Essence Festival, Then and Now
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The Times-Picayune is marking the tricentennial of New Orleans with its ongoing 300 for 300 project, running through 2018 and highlighting the moments and people that connect and inspire us. Today, the series continues with 1995’s inaugural Essence Festival.
THEN: Initially, the Essence Festival was designed to be a one-time salute to Essence magazine on its 25th anniversary of serving an audience primarily comprising African-American women. From a tourism standpoint, the event, scheduled during the Independence Day weekend, was designed to energize what is traditionally a slow season. But 142,000 people showed up to hear powerhouse performers like Aretha Franklin and B.B. King. Just like that, it became an annual event.
NOW: The 2017 edition of the festival — which, with empowerment seminars complimenting the concerts, bills itself as “the party with a purpose” — is scheduled to run from June 29 through July 2. Concerts in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome will feature such stars as Diana Ross, John Legend, Mary J. Blige, Chance the Rapper, Jill Scott, and Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue. There will also be free daytime seminars at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center with a lineup including U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif.; filmmaker Ava DuVernay, the creator of the locally shot OWN series “Queen Sugar“; and the Rev. Al Sharpton, the noted civil rights activist and political commentator.
From the beginning, the Essence Festival was designed to do more than offer blockbuster entertainment. One of its original missions was to give back to the community through free seminars designed to enrich women’s lives, said Susan Taylor, the magazine’s editor in chief when the festival began. The relationship has proved strong: Essence Communications signed a contract in 2014 to keep the festival in New Orleans through 2019. But in an interview before that year’s festival, Michelle Ebanks, the company’s president, said New Orleans is pretty much the festival’s permanent home.
By John Pope, contributing writer
Sources: Staff research, www.essence.com