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.
- The 2016 Essence Festival attracted 450,000 people and had an economic impact of $200 million, Essence spokeswoman Dana Baxter said.
- The festival has been an annual event on New Orleans’ summertime calendar except in 2006, when it moved to Houston while the Superdome, like much of the city, was still recovering from Hurricane Katrina.
- The saxophonist Kenny G became the first white main-stage headliner to play the festival when he performed in 1997. He made a dramatic entrance, starting at the top of the plaza-level bleacher seats in the Superdome and playing his way across the arena floor to the stage.
- Tears flowed during the 1997 festival when Patti LaBelle sang “Wind Beneath My Wings” to a 5-year-old cancer patient.
- Beyonce made her Essence debut in 1998, when she was still part of the R&B trio Destiny’s Child. She returned as a solo artist in 2009 and 2013, performing before a sellout crowd each time. Her 2009 performance memorably included a tribute to Michael Jackson, who had died a week earlier.
- When the festival returned to New Orleans in 2007, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, who were competing for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, put in appearances. Neither sang.
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