Essence This Time: A Festival Evolving

Jul 12, 2016

Headliners at the Essence Festival, which marked its 22nd Fourth of July weekend in New Orleans earlier this month, play in the middle of the Superdome, a cavernous arena that, as configured for the fest, seats about 50,000. Up on the stadium's plaza level, a cozier, less formal kind of show takes place. Four multipurpose party rooms deemed Superlounges, which each fit about 1,200 fans, serve as secondary stages. It's where you'll see something chill, like Robert Glasper's weird and hazy cover of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" this year; something old-school, like Morris Day and The Time's wild and loose dance party in 2011; or something slightly outside the lines, like Janelle Monae's Wondaland camp and their raucous 2013 takeover, a splatter of cosmic funk-rock n'roll that brought Stooges-level punk insanity to a festival whose defining sound is, by and large, smooth and sophisticated R&B for the grown-folks contingent.

The lounges are also where you see the factors that have made Essence such a cultural touchstone that there's a whole movie — the Queen Latifah/Jada Pinkett Smith buddy flick Girl Trip, due out in summer 2017 and filmed in part at this year's fest — based around a group of friends going to Essence together. In 2012, my seventh year of attending every night of the festival for either the New Orleans alt-weekly, Gambit, or the state's biggest daily, the Times-Picayune, I saw a reunited SWV in a jam-packed Superlounge. Groups of women, and it was at least 90% women in there — cousins, sorority sisters, old friends — were singing along with every word, closing their eyes and shaking their heads with feeling, even weeping a little bit with their arms around each other. It was a special kind of intimate bonding in action, the kind that comes from seeing the music you love the most, live, in the company of people you love.

Back in 1995, the magazine Essence threw a party to celebrate its 25th anniversary. The men who put it together — the publication's co-founder Edward Lewis and George Wein, who had essentially invented the large-scale American music festival 40 years prior with the Newport Jazz Festival — meant it to be a one-off. That party became instead an annual event, a three-day affair that this year attracted, as reported by the festival, over 450,000 people, about 25,000 more than bought tickets to the city's flagship seven-day Jazz and Heritage Festival in the spring. Two years ago, when the festival was celebrating its 20th anniversary and had Prince headlining, 550,000 people came out. Tourism leaders estimate the festival's economic impact at about $200 million, about $60 million more, as reported by the Chicago Tribune, than Lollapalooza attendees generated in that city last year and nearly four times as much, according to a 2012 study, as Bonnaroo's impact on Coffee County, Tennessee.

Over the years the Essence festival has been put on — a full generation — a lot has, necessarily, changed (and a lot hasn't, too) with regard to the festival's music, its audience, its relationship to its host city and to the culture at large. In 2012, it changed its name from Essence Music Festival to Essence Festival, which didn't diminish the emphasis on music or alter anybody's habit of referring to the weekend with just one word. Beyonce got top billing that year, achieving one of the fest's rare sell-outs at the massively capacious Dome. But from its advent, the festival, reportedly the largest annual African-American gathering in the U.S. and subtitled "The Party with a Purpose," has been about more than musical performances. Even in its first year Rev. Jesse Jackson, Cornel West and Johnnie Cochran were among the speakers. In 2007, both contenders for the Democratic party's nomination, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, showed up. (Obama endorsed the O'Jays, who were playing the Dome that year.) This year there was no active campaigning, although there were several senior-level Obama administration officials and a few mayors on the docket — not to mention Oprah, making, surprisingly, her very first Essence Fest appearance.

The purpose part of Essence takes place during the day, free and open to the public, at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. The program is stacked with heavy hitters: besides Oprah, this year delivered Soledad O'Brien interviewing both Tyra Banks and Misty Copeland (who reminisced about her friendship with Prince) the mothers of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, novelist Terry McMillan, Rev. Al Sharpton, Melissa Harris-Perry and Ava Duvernay, among others. There were special screenings of the new Lethal Weapon series, The Secret Life of Pets and Fox Searchlight Pictures' The Birth of A Nation, with appearances from cast members. There were workshops and presentations on beauty and fashion — including an appearance from Michelle Obama's hairstylist — career and finance strategies, and spirituality. On Sunday, the schedule was stacked with faith-based events: gospel performances all day, a morning prayer vigil and a lunchtime blessing from Bishop Lester Love.

All of this action takes place amid a heady aura of consumerism. Essence's corporate sponsors are significant — McDonald's, Ford, Walmart and Coca-Cola, the presenting sponsor of the festival — and they have large footprints both in the Dome where, unlike any other music festival that readily comes to mind, commercials run incessantly between acts, and on the Convention Center floor. McDonald's gold, Coke red and Walmart blue dominate the center of the big room. You have to drift to the perimeter to find a different kind of marketplace.

Gina Montana, the director of the Shops at Essence, started working for the festival as an administrative assistant in its first year, when it was helmed by Wein's production company and staffers from Jazz Fest, which is run by his Festival Productions, Inc., were hired to do double duty on the two shows. A single mother and masking Mardi Gras Indian queen, Montana was the kind of entrepreneurial, culturally engaged African-American woman that the Essence brand orients itself toward. She threw herself into developing and managing the festival's curated artists' bazaar, then called the African-Caribbean Marketplace and housed in one of the lounges at the Dome. Today, she manages all of the logistics involved with the 170 individual ten-by-ten booths that make up the Shops' jewelry, clothing, art and crafts vendors, as well as the 48 Community Corner tables that house health and wellness, political, cultural and educational organizations from the Innocence Project to the Greater Than AIDS campaign — which this year had a wraparound line for free HIV testing — to the nonprofit arm of the historic jazz venue Preservation Hall. ("I use Excel a lot," she says.)

In her office off the Convention Center floor, Montana's radio is always humming. Her daughter, 27-year-old Jahia — who's helped Gina out with Essence duties "since she was 10 years old, licking envelopes with me on the living room floor" and is now a festival PA — is checking in with a vendor who needs assistance. Another production staffer is looking for golf carts to transport talent. Montana is proud of the balance between the big brands and the independent artisans she tends to in the Shops, which include Louisiana folk artists like basket-weaver Savannah Lewis as well as mixed-media artist Walter Lobyn Hamilton, whose portraits made with pieces of vinyl records have been featured on the show Empire. For the first time this year, Mardi Gras Indians displayed beaded and feathered suits in a fine arts context at the Shops; AJ Haynes, the lead singer of the Seratones, a Shreveport, La.-based garage-blues band that played a fuzzed-out Sunday-afternoon set at the Convention Center, posted a photo of herself at the Indians' booth on Instagram.

The greater marketplace of New Orleans depends heavily on events like Essence. In its tourism-driven economy, the calendar seems to turn festival to festival, with huge waves of activity ebbing and flowing on a predictable schedule: Halloween, Mardi Gras, Jazz Fest, and so on. During each high season or hot weekend bars, restaurants, hotels and clubs meet the crowds with special programming, and Essence is, in part, no exception. Over this past Fourth of July weekend, there were pop-up fashion markets, day parties and late-night afterparties with homegrown stars like Mystikal and Mannie Fresh. On festival days Poydras Street, a wide artery that runs through the Central Business District toward the Superdome, became an open-air marketplace, with vendors hawking wares from dollar bottles of water out of coolers to T-shirts, artwork and full fish and shrimp dinners.

Also on Poydras Street, about four blocks from the Superdome, is a branch of the chain sports bar Walk-On's, which was closed for the weekend. A photo of a sign on the bar's locked doors went locally viral on social media with the hashtag #closedforessence. Scrolling back, readers could see that the hashtag had been used in previous years; it referred to the pervasive suspicion that some businesses shut their doors during Essence to avoid serving its largely African-American audience, or stayed open but added an automatic tip to checks. Walk-On's, apparently mortified by the accusation, shared photos online showing its floors, soaked by a backed-up sewage pipe, and urged Essence guests to visit its two sister locations on the same block. But #closedforessence picked up speed on social media, as users shared photos of businesses that were shuttered or had posted signs announcing that they'd be charging the included gratuity.

"This is nothing new — I started noticing it years ago," said Melissa Weber, better known as the popular radio and club DJ Soul Sister, during a phone call a few days before the festival. "When you close on purpose when thousands of people of color are coming to town, that sends a very direct message."

Some business owners fired back, many claiming that even in the busy French Quarter or close to the Superdome, the holiday weekend was a slow one. New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu gave a careful statement to the local NBC affiliate WDSU on Sunday: "For those establishments that planned to close for this weekend to perform renovations or provide their staff the holiday off is understandable, but a major missed opportunity," he said. "But for those that do not want to serve our visitors during Essence is absolutely outrageous and totally unacceptable."

When Sonali Fernando, a graduate of Loyola University in New Orleans' music-business studies program and a former restaurant owner, got a job at the Ace Hotel just off of Poydras Street, Essence was on her mind. The new branch of the chain, whose eight other locations regularly book live music, speakers and readings, opened its doors here in March, right as New Orleans' spring and summer run of music festivals began. As the hotel's cultural engineer, a sort of overarching curatorial position, she had ideas about showcasing the complexity of the city's heritage. For Essence, she booked PJ Morton, the rising singer-songwriter Moses Sumney and the funk trombonist Corey Henry, plus a special reception for Issa Rae's new HBO series Insecure, hosted by Solange.

"We want to do programming that's diverse, that's inclusive and that's the best of what is out there," she said. "The hotel is a meeting place. It's a very old-school idea in that way, and it's a way to show visitors another part of New Orleans culture."

The Ace's July Fourth weekend of shows and parties is a rebuke, intentional or not, of #closedforessence, offering the kind of piggybacking welcome and extra fun that is how most upscale hospitality businesses in town respond to a perceived market during events that aren't anywhere near Essence's size. For New Orleans tourists in general, who arguably come to the city expecting to experience a particular version of the city's African and Caribbean heritage — traditional jazz, Creole cuisine — it's a fresh perspective, and one that seems to speak to Essence's next generation, which festival bookers (FPI, the original producers of Essence and still the producers of Jazz Fest, ceased booking Essence in 2008; another New Orleans-based company, Solomon Group, has been running the show since 2013) seem to be deliberately working to cultivate.

Essence the festival has always stuck admirably to the brand of Essence the magazine, which is, after all, a general-interest publication for black women. Beyond the depth and breadth of the programming (and the shopping) at the Convention Center, it has also adhered to that brand mission on its stages; each year, close to half of the booked talent is female, a nearly unprecedented ratio for a major music festival. There's also a certain conservatism to it. There are the aspirational, self-improvement fueled workshops, and the overt Christianity of its spiritual side. Famously, one year R. Kelly was blocked from bringing a risqué stage show involving a bed to the Dome. Hip-hop, traditionally, is booked sparingly. It's the kind of place you can go with your mom, and lots of people do — including Gina Montana, who brought both her co-worker/daughter Jahia and her 74-year-old mother to hear the Gap Band's Charlie Wilson on Saturday night, and The Internet's Syd Tha Kid, who is only two years older than the Essence Fest itself, and who greeted her own mom, in the audience, from the Superlounge stage.

Twenty-odd years is a long time to do anything. In popular music time, it seems even longer. Acts that were on the come up in 1995 are now veterans, like Mary J. Blige, who got an 8 p.m. opening set at the inaugural Essence and returned frequently over the years, working her way up the bill until she topped it. Return performances like that contribute to Essence's familial feeling, and the biggest perennial of all was Frankie Beverly and Maze, who closed the festival for its first 15 years and whose absence, in 2010, when they weren't asked back for their traditional Sunday-night slot, prompted a sizable protest.

Essence isn't necessarily ignoring rising and/or newly-risen acts. Spellbinding retro belter Andra Day, returning for her second Essence, deservedly made the jump from the lounges to the main stage. Estelle, who's played several Essences, got to curate her own lounge, resulting in a delightfully cheeky show from bouncy London MC Lady Leshurr. Packed Superlounges for The Internet, Kehlani, Dej Loaf and Jidenna, who gave probably the most explosive performance of the weekend, indicated that the festival is succeeding at drawing young audiences to see acts that are popular right now.

But nostalgia is still a huge part of Essence. Charlie Wilson has ably repped the Maze generation for the past several years, putting on a glittery, sweaty display of old-school showmanship and flash. Even Prince, headlining in 2014, played a surprisingly catholic set of hits. Hip-hop has asserted itself on Essence's bill more in recent years, but with few exceptions, it's via acts that emerged before the festival did, like oft-returning performers MC Lyte and Doug E. Fresh. In 2016, two decades in, the question becomes whose nostalgia is it? Soul Sister, who served as Essence's mainstage DJ for three years, focuses her all-vinyl radio show and club night on music made around the time she was born — disco, funk, soul and go-go. The old-school headliners of Essence's early years were right up her alley: Gladys Knight and Luther Vandross and, of course, Maze, already a legacy act in 1995, 15 years after its classic Live in New Orleans. Now, Maze is still a regular in New Orleans, but at the daytime Jazz and Heritage Festival, where the headliners end their sets at 7 p.m. on the dot.

"Today, the '90s stuff is considered old-school," Soul Sister said. "They still haven't solved the grand finale problem. Nobody can cross all ages and genders like Maze did, and make everybody dance."

The 2016 headliners were, in order, Maxwell, Mariah Carey and a version of Puff Daddy's Bad Boy Family Reunion, which goes on tour in August: a '90s sampler platter. Maxwell smoldered through Prince's "Nothing Compares 2 U," as he did the weekend prior at the BET Awards. Carey, who is now used to a regular Vegas stage, was cheerfully awkward in the unfamiliar setting.

And of course, there was the penultimate headliner of this year's closing night, Kendrick Lamar. Lamar closed out Essence last year, just a couple of months after releasing the chart-topping To Pimp A Butterfly and only about a week after the premiere of the extraordinary video for his single "Alright," a song that had been quickly embraced as an anthem by young people politicized by convulsions of racial injustice and police violence in America. Yet as his set went on past midnight that Sunday, the trickle of fans leaving the Dome turned into a flood. The show was electric, but the final set had, in the post-Maze years, become a challenging one — a late night after a long, long weekend with flights to catch the next day. Sunday-night attrition tended to afflict everyone, so it was nice this year to see Lamar in the second-to-last slot, feeding off of a still-packed and pumped-up room.

But when Puff Daddy hit the stage solo after 11 p.m., it only escalated, the crowd intact and singing along to 15- and 20-year-old songs, all the way up to an emotional group performance — complete with a choir — of "I'll Be Missing You." Standing up in their seats, groups of women were swaying and singing together. 22 years into Essence, the festival is in its groove again — the new old school. Everybody danced.

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