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Essence Fest in New Orleans marks 25 years of celebrating black culture

Launched to mark the 25th anniversary of black-owned Essence magazine, the festival highlights excellence in business, fashion, entertainment and music.

H.E.R. is part of the Essence Festival, marking 25 years of celebrating black excellence in business, fashion. Here she’s seen performing April 14 at the Coachella Music & Arts Festival at the Empire Polo Club in Indio, California.
H.E.R. is part of the Essence Festival, marking 25 years of celebrating black excellence in business, fashion. Here she’s seen performing April 14 at the Coachella Music & Arts Festival at the Empire Polo Club in Indio, California.
AP

The Essence Festival, which draws thousands to New Orleans every Fourth of July week, is celebrating 25 years of bringing together African American women of all ages for thought-proving conversation and performances from top musical acts.

Launched to mark the 25th anniversary of black-owned Essence magazine, the festival has become a yearly celebration of excellence in business, fashion, entertainment and music.

It is a destination vacation for African American women, as showcased in the 2017 hit “Girls Trip.” The movie —which starred Regina Hall, Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett Smith and Tiffany Haddish — centered on four longtime friends reuniting at Essence.

The festival, running from the day after the Fourth through Sunday, has daytime activities and panel discussions held mainly at New Orleans’ convention center and nighttime music and concerts at the Superdome.

These are some of those who’ve made frequent appearances, plus a relatively new performer on what they like about the festival and why they return.

Mary J. Blige at the 2018 Essence Festival at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans.
Mary J. Blige at the 2018 Essence Festival at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans.
AP

MARY J. BLIGE

Blige, who has closed the show many times and was set to take the main stage Saturday, says this year’s edition is special because the festival marks 25 years and so does her album “My Life.”

”It’s one of the most important albums of my career,” Blige says.

Of the festival, she says: “People from all over the world and all walks of life flock to this big, black event. . . . It’s just phenomenal.”

H.E.R.

The singer-songwriter returns this year but moves to the main stage instead of the smaller venues in the Superdome’s cavernous halls.

H.E.R., whose real name is Gabriella Wilson, says: ”Essence is one of the places you go if you want [to] see all the beautiful black people from all over the world. It’s black excellence at its finest, literally. And having it in New Orleans is the best place because the food is crazy good!”

REV. AL SHARPTON

”Everywhere I go, people tell me, ‘I will see you at Essence,’ ” Sharpton says.

He says the festival has become the “central meeting place for black people — black women specifically.

”It’s a celebration of who we are and the diversity of us in terms of our talents and our gifts. It’s the perfect mix of entertainment and information.”

Sharpton says that when he “was on that first leadership panel at the first festival, I thought this was just a onetime thing.”

But it’s grown from a few exhibitions to a destination for Fortune 500 companies, top lecturers, business minds and CEOs.

”People plan their vacations and reunions around Essence,” Sharpton says.

Frankie Beverly performing with Maze at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in New Orleans in May.
Frankie Beverly performing with Maze at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in New Orleans in May.
AP

MAZE, FEATURING FRANKIE BEVERLY

For 15 years, Frankie Beverly and Maze closed the Essence Festival, until, in 2010, a new producer ended the tradition of Maze as the closer. In 2015, Beverly returned. On Sunday, the festival is set to pay tribute to Beverly with a performance by Anthony Hamilton.

Of the Essence Festival fans, an appreciative Beverly says, “They’ve loved us from the beginning.”

DONNIE McCLURKIN

Before festival-goers head home Sunday, many are expected to gather at the convention center for a gospel service. McClurkin, a pastor and singer whose songs include “We Fall Down,” has performed and hosted the service multiple times.

”It’s really devoted to us as African Americans, not just women, but to the black experience,” McClurkin says of the festival. ”It exposes us to people who may not have known us before and gives us an opportunity to minister to people from all walks of life.”