Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for Recording Academy
Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson Out of the epidemic comes a changed man. Co-founder of The Roots and Director of Music at The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon He did something he never thought he’d do – he bought a farm in upstate New York.
“The past year has really been a big lesson for me in terms of self-love,” Koestloff says. “I was world famous for being a machine…I thought chaos was the only way I could live. But now I embrace the calm, and hear myself think”
Now Questlove has entered 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 Marcus Garvey Park.
The festival, which became known as ‘Black Woodstock’, featured performances by some of the biggest names in black Music, including Stevie WonderAnd Cunning and the family stoneAnd Nina Simone And bb king. But footage of the ceremony was not widely broadcast, and the memory of the festival faded from history – even the documentary.
He says one of the best things about the movie is the number of people who reached out to him to say they unexpectedly saw a loved one out of 300,000 in attendance. Someone discovered their brother, who later died in Vietnam.
“They never had a picture of him,” Koestloff says. “And somehow we had a close-up of him for about six seconds.” “So it was really touching for them when they saw him being 19. So every day this happens, people get their memories back.”
Read the edited and condensed highlights from the interview below and listen to the full chat in the player above:
On how Tony Lawrence, organizer of the festival, managed to secure such an amazing lineup
In a way, he manages to manage one promise and capitalize on it over another based on what we call “FOMO”, the fear of missing out, like that. That was his friend. It is the original FOMO dish. …so that was kind of his negotiating level but really just daring to dream.
Looking at the contracts, I was really shocked at what life was like in 1969. Like who knew you could have a Sly and Family Stone for just $2,500? I wouldn’t even pay for a DJ opening. I realize the inflation was still there, but yes – Mahalia Jackson was the highest paid with $10,000.
On why the Black Panthers provide primary security at the Harlem Cultural Festival
The tiger known as “Bullwhip”, was at the time, I think, a young teenager. He explained to us that at first, the police didn’t want to provide security for the festival, mainly because of what had happened the previous year – of all the cities that experienced turmoil in the wake of Martin Luther King’s assassination, Harlem is probably the worst affected of all in terms of business riots. …so their response was basically, “We don’t want to be anywhere near this, because we’re going to be fewer,” and that kind of thing. But I guess as the weeks go by, by the second week, then [the police] I realized, like, we’re going to provide security.
As a result, there were absolutely no accidents, which I hate to say, but in comparison to that other festival [Woodstock]If even 5% of the things that happen in Woodstock happen at the Harlem Cultural Festival, chances are you’ve heard of this festival.
About what surprised him most watching footage of the Harlem Cultural Festival
I would probably say that Sly and Family Stone’s performance is the most shocking to watch at the time, because… until that point, black artists were very aware of their presence in the world, even if it was a professional sign. And so Rule #1 has always been of the unspoken kind, “I come in peace, I’m not a threat,” the kind of disposition that most blacks should have in the workplace, especially during this time period.
Motown especially was famous for sending all of their work to a witch school etc and basically their entire act was like, you have to wear a tuxedo all the time. …so the fact that Sly and Family Stone are performing in street clothes is a shock to the public. …
And then all of a sudden to watch them get more excited than the kids at the end of the group, which to me is almost like that should be taught in every university, like how to really participate and perform and have an unprecedented, unprecedented plan and execute it perfectly.
In learning to embrace all kinds of music, which emerged from social survival among white peers
I knew early on that my survival in whatever world I create really depends on my level of education, and what I know, to be able to integrate into that world. If you’re in second grade and a group of your white musical friends are playing “Smoke on the Water,” I have to investigate and study it.
A good example of that [that]In order to watch “Billie Jean” on MTV, I had to sit for four hours with Def Leppard, Phil Collins, and Thomas Dolby. …just sitting there waiting for Michael Jackson to come and suddenly all this other music seeps into me. …so I guess in my case, it was about staying social about how I connect with my friends at school. But as soon as hip-hop comes along, it’s like, oh – whatever I’ve learned, I’m going to add it to my bowl of soup. It’s true love in some ways, but it’s survival in many ways. … I’m sure that if I didn’t have this range of knowledge, I would probably not have been chosen to be in it Tonight Show.
About knowing how white people view it as a threat
This is one of the first lessons I learned in my life. Every black parent should have this conversation with their child. The way you absorb this information may affect you. …One of the first lessons I had to learn about myself was how much of a threat I was, and that’s weird. I always love to be a kid [was being told], “You are so cute! His African descent!” I pinch my cheeks and all that stuff.
Then one day she’s 11 years old, and your dad [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’m a threat.” And my whole life that never left me, to the point that if I was in a dark parking lot, I would sit in the car for hours because I was afraid of the threat I posed to people—when women are I walk in the dark parking lots of my hotel or that kind of thing. “I’ll let you go up in the elevator. I’ll get into this on my own.” And so this whole way of life affects you as an adult.
When changing his signature hairstyle, afro with a large selection
I’m kinda retired. …I guess I’m tired of looking for it. Like the panic of “I should go back and get my Afro picks” was actually getting on my nerves.
And when I was in quarantine I pretty much wore my hair braids, so I didn’t have to deal with the nightmare of doing my hair for an hour every day. Every once in a while I go out afro, but I kind of enjoy anonymity for what life was like wearing a mask and braiding my hair, like places I could go and not be recognized. It was kind of cool. So I’m enjoying my newfound freedom without sounding like a Questlove.
About taking time out to take care of himself during the pandemic
Had this not happened, I would probably have been on a fast track to the next life. As you can see with all my fellow hip-hopers, many of us thought not shooting at the club was victory. “Ah, well. I’m 35 now. I’m too old to be shot in the club,” because that was always a concern in the ’90s. Now there is a new “club shooting” experience, which is strokes, cardiac arrest, our mental health, etc. … not many of us can get past the age of sixty; A lot of my fellow hip-hopers give up… in their fifties. Like 10 a year. So it’s a fight to the end. Maybe I’m in my best place [ever been] Immediately. I have lost over 100 lbs. I’m happier. I am happy to be alive.
Heidi Saman and Kayla Lattimore produced and edited audio for this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper, and Andrew Flanagan have adapted it for the web.