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For the last 18 years, the Essence Music Festival has been the go-to event for African-Americans, especially African-American women. For three days in New Orleans, hundreds of thousands show up for R&B and gospel concerts and panels on politics, financial planning and parenting.
If it's a party, as creator George Wein describes it, it's a party with a purpose.
"New Orleans is a party city and they party," Wein says. "People party here. If you go to the hotels — 40-floor hotels — [there's] like 40 floors of parties."
Wein also started the Newport Jazz and Folk Festivals as well as the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, but he says that starting to plan a festival that would take place in New Orleans in the middle of the summer of 1995 was a big risk.
"Everybody thought we were crazy," he says. "I said, 'No, no, no, no. The people that'll come to the Essence Festival, they'll come from Georgia, they'll come from Mississippi, they'll come from Texas, they'll come from Baltimore.' It's just as hot there as it is in New Orleans. And we'll have a beautiful air-conditioned Superdome."
Not everyone thought he was crazy. Ed Lewis, then the publisher of Essence Magazine, had been looking for a way to celebrate the 25th anniversary of his magazine. He wanted something to appeal to his target demographic — African-American women. That first year, 140,000 people showed up. Last year, more than 400,000 did. In 2006, following Hurricane Katrina, the festival missed a year in the Superdome, but it returned in 2007.
"I don't know that any R&B stars could fill this arena by themselves," says Lolis Elie, a writer from New Orleans who has been to Essence many times, "but by having all these people together it's that much more attractive to fans and also it's that much more attractive to these people who can get to play in front of this huge audience, even though they themselves might not be able to sell 50 or 60,000 tickets."
That's one reason stars like D'Angelo, who played his first big show in the U.S. in more than a decade here on Friday night, choose to make comebacks at Essence. D'Angelo, still best known for the video for his 2000 single "Untitled (How Does It Feel)," in which he appears naked from the pelvis up (and dangerously close to more than that), is now trying to distance himself from that image.
That's just the way Essence likes it, Wein says. He remembers Susan Taylor, the long-time editor-in-chief of the magazine that lends the festival its name, insisting on keeping things clean. In its early years, producers dropped the curtain on Bobby Brown and cut short a performance by R. Kelly.
"These are not kids that come to the Essence Festival," Wein says. "These are adults! This music was part of their life. I always say the difference between a rhythm and blues African-American festival as opposed to a rock, pop, young white kid audience — the rock, pop festivals are an escapism for young kids who come from middle class and upper middle class families and can afford $150 tickets for a weekend to a big festival. For African-Americans, the music is a reflection of their life. It's not an escapism, it's an understanding of their own life and their own trials and tribulations and their own blues that they've had. And so it's a totally different experience."
That's why Essence calls itself "the party with a purpose," and why, a few blocks from the Superdome, at the New Orleans Convention Center, the magazine offers panels on education and relationships. On Sunday afternoon, the stage is devoted to prominent gospel performers. Little kids and their grandparents show up. Everyone's wearing flats, not stilettos.
Bringing all these people out is very good business for Essence, its corporate sponsors and the musicians who play the festival. It's good for the city's coffers, too. The hotels are jammed. There are lines out the door at guidebook restaurants. Every cab company in town works overtime. That's important for more than just monetary reasons, says Lolis Elie.
"Another thing that I think Essence is doing, which is unparalleled in terms of New Orleans commercial history, is bringing a lot of black tourists here," he says. "If you go to the JazzFest, you go to the Carnival events, you don't see as many black tourists as you do at Essence, obviously. And it's important, to me, that the city and its wonders be introduced to a larger black audience."
Essence is changing as it grows. Until recently, the festival always closed with a performance by '70s stars Frankie Beverly and Maze, dressed all in white. Now R&B singer Mary J. Blige is the perennial. She pulls in a somewhat younger audience.
"Most people who've been listening to Mary probably have been listening to Mary since they were, like, teenagers," says Binita Naylor, who made the trip to the festival from Detroit. "And so, when she starts singing her old songs, the crowd just sings along with her. They can really get into the show because we know her music, we grew up on her music. And we kind of grew up with her. For me, when I was younger she was singing about songs — things that I was going through when I was younger. And as I got older, and married — she's married too — she started singing about more things too that I was dealing with as an adult."
At Essence, many brands are competing for Naylor's attention. "You see a wide, diverse range of people of color. So it's a phenomenal experience," says Keshia Walker,the president and CEO of Insights Marketing. Walker, who has been putting on events during Essence for all of its 18 years, says Essence's audience belongs to a community that runs on word of mouth and referrals — and if they like your product, you're golden.
"I've been to every continent except for Antarctica, and there's nothing like it," Walker says. "Nothing."
Nothing like it. Until next July.
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