Producer, ‘Summer of Soul’
Jun 16, 2022
Joseph Patel has had more than just one summer of soul. The Oscar- and Grammy-winning producer for the music documentary “Summer of Soul,” directed by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, began his road to the red carpet all the way back in 1996.
That’s when Patel, then a Bay Area music journalist and radio host, penned The Roots’ first cover story for Rap Pages. “I get flown to Philadelphia for the interview. I met Ahmir and it was like he was one of us. He was a music nerd. We just became friends,” Patel told GQ India. “Next thing I know, we’re in his messy room in this house in South Philly where 20 people live and he’s playing me a four-hour jam session that’s just him and D’Angelo, recorded the first day they met.”
Patel’s friendship with The Roots’ drummer grew, and in the intervening years, he built a variety of media bona fides. Now in Brooklyn, Patel has worked as a producer, director, writer and executive for Vevo, Vice, The Fader and MTV, where he created and directed the regional hip-hop docuseries “My Block” and oversaw the network’s 2008 presidential election coverage. Today Patel is most associated with a certain documentary about the Harlem Cultural Festival, a multi-week musical showcase in 1969 colloquially referred to as the Black Woodstock. The festival was attended by approximately 300,000 people and featured Nina Simone, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Mahalia Jackson, and Stevie Wonder. But its memory (and footage) remained locked away for over 50 years. That is, until Questlove learned about it.
Backstage at “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” Patel recalls being asked by Questlove to oversee a documentary about the festival. Patel was mostly curious how the multi-hyphenate would actually fit directing into his busy schedule. “I asked him straight up: ’Why do you want to do this?’ He convinced me to go on this journey with him,” Patel told LEVEL. “It wasn’t my story to tell; it really was Ahmir’s. Ahmir sees things that other people in the room don’t … He knew what story he wanted to tell. It was my job as a producer to help him tell it.”
The resulting documentary — which won an Academy Award for Best Music Film, as well as two top prizes at Sundance and the Grammy for Best Music Film — showcases a variety of performers against one of the most turbulent and transformative periods of American history. Crucially, the documentary uses the festival to contextualize Black life through a distinctly Black lens — a perspective that was immeasurably enhanced by Patel’s journalistic experience, music- nerd background and close working relationship with the visionary Questlove.