I’ve been collecting things for as long as I can remember. When I was very young, when I listened to music, read interviews or watched movies, they lingered in my memory and I didn’t want them to leave me. Eventually I started to think about the physical objects that brought me these experiences – vinyl records, printed magazines. Collecting these items became a way to keep the past from slipping away.
A collection begins as a protest against the passage of time and ends as a celebration of it. My collection grew like seeds in a flowerbed, and I can only guess at the first seeds based on the flowers I see now. Over time it grew to include bins of magazines, including nearly complete sets of Ebony and Rolling Stone.
I have shelves and shelves of albums, eight tracks and cassettes. The music they contain — from official studio releases to snippets, bootlegs to live shows — matters to me. The formats themselves awaken memories. But it’s the personal artifacts associated with the artists who have shaped my own life and work that are most meaningful to me.
Many are related to Prince: I have a pair of gold-rimmed sunglasses that served as a backup to those the star used in the iconic 1984 film “Purple Rain”, and the scarf he wore during the Controversy tour. I have a fan letter that U2 lead singer Bono wrote to Prince when ‘The Joshua Tree’ album beat ‘Sign o’ the Times’ for Grammys album of the year in 1988. I also have items from Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, James Brown, Stevie Wonder, and Biggie, among others.
While music is at the heart of my collection, all pop culture is fair game, from toys and books to visual arts, jerseys and sneakers. In total, there are over 200,000 records and thousands of other artifacts, including at least 500 that I would consider prime specimens.
Along the way, the objects went from being owned by a collector to being a collection. If you listened carefully, you could hear them say, “We are history.” What did they mean by that? Well, when there’s enough of it, organized with some sense of timeline, it tells a story about the past. They tell us why the past matters.
When our lives turned inward at the start of the pandemic in March 2020, my mind turned to the past. It felt like it was the natural place to go because the future was at best uncertain and the present painful. I live-streamed DJ sets that paid tribute to recently deceased music icons, and self-care slow jam sets from my collections. I was trying to help people cope by reminding them of how they felt before. During this time, I also reconnected with many objects from my collection. They gave off sparks of comfort.
As the present seemed increasingly endless, my relationship to the past evolved. DJ sets have become historic in another sense. The songs I selected evoked not only a feeling, but also the center of a network of ideas, references and questions – a sonic exposition. I dug into my own past when I was asked to go back and work on liner notes for Roots record reissues.
Hip-hop has always had a historical, even curatorial spirit in the way it uses samples. Pieces of songs are collected and organized so that the past serves the present while defending itself. In this spirit, I sought to understand the meaning of an object in its original context as well as the pleasure it could still provide.
My most recent projects have explored how objects on a shelf become subjects in their own right – how the impulse of the collector becomes an impulse of connection. In the book “Music is History”, I thought back to the years I spent on earth, magnifying an idea from each year, connecting it to a song that represents that idea. And “Summer of Soul,” the documentary I made, is itself something of a collector’s item, with found footage from the Harlem Cultural Festival, a 1969 concert with artists like Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone and Sly & the Family Stone.
The process of making “Summer of Soul” was considerably more nuanced and intense than curating a collection, but arranging and commenting on these long-forgotten scenes forced me to ask some of the same questions. What should be highlighted? What best reflects the main idea? What is the best way to ensure that things are not just seen but understood, not just owned but inhabited?
There is also a personal question that I ask all the time: am I only the sum of all the things I have collected? And if so, shouldn’t I proudly declare it?
These projects have reminded me that legacy is important and that mine is largely about illuminating the legacy of the culture that made me. It gives me hope for a future with the confidence to hold on to the past – to protect and preserve it, to explain and uplift it, to keep its light shining even as it drifts in the sea of time. .
Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson is an Oscar-nominated filmmaker, drummer, DJ, producer, director, culinary entrepreneur, and member of the Roots. He is the musical director of “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” and the author, most recently, of the book “Music Is History”.