After 25 Years, Essence Fest Is More Family Reunion Than Music Festival

Mary J. Blige
Josh Brasted/FilmMagic

Mary J. Blige performs during the 25th Essence Festival at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on July 6, 2019 in New Orleans.

On the night of July 4th, New Orleans’ main thoroughfare, Poydras Street, was blocked with stand-still traffic for almost a mile, the sidewalks packed with people. Some tourists in their red white and blue finest looked around, perplexed, because the crowd was overwhelmingly made up of Black people from across the diaspora, descended on New Orleans for Essence Festival. Most non-black tourists had no idea they were in the middle of the decades-old event weekend.

ESSENCE Magazine’s “Party with a Purpose” has grown over 25 years to one of the premiere gatherings for Black music, entertainment and culture, drawing averages of 500,000 attendees annually. But even as the event continuously hit record numbers, it remained somewhat of a secret outside of the demo, even in the age of music festivals. Among those who were aware of the weekend, it was long considered something for the older set; an “auntie” destination because of the festival’s (and magazine’s) core demo: Black women.

The 2017 blockbuster hit Girl’s Trip helped dispel that notion and broaden the event’s awareness, driving record levels of groups dressed alike in custom t-shirts to the Big Easy in 2018. And other entertainment entities started to finally take note: Ava Duvernay retweeted the official City of New Orleans account touting the Festival bringing in $4 billion dollars of revenue to the city over its history, saying “(I) remember when I had to plead with my studio PR clients to see the value in exposing films to Black women here. They didn’t get it. Now it’s a film, TV, content must-stop. Happy to be back. There’s no place like #EssenceFest.”

This year, yet more fans, brands and gatekeepers recognized the power of the festival -- which is ultimately the consumer and influencer power of Black women -- and got in the game. Essence Festival was bigger than ever, with more performances, more activations and activities, and entertainment brands like HBO, Spotify and BET taking up residence for the weekend. All things Black culture are now working to carve out a space during the weekend. So why did it take so long for new-comers to catch on to what over 400,000 people already knew?

One of the reasons Essence flew under the festival radar so long is that it isn’t a typical music festival weekend. There is a specific vibe; Essence has traditionally been a soul and R&B event, with a set culture and tradition. For example, instead of donning flower crowns, attendees were in their best all-white attire for Frankie Beverly and Maze on closing night. But it’s much bigger than a girl’s trip destination for the 40-and-over demo. Attendees flock to Essence because it’s a massive multi-generational family reunion. Essence Fest is one of the richest and most authentic celebrations of Blackness and the Black experience, and the energy permeates throughout New Orleans during the Fourth of July weekend.

“EssenceFest has always been one of the only festivals that you, your mother, and grandmother, can attend together and everyone will enjoy just the same,” explains Ashaunna Ayars, founder and owner of The Ayars Agency, which represents mutli-year headliner Mary J. Blige and partners with the festival on activations and show production. “Platforms like Girls Trip have expanded the reach of the festival to an even more multi-generational and global audience. I think the Essence team recognizes that and worked to program the main stages, super lounges, and off-site experiences to offer something for everyone.”

More than just a music festival, the weekend can perhaps be most closely compared to SXSW in how it utilizes the host city as a backdrop for events and activations from music, to film and TV, to entrepreneurship, politics and more. During the day, attendees can opt for free panels, discussions, demonstrations and performances at the New Orleans Convention Center. This year, programming included keynote addresses from Democratic Presidential candidates Michael Bennett, Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg, Bill de Blasio, Kamala Harris, Beto O’Rourke and Elizabeth Warren -- all taking advantage of the opportunity to engage the essential Black woman voting block directly.

Last year, Essence expanded daytime activations beyond the Convention Center with their E-Suite, and this year added an additional ten new activations. The inaugural Fashion House was the destination for the sartorial set with trunk shows, pop-up shops and conversations with designers including Gucci’s Dapper Dan. There was the new Wellness House, where attendees could go work off the New Orleans fare or re-center themselves after facing the traffic that comes with 500,000 people via Trap Yoga, meditation and other offerings. There was also the first-time Black Global Economic Forum featuring conversations with CEOs and founders including Twitter’s Jack Dorsey.

The centerpiece, however, is still the music. Essence Festival was for years a must-play for Adult Urban artists and Black mega-stars like Prince, Janet Jackson, Luther Vandross, Anita Baker and Beyoncé, but the event has broadened the artist line-up over the last several years to reach beyond Gen X’ers and boomers and appeal to Black millennials. Performances on the main and Superlounge stages this year included the latest class of artists like 2019 best R&B album Grammy-winner H.E.R., Ro James, Teyana Taylor, City Girls and Ari Lennox.  The new Jam Africa Superlounge hosted a rotating showcase of Afrobeat artists. The weekend also now draws ancillary events geared towards younger music fans like Dusse-Palooza and Trap Karaoke.

Justice Baiden, 26-year-old co-founder of LVRN -- label home of next gen R&B artists 6lack and Summer Walker -- attended the festival for the first time this year. He came in part because Walker was performing at Spotify’s inaugural House of AreNBe, but also took the opportunity to observe as a creator, curator and executive. “I realize there’s a gap between the generation that’s the core Essence-goer and my generation, but I also feel like there are a lot of similarities. I wanted to see how we could bridge the gap.” He noted Essence’s efforts in doing so through their line-up, and the potential for additional growth. “You can tell they were very careful and purposeful with who they wanted there… I think bringing artists down (in the future) will be a goal, and activations. I want to do something from our (the millennial) perspective, but with support of the core Essence contingent.” His favorite part of the weekend? “Michelle Obama.”

There was still plenty for the grown-and-sexy crowd, however. Festival mainstay highlights included Missy Elliott’s return after a 2018 show-stopping guest set for a full headlining performance, Nas’s first Essence Fest performance in five years, and Mary J. Blige’s third headlining performance in a row. Hometown favorite and Grammy-winner P.J. Morton’s Friday night live-album recording, featuring guests JoJo, Luke James and BJ the Chicago Kid, hit capacity almost immediately with a line of fans backed up around the corner, as did Doug E. Fresh’s curated set including ‘80s greats Big Daddy Kane, Slick Rick, Biz Markie and El DeBarge. On the main stage, there was a welcome interruption in music programming for Michelle Obama to discuss her book Becoming with Gayle King. Essence also introduced the After Dark series, allowing an opportunity for those not willing (or able) to commit to the nightly concert ticket price to enjoy smaller, niche-genre shows.

As Essence broadens the musical range, the flow can be hit or miss. In recent years, the festival has grouped acts in supersets curated by key talent. When this goes well, like 2018’s Ladies First night curated by Queen Latifah, and its flawless Roots-led set featuring Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, Anthony Hamilton and more, it’s a treat. This year, Jermaine Dupri and Lil’ Jon executed one of the best moments of the weekend, battling each other hit for hit with the Ying Yang Twins, Crime Mob, Bone Crusher, Nelly and Da Brat.

But when it doesn’t gel, like New Jack Swing maestro Teddy Riley’s somewhat disjointed two-hour set -- which included a 30-minute Teyana Taylor performance better suited for the lounge, a weirdly-placed Wyclef performance, and a seemingly unrehearsed Timbaland performance -- it can be awkward. But there were bright moments in the set, namely Pharrell sharing stage with mentor Riley for the first time ever, marking his first Essence Fest appearance. P kept the audience on their feet and singing along for his entire performance (“Blurred Lines” is a favorite for the older Essence folks), and took time near the end of his performance to thank the crowd for their energy. “This is the essence of Essence,” he proclaimed. “Our beautiful DNA fills this room. You can feel it, you can see it, you can taste it, smell it.”

The beauty of the Essence Festival audience is that even when they’re underwhelmed, they show love. It’s a safe space for artists; a stadium crowd where the nostalgia factor will get acts through even if their performance level is far from peak. Where Bobby Brown can get a crowd to their feet even though his voice isn’t the same, he can’t hit his famous moves anymore, and he may ramble for several minutes on the mic. Where fans will wait until midnight for Frankie Beverly & Maze -- soul music’s version of the Grateful Dead -- knowing that Beverly has been plagued with throat issues for about a decade, and still two-step in unison throughout the somewhat brief set of hits, including hitting a 60,000-person electric slide during “Before I Let Go.”

For Black artists, the Essence Festival stage is a homecoming. “Essence Fest gives Mary an opportunity to reconnect with the fans that have been with her since the very beginning of her 27-year career,” added Ayars about the Saturday night headliner, celebrating her own 25-year milestone this year with the anniversary of her sophomore album My Life.  “Now that she’s also a film and TV star, Mary usually only performs her hits. But at Essence she can perform songs from her very first album, album cuts that never made it to radio, b-sides, remixes -- songs that only this fan base can connect with in this way. Her performance every year is like soul food for her, and the attendees.”

Recognizing that the weekend has grown from a powerhouse of Black entertainment to the annual epicenter of Black culture, Essence revealed a rebrand on Monday. CEO Michelle Ebanks announced the “ESSENCE Festival of Culture,” with “a mission to inform, inspire and uplift Black women and provide a holistic approach to how we offer and deliver Black culture in every way.” Days after the festival’s end, social media is still peppered with recap posts and “#Essencefest owes me nothing” captions. Stories of sister-friends met, made and reunited. Lives received. Tired bodies. Full and inspired hearts. That intimate connection -- the feeling of family and community -- is what keeps fans coming back year after year regardless of the entertainment line-up. If anything, we owe Essence a debt for creating a fulfilling, empowering, and unapologetic space for us to celebrate each our Blackness and each other -- and for doing it with Black women at the center.

Festivals 2019