Essence Festival becomes holiday mecca, political draw for women

This month's issue of Essence features Michelle Obama, coinciding with the publication's annual mega festival in New Orleans, expected to draw over 500,000 people.
This month’s issue of Essence features Michelle Obama, coinciding with the publication’s annual mega festival in New Orleans, expected to draw over 500,000 people.

Twenty years ago, the editors of Essence Magazine had a simple idea — commemorating the magazine’s quarter century of publication with a music festival in New Orleans.

But the magazine that had become a showcase and guidebook for millions of black women couldn’t just offer music.

“In order to make it Essence, they needed to have programming that was free and accessible to everyone because Essence was about community effort, so they couldn’t just come to town and have a party,” said Michelle Ebanks, president of Essence Communications, recalling those early planning days. “They decided to take on this space in the daytime and offer empowerment programs to the community and that became something that hadn’t existed. Concerts were everywhere, but empowerment programs hadn’t been married to a concert. It was designed as a one-time event but it was so well-received and well-attended it became annual.”

Back in 1994, 150,000 people showed up.

This year, the festival, which generated $231 million in revenue for Louisiana last year, is set to break records with well over 500,000 attendees streaming through the panels during the day and the concerts at night.  Among the speakers: Steve Harvey, Robin Roberts, Bishop TD Jakes, Iyanla Vanzant and Rev. Al Sharpton, who has attended every festival over the last 20 years.

The messages and discussions will be familiar to any Essence reader, which tackles hard and soft topics on any given issue from gun violence to wealth accumulation, dating tips and empowering young women through education.

“Sometimes we are talking about things that are going on in the community — a threat to voting rights and other issues that are of concern to us — and we are able to bring the community together and bring thought leaders together,” said Vanessa Bush, the Essence editor-in-chief. “But it is about coming up with solutions, not just what’s wrong.”

The four-day event, which kicked off Thursday and runs through Sunday, is the largest live event in the country, with attendance that is six times the size of  Coachella and seven times that of SXSW.  Some 80 artists will take to the stages, among them Erykah Badu, Nas, Lionel Richie, Jill Scott, Mary J. Blige, and Prince, who was on Essence’s June cover.

“Prince is curating the entire Friday concert,” Ebanks said. “He will be there all night and there is great anticipation. That is going to be huge.”

Expect #EssenceFest to be a trending topic all weekend in your Twitter feed. And some of the daytime programming will air on MSNBC, with hosts Melissa Harris Perry, Joy-Ann Reid and Al Sharpton broadcasting from the festival and Essence.com broadcasting a livestream. (Sorry, but Prince won’t be on the livestream!)

It is the promise of that kind of platform, exposure and audience that draws politicians, pop stars and preachers to the festival every year, highlighting the power of primarily black women as an economic and political force.

“Our panelists will talk about the upcoming elections and will certainly be raising the issue of the dearth of women of color that are running and encouraging people to get out there and vote and run,” Bush said.  “Seeing the examples of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake [of Baltimore] and Mayor Aja Brown [of Compton] … that kind of exposure does so much.”

And for Essence, the festival continues to be a brand reinforcer and multiplier, connecting a new generation of readers with a publication that has chronicled the lives of black women for over four decades.

“African-American women are truly unique in this culture. We face a double disparity of race and gender, but arguably there is a triple disparity about images of African-American women. When you are dealing with these three fronts of challenges, then black women turn to black women,” Ebanks said. “This is such a powerful idea and having multiple ways to approach it elevates the overall idea.  The festival really is the magazine come to life.”

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