The Harlem Street Fair, then, came at a time when Jimi was becoming more and more vocal in his addressing of non-musical issues. This must have been difficult for him; almost immediately upon arrival in London, journalists were quick to talk not of his music, but his appearance. His flamboyant, hippy-esque clothing, combining bright colours and unorthodox pairings, was seized upon by journalists keen to stress his ‘exoticness’. He was very quickly christened the “Wild Man of Borneo”, despite having absolutely no connection with an island between Indonesia and Singapore. Ostensibly, the label was a reference to his “unkempt” appearance, masking its more insidious connotations in a veneer of harmless observational humour; this country has always been good at that sort of thing. Despite the shamelessly racist depiction of Jimi in the tabloids, his race did not necessarily do his music career as much harm here as it did in the US – not in cosmopolitan London at least. In the capital’s music scene, his otherworldly presentation was a source of fascination, and was a presentation he transcended with his equally otherworldly guitar playing. He found, in London, a scene similar to that of Greenwich Village; more open to his boundary-pushing style. The contrast with Harlem, the centre of R&B in New York, was obvious – and no doubt painfully so for Jimi. “If he would have taken that [his effect-laden guitar playing] to Harlem, he would have been laughed at”, remembered TaharQa Aleem, a friend whom Jimi stayed with from time to time in Harlem. To know deep down that the centre of African-American music and culture would not have accepted his music must have been hard for Jimi, and being a constant outsider, feeling as if he was betraying his own roots by spending time in the Village playing to majority-white crowds, must surely have played on his mind. White artists have never been held to this high a standard; at no point would Eric Clapton have had to navigate so many difficult notions of belonging or not belonging, of wondering whether acceptance would have been afforded him or not; he could focus on his music, and let his guitar do all his talking. This is what Jimi largely tried to do whilst finding success with the Experience; understandably so, given that he was only 24, finally able to fulfil his dreams – and become successful beyond his wildest dreams. Hendrix’s fame in the US eventually brought him into contact with those campaigning for civil rights. One anecdotal story, again involving Aleem, concerns Jimi being called at in the street to purchase the newspaper of the Black Panthers, which he duly does – prompting the vendor to proudly proclaim “Jimi Hendrix wants a Black Panther Newspaper!”. It was late 1968, he had just turned twenty-six, and he was becoming increasingly aware of his relatively unique status as a black artist with a largely white fanbase; he had been called an Uncle Tom in a review for Electric Ladyland, and he was unable to make a move which did not have “ramifications that were racial, social and political”. Rather than shy away from this, Jimi did the opposite, and nowhere was this clearer than on the streets of Harlem on 5th September, 1969.
The point of this festival was clear; it was to bring culture and joy to those least likely to be afforded it. Such was the fear by the US federal government of violence, they refused to police it; quietly hoping for a flare up of violence that could be used to justify their own racist agendas. The Black Panthers stepped in and provided security for the event. Over a quarter of a million people attended, and the violence so anticipated simply did not materialise. The festival was about joy and empowerment, about finding a voice. Nina Simone performed a timely poem instead of a song as her final piece, urging the crowd not to settle for less, to attain what was theirs and not to let the power of this moment wane. Jimi’s decision to play with his majority-black band was a clear recognition of these sentiments. It was a message to America that its black community was absolutely on the same cultural plane as the white America immortalised by Woodstock.