“You’re going to Essence Festival?!” “Who’s performing this year?”
Upon sharing with family, friends, and colleagues my last-minute plans to attend Essence Festival 2017, I became bombarded with questions about this year’s lineup. Who’s headlining? Which new artists are taking the stage in the Superlounge? Who’ll put on the best show? The only way to truly feel prepared was to head to Essence.com to see what exactly I’d be in for when I stepped foot in the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center and Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The lineup was impressive: Diana Ross, John Legend, Mary J. Blige, Jill Scott, Solange, Chance the Rapper…the list trailed down the webpage. It was a bit overwhelming; surely, I’d need more time to develop a plan of action. After all, it was my first trip to the famous Essence Festival, so my bucket list was a mile long.
Notorious for taking over New Orleans, Louisiana each 4th of July weekend, Essence Fest showcases raw talent from both respected legends and budding artists alike. Launching in 1995 in celebration of Essence Magazine’s 25th anniversary, the “party with a purpose” has arguably become a staple in the black community as men and women across the nation convene to celebrate black culture through music and the arts. And while conversations about the festival center on entertainment, what you’ll learn upon arriving in the Big Easy is that music is but a fraction of what the iconic event has to offer.
A newbie to the weekend, I downloaded the event app to have a roadmap of sorts as I navigated the next three days. Initially, I’d assumed the entire weekend would take place in the Superdome, but after doing a little digging, I quickly learned that the bulk of the festival—from the Beauty & Style Expo to “Essence Eats,” which features dozens of local food vendors—would take place in the convention center. Naturally, I made plans to kick off the festival exploring the vendor booths that collectively spanned hundreds of thousands of square feet.
What was most captivating, however, weren’t the free products, samples, or larger-than-life interactive booths from brands like McDonald’s and Coca-Cola. It wasn’t the free styling and beauty tips offered from the most notable brands in haircare, nor was it the food provided by mom and pop restaurants, though each item offered an authentic taste of New Orleans. What drew me in further each day, making me an advocate of Essence Festival for years to come, was the overwhelming sense of pride brought on by the moments left out of general Essence Fest conversations.
Path to Power, the Entrepreneurship and Business Conference, was free with festival registration and explored ways to launch, grow, and revolutionize small businesses. With over 40 sessions, interviews, and panel discussions with industry leaders, Path to Power was a one-stop-shop for businessmen and women looking to advance professionally through shared information and networking opportunities. Immediately, I beamed with excitement at the chance to attend a conference and concert in the same weekend. Thanks to the app, I was able to set reminders for each session that piqued my interest, so I hopped seamlessly from room to room right on schedule.
First was an interview on How to Be an Idea Machine with Writer and Producer Mara Brock Akil. She delved into the importance of building a foundation for yourself and your craft, and understanding specific access points into your field. The discussion that resonated most was the power of saying “no” in an effort to fight for your work’s integrity. “Being the ‘only’ or ‘different’ in an industry is their problem—not yours,” she exclaimed. There lies incredible power in the word “no,” especially to those who deem themselves more knowledgeable or superior because you may be the “only” or “different.” “Someone else’s devaluation of you and what you do does not determine your value,” she asserted.
Akil concluded with advice on building a family-based legacy: give each member the space to discover and identify their strengths, and then tap into each unique talent in a way that carries on the vision. She also advised the audience to take the pressure off family members to support their career path, especially those paths deemed “unconventional.”
“You might be the pioneer in your family,” she warns. “Forgive them for not supporting you, and create a space for peace, awakening, and eventually, understanding.”
While Akil’s session discussed the foundation of a business, the next touched on accessing capital to expand that business.
The U.S. Black Chamber hosted an informative panel discussion made up of financiers that helped the audience identify alternative sources of capital. Whether using mission-driven lenders like crowdfunding sites and micro-lenders or going the traditional route, the panelists explained that the making of a successful start-up begins with financial planning and preparing for scalable growth. Just like Akil’s discussion, the Chamber’s session ended with the importance of building a tribe of like-minded people who can further your company’s mission.
Perhaps the most moving session of them all took place on Saturday morning. Initially, the plan was to attend Master P’s session on building generational wealth. A session on passing wealth from one generation to another? At a festival celebrating black culture? The idea alone filled me with pride. The African American community holds the strongest buying power of any group in this nation, so naturally, our discussions often turn to putting our dollar back into our community. But not often do we hear about keeping the black-owned business in the family for generations. Whether through passing a successful business to your children and grandchildren or instilling values and ideals that serve as a blueprint for prosperity, it’s imperative that the black community invests in opportunities to create and pass down wealth. Before learning that this session was rescheduled for late-afternoon, I was sold.
Where I ended up instead was just as empowering. Across the convention center was the Woke Women Awards, a ceremony honoring female activists who have devoted their life, voice, and talents to continuing the fight against social injustice. Already beaming with pride at the way Essence prioritized building up black communities through financial
literacy and entrepreneurship training, I grew full of emotion at the way they so seamlessly rounded out the black experience. It’s not just about black dollars and black business, but it’s also about preserving black lives. Writer, director, and activist Ava DuVernay and Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors have devoted their lives and their craft to the fight for equality, sparking worldwide discussions on injustices faced by blacks across the world. Sitting front row as these queens received Woke Women awards for their work that spans multiple platforms was not only awe-inspiring, but totally unexpected at a festival most known for their headliners and performers. To be in this room felt like an honor, like I was in on a best-kept secret.
To follow-up the Woke Awards, I made my way back to the main halls to visit booths of incredible black artists and clothiers who celebrated our culture through art, music, clothes, and jewelry. Again, I was overcome with an immense sense of pride; there we were at the iconic Essence Festival, celebrating the totality of the black experience—mind, body, soul, and spirit. Every booth, conversation, and interaction was completely immersed in black excellence and the sense of unity needed to propel black Americans even further.
And then there were concerts.