goal of this film.

[Archival clip from the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969, as featured in “Summer of Soul”: “And now, ladies and gentlemen, the young brother of soul, Stevie Wonder!”]

Olsen: And I want to talk a little bit about some of the specific performances in the movie. And there’s so many to choose from, so maybe I’ll just start at the beginning. You open with this footage of a young and beautiful Stevie Wonder playing “It’s Your Thing” with this incredible drum solo. What did it mean to you to open the film in that way? And you talk about how you kind of switched up the ending. Was that always how you opened the movie?

Thompson: So here’s the deal. Another part of the direction of this movie also happened to be the environment I was in. So, you know, again, the pandemic’s happening. New York is a second away from this dystopian, crazy future where rats are running the street.

So we instantly knew we needed a place of solace. A dear friend of ours gladly opened up their farm to us. We’re in a guesthouse, and we’re sharing it with the family. So at one point, our host’s brother-in-law, he told me — he’s like, “Where are you in this movie?”

And in my mind, I didn’t want this to be a Questlove-driven project. This could have easily been “Questlove: Summer of Soul.” Like, I could have branded myself in the film. And nothing against people that have branded themselves in their films.


First of all, like, I was already hyperaware when one time Andy Samberg and the Lonely Island guys — when they were talking to me about their “Popstar” movie. The way they pitched me was sorta like, it was like a matter of fact. They were like, “You know, like, you’re always in music documentaries.”

Like, how? That’s it? That’s the thing now? Like, it’s such a cliche. Like, “Oh, I know Questlove’s coming up in three seconds.” And I was like, “Yeah.” And I said, “Wait a minute. That’s an insult.”

And so, that said, I was like, “Nope, no way. I’m out of it. Like, I’m staying away as far as possible.”

But he kept hammering. Like, “I know I’m not invested because I feel like you’re the best presence to be in this film, and you’re denying yourself that.” So he really got to me.

So I was just trying to figure out, like, what’s the happy medium in making this happen. And it was in the morning when I was waking up, Stevie’s set happened to be on. With Stevie drumming to me, that was sorta like the internet meme, “Tell me this is your movie without you being in this movie.”

I come from the 30 Rock school of entertainment. So this is my — so I’m always thinking, like, “What’s my cold open before my credits come up?” And what’s a better intro into the world that I’m just introducing myself to, than my calling card, which is the drum solo. And that was it.

Questlove on 'The Envelope' podcast
(Daniel Dorsa)

Olsen: You’ve talked about the importance to you — with “Summer of Soul” — of centering Black joy. That even within this highly charged and political atmosphere, there’s still such a purity to the audience of the movie.

[Archival clip from “Summer of Soul”: “I remember being with my family walking around the park. And as far as I could see, it was just Black people. This was the first time I’d ever seen so many of us. It was incredible. Beautiful, beautiful women, beautiful men. It was like seeing royalty.”]

Olsen: If you had known about these performances earlier, if Black Woodstock is a thing you had seen 40 years ago, what would that have meant to you?

Thompson: That was my No. 1 question when I was doing this thing. I’m like, “Damn, man, could this have made a difference?” Because the thing is, is that “Woodstock” the movie is what people are romanticizing.

Once I looked at the actual Woodstock event, looked at all the rough footage, saw the news or whatever, it was a hot mess. It was damn near riot levels. And, you know, the food conditions were horrible. Thank God the neighbors were hospitable. Thank God they had a good plan for those that got sick and had to go to hospital and all those things.

But trafficwise — like, even if an eighth of — if one-sixteenth of the things that happened at Woodstock happened at the Harlem Cultural Festival, you would have heard about this shit. You would have heard about it. You know what I’m saying?


So it’s like, I do wonder that if there were a reframing in the telling of the story — that this was important just like Woodstock, this was important, this was important too — could this have changed lives? I absolutely think so.

But, here’s the other thing. I also feel as though this film is still a baby. Like this film can still work its magic 50 years after the fact. This film has changed my life in ways that I can’t even explain. So just that alone, the fact that I’ve been given the opportunity to tell other music stories on this level shows you how much it’s going to change and it’s going to move somebody.

Olsen: As someone who wears so many hats, I mean, you do so many different things. Did you find moving into this role as director, as filmmaker, comfortable? Did it take some getting used to? Like, how did you find that process of becoming a filmmaker?

Thompson: This is the thing. There’s a whole ‘nother story here, which is sort of like the evolution of Ahmir Thompson. Because, in my life, I’m noticing that whenever the zero year hits — 10, 20, 30 — my major pivot always starts on the zero year.

Like, when I was 10 years old, imagine trying to explain to your friends, like, what a Radio City Music Hall is and why you’re going there to play drums with your dad. Like, I’m 10 years old, leading a band of 11 of cats that were born in the ’30s and ’40s. And, OK, here’s the string charts.

When I’m 20, you know, letting your dad down. Letting him know that you’re not going to go to Juilliard and you’re going to try to give this music thing a try. He busted his behind putting you in the best schools ever. And now you tell him that you want to turn your life of classical music study behind so that you can rap with that hoodlum Tariq.


And in my 30s, my pivot was like, while I love the Roots, I do … but I got friends I want to work with too. And I want to work on Erykah Badu and D’Angelo’s record. And I want to work with Common, and I want to work with other people. Let me see if I play well with others, I’m coming back.

And then 40. Wow, we finally got to the mountaintop financially. To constantly live in a tour bus for 230 days out the year, doing every festival, every jam circuit, every club, every theater, every show, every continent. It’s like, we finally get to a place of safety and satisfaction. And then we’re getting a call from Jimmy Fallon about “What do you guys think about being a late-night band on a television show?”

I’m like, “Who in their right mind would turn their backs on making $20,000 a night every night?” Especially when your life was like, “OK, here’s your per diem. Here’s your per diem. Here’s your per diem.”

To just give it all up, to become Paul Shaffer or Doc Severinsen. It was such a risk, but that’s what happened at 40.

And this is the biggest pivot of them all. Unlike those other times, this is the first time I had to do this, like, by myself. I’m doing something I never studied or went to school for. At least with the other things, I have nuanced experience. And so, in the beginning, it was very hard. I tried honestly to get rid of it. Maybe the first two months, like, “Let me just be producer. How about I be executive producer and I’ll do some interviews for you guys and I’ll do like I did with ‘Hamilton’? You know, I’ll do some press and dah, dah, dah.”

Because the thing was, this wasn’t a concert film.

The second that I saw that this is me restoring history, I was like, “Ah, man. You only get one chance to go to bat and hit a grand slam.” Cause if you don’t — like, if you mess up Black people’s history, you’ll never live this down. And I was just in my head for two months about it.


And you know, finally again, my girlfriend was just like, “Snap out of it. Get over yourself. This is bigger than you. This is history. This is your chance to correct something you care about. You know, you’re the person to tell the story.”

Olsen: Mmm hmm. In the introduction to your recent book, “Music Is History,” you talk about the connection between specific songs and the larger currents of a historical moment. And that feels really similar to your approach in “Summer of Soul” — the kind of zooming in and zooming out of what the Harlem Cultural Festival meant. Do you see that connection? I mean, do you feel like that sort of approach that you have in the book is the same one that you brought to the movie?

Thompson: Initially, “Music Is History” just started out — it was just going to be a book of massive lists. Like, I wanted to list 10,000 songs that were earth-shattering to me.

And, you know, my editor challenged me. Like, instead of just giving me a list of 10,000 songs you need to listen to before you die, why don’t we fragment this a little bit and go, like, maybe a year of your life, start[ing] with your birth.

Once that happened, then, like, just year by year — I just try to figure out what that year meant to me as far as music was concerned. So yeah, both projects went hand in hand.

Olsen: I have to ask you quickly just about your work on “The Tonight Show” with Jimmy Fallon; that just seems like such a heavy commitment to have. And I’m just so curious of what kind of keeps — what is the continued appeal of doing that for the band and for you?


Thompson: I mean, it’s an intense commitment. But for me, I guess you could say that’s my epicenter now. My dressing room is my studio. You know, pretty much all my projects can be done on my laptop. I actually — I still enjoy it. There’s — you know, to be creative, you have to exercise. And there’s exercises that I do at “The Tonight Show” that help with my creativity.

At that job, I’ll say that I’m probably a way, way better, more experienced songwriter than I’ve ever been. Thirteen years, I’ve been writing miniature seven-second bits.

It’s such a specific exercise that, if you do that 10 years in a row, it helps your songwriting. Not to mention, being there also forces me to — I would have long jumped off the train of catching up and keeping up with who’s who and what’s what in music. Staying there, I’m aware of who is new. Who’s upcoming. You know, I still have to be active there. It would seem to you as like, oh, that’s our, our job, our epicenter. To me, it’s still one of the greatest — I call it 30 Rock University. It’s still one of the greatest institutions of education I’ve ever had. It’s a free education. And I take advantage of it. It makes you more creative.

Olsen: And then just my last question is that you kind of broke down for us, you know, decade by decade how your career has gone so far. Do you know what’s on the horizon? Like, what are the 50s and 60s going to look like?

Thompson: 60. Well to have my girlfriend say it … My girlfriend values my friendship with Shep Gordon. If you’re familiar with Shep Gordon, really one of the first celebrity rock star managers. This is a guy who gave us Alice Cooper. He gave us Rick James and Luther Vandross, Anne Murray. He ruled with an iron fist and was just the master. And one day he decided, it’s time to stop and take care of myself. And now he lives in his house in Maui, and he just works at his own leisure. He’s just about yoga, meditating, relaxing, time for himself. He just had a son, his first son this year. So in her mind, she sees my — these 50s, next 10 years as my last hurrah, as my last victory wave. So, I’m actually not mad at that. I was super resistant to that back in my 30s and 40s.

You know, I said I’d never sleep. So I think there’s a time when I’m in my 60s, when we literally fulfilled our bucket list, yeah, I truly believe that there is space for just enjoying life and doing nothing.

So, yeah, workaholic now, but I have my eye on six-zero.


The Team

The Envelope podcast is hosted by Mark Olsen and Yvonne Villarreal; produced by Heba Elorbany and Asal Ehsanipour; edited by Heba Elorbany and Jazmín Aguilera; engineering and theme music by Mike Heflin; audience strategy by Samantha Melbourneweaver, Amy Wong, Gabby Fernandez and Christina Schoellkopf; marketing by Richard Hernandez, Tova Weinstock, Patricia Gardiner, Brandon Sides and Dylan Harris. Special thanks to Shani Hilton, Clint Schaff, Matt Brennan, Geoff Berkshire, Elena Howe, Glenn Whipp and Daniel Gaines.