by Anitra D. Brown

The 2019 Essence Festival attracted more than 500,000 attendees to New Orleans for its 25th anniversary celebration, representing one of the largest gatherings in the event’s history. It featured more than 100 performing artists across the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center; and more than 300 influencers, leaders, creators and celebrities participated in the Festival’s daytime experience.

“The 25th anniversary Essence Festival represented a truly transformative global homecoming celebration for Black women and the Black community,” said Essence Chief Executive Officer Michelle Ebanks. “This year’s extraordinary turnout reflects ESSENCE’s uniquely powerful engagement of Black women around personal empowerment, community, and culture as only Essence can. With the debut of 10 new Festival experiences, activations at more than 40 venues across New Orleans, and engagement with more than 300 small businesses and local vendors, we have redefined the Festival as the largest and most impactful destination at the epicenter of Black culture.”

But the best thing about the 25th Essence Festival was that it was so New Orleans! While the name of the Essence Fest has officially been changed to the Essence Festival of Culture; the 25th Essence Festival will be known as the Most New Orleans Essence Fest Ever.

And we loved it!

From the big name stars born and raised in the city to local talent and entertainers that graced stages to the use of local venues (outside of the CBD) for both official and unofficial events throughout the weekend, the 25th Essence Festival celebrated New Orleans in a big way.

Essence Festival started off so New Orleans when it held its opening press conference Thursday in Central City at Ashe Cultural Arts Center on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard. It was a move that certainly brought attention to both the historic thoroughfare and the long-time community and cultural center whose very presence is responsible for helping to revitalize the area.

Essence in the Park, also held Thursday, July 4, was a super soulful treat that featured the right mix of local and national acts while also providing another event for locals and visitors to enjoy music and the culture of Essence  without a ticket. What was so New Orleans and so cultural was that this party took place on the edge of Tremé in Louis Armstrong Park, the home of Congo Square—the only place enslaved and free Blacks were able to legally gather in the early 1800s to continue the practice that began a century earlier of congregating on Sundays to preserve and celebrate their African traditions through music, dance and culture. 

It just felt right.  Really, who does an outdoor music festival better than New Orleans? And we’ve been doing them for a long time—nearly 300 years, to be exact (remember what you just read about Congo Square).

Also, a big thumbs up goes to Activate, Global Citizen, Color Of Change, Imagine Justice and others for collaborating with Studio BE to bring rapper, actor and activist Common’s Let Love Have the Last Word book signing to the Marigny studio. Though not an official Essence Festival event, it fit right in with the purposeful party. In addition to the book signing, The Let Love BE activation included a timely panel discussion on criminal justice reform—an issue around which the activist rapper often rallies. 

And for those who don’t know, Studio BE was an old, vacant warehouse on Royal Street that local artist Brandan “BMike” Odums has transformed into a studio that showcases spray painted murals, portraits and street art. It is a must-see for any visitor that wants to experience the city through the eyes of locals.

To be sure, for its 25th anniversary, Essence was all over New Orleans and New Orleans was all over Essence. New Orleans natives figured prominently throughout the weekend at both the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center during the day and at the Super Dome at night.

Director, producer, actor Tyler Perry and hip-hop mogul Master P, both world-famous New Orleans natives, thrilled crowds when they took their respective turns at center stage in the Convention Center Sunday, sharing updates about what fans can expect next from them.  

On Friday night, New Orleans native P.J. Morton appeared in the Playlist Superlounge.  After his set, he shared with media in the Essence Fest pressroom that it was after returning to his hometown that he really reconnected with his love for music. And when this NOLA native needed a venue for the  daytime party he hosted during Essence Fest at Le Musee de f.p.c., a local house museum that celebrates the legacy of free people of color.

And it could not get more New Orleans than when the St. Augustine Marching 100 took the main stage Sunday night with Dougie Fresh during the set curated by super-producer Teddy Riley. That was the same night that Big Freedia and Mannie Fresh backed that thang up and then dropped it like it was hot in the NOLA Session as the first main stage act of the evening. You already know!

While those locals were working the main stage, New Orleans native Dawn, who has experienced success as part of Danity Kane and as a solo artist, was completely elated to do her thing in the Playlist Superlounge. Her set included an appearance by the Washitaw Nation, one of the city’s Black Indian Tribe to which she has family ties.

While Dawn earned her spot in the Playlist Superlounge as winner of the NOLA Showcase contest, she got her first big break in 2007 when she was selected to star in Sean “P-Diddy” Comb’s “Making the Band”, a reality television show that resulted in the formation of the all-girl group Danity Kane. Dawn, who is now an independent artist, admits that there were some who tried to dissuade her from taking part in the NOLA Showcase competition because she is already a recording artist.

“Everybody was like don’t do it. You have already been in this game. But I am always going to try,” she said, adding that she was especially driven to get a spot at Essence because she has never been able to book a big show in her hometown despite her success across the nation and abroad.

“I have sold out shows all over,” she said while speaking to media in the Essence Fest pressroom shortly after her show. “But I have never been able to book my own market.”

A 9th Ward native, the mononymic Dawn was born Dawn Richard (pronounced Ree-shard). Now, you know that’s so New Orleans. Her father is New Orleans native Frank Richard, percussionist and lead singer of 70s funk band Chocolate Milk, which also worked as a studio and live backing band for Allen Toussaint. With all that New Orleans running through her veins, Dawn was overjoyed by the opportunity to perform for a crowd in her hometown.

As for making her superlounge show a big production that included New Orleans’ Black Indians, Dawn makes its clear that she wanted to showcase her city and its people.

“I wanted everyone with me,” she said. “If I am going to do it, I am going to represent the city the right way—or not at all.”

Like Dawn, the 25th Essence Festival also represented New Orleans—the right way!

Indeed, the list of singers and entertainers with New Orleans roots that put on for their city, whether at Essence in the Park, the Convention Center, the Mercedes Benz Superdome or at any of the Essence After Dark venues during the 25th Essence Festival, goes on and on—Bamboula 2000, Ledisi, Luke James, Bishop Lester Love, Chef Kevin Belton, Tonya Boyd Cannon, Pastor Debra Morton, DJ Raj Smoove, political strategist, consultant and author Donna Brazile, Erica Falls, Mia X, Mayor LaToya Cantrell, former Mayor and President & CEO of the National Urban League Marc Morial, business owner and social media influencer Ranell “SupaCent” Steward, news anchor Sheba Turk, The Soul Rebels, The Stooges Brass Band, Wild Wayne and so many others.

R&B singer and New Orleans native Lucky Daye appeared briefly on center stage Sunday afternoon at the Convention Center before hitting the Golden Era Superlounge for his set Sunday night. When asked about how he felt and what it is like to perform at Essence, the Keep Kool-RCA Records artist simply said, “I am at home . . . this city built me.” 

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