Jimi Hendrix & Harlem: September 5th, 1969 at the Harlem Street Fair

Any discussion of Jimi Hendrix’s views on ‘big’ topics has to be prefaced with a reminder of his age. Every comment he ever made came before the age of 27, and for anyone that young it would be a daunting thought that their views – which naturally change and adapt with time and knowledge -would be preserved forever in black and white. That is what we are dealing with here; the views of a young musician who, by sole virtue of his ethnic background, was asked questions difficult enough for academics of the day to devote hundreds of pages to answering. Jimi was expected to answer off-the-cuff, and given his affable demeanour in interviews, he often would. His views on race and racism, which at times seem to differ wildly, are simply a reflection of this method of extraction. We will see, through the course of this short study, that his views on music and race changed and matured as he aged. As we all know, he was taken from us before he had the chance to share all he had with the world.

What this piece concerns specifically is his performance on September 5th, 1969 at the Harlem Street Fair. It was an important social statement for New York’s black community, seen as a counterpoint to the predominantly white Woodstock festival, for which of course Jimi was also in attendance. I will try and trace Jimi’s connection to this neighbourhood, what his reasons for choosing to perform at this free gig might have been, and what the performance possibly represented. Of course these conclusions are all my own, and are, sadly, impossible to prove – but I do hope that I do justice to the great man.