Over its 22 year history, Essence Fest, originally dubbed the “party with a purpose,” has evolved into so much more. The 4-day event kicked off to a crowd of eager attendees flooding the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center the moment the doors opened. The Convention Center hosted an array of speakers, vendors, singers, celebrities, giveaways and activations appropriate for the whole family. At night, an adult crowd descended on the Superdome for a full schedule of concerts on multiple stages that ran into the wee hours of the morning.
This year’s highlight was Oprah Winfrey, a late addition to the lineup. At her inaugural Essence appearance, she joined the panel to discuss Queen Sugar (a new TV program directed and produced alongside “Selma” director Ava DuVernay) as well as attended a star-studded cocktail reception in honor of the show. Oprah also delivered an inspiring keynote speech where she encouraged people to “live the dream.” She spoke on obedience and following your calling, adding, “You don’t get what you wish for; you don’t even get what you hope for; you get what you believe.” Her keynote appearance was slated for 4 p.m., but the Empowerment stage had filled to capacity two hours prior, so hundreds of fans waited outside the doors to catch even a glimpse of their icon.
The city of Houston made its presence felt in a big way at Essence. Houston resident and Stellar Award-winning gospel singer, Brian Courtney Wilson, sung during the Sunday inspiration lineup. Grammy Award-winner and HSPVA graduate, Robert Glasper, performed with his band on a Superlounge stage. Another Houstonian made quite a stir also. Irvin Randle, aka “Mr. Steal Your Grandma” sent female-attendees into a frenzy. The 54-year old man had gone viral on the internet days prior due to his age-defying physique and style. He commented how he’d attended Essence Fest before and no one knew him, so it felt good to be instantly recognized wherever he went. His Instagram page jumped from 300 likes to 134,000 in a matter of days and a photo posted on my own Instagram with him made it to the Essence.com home page and garnered more than 500 likes in a few hours as well as people all the way from Canada and Africa proclaiming their undying love for him.
Across the street from the Convention Center, popular DJs bumped sets to keep the crowd moving at Essence-hosted day parties at The Sugar Mill. The party continued on the Superdome stages as attendees were treated to a diverse lineup of R&B, rap and soul music. The main stage hosted acts such as Charlie Wilson, Mariah Carey, Common, Ciara, Kendrick Lamar and Maxwell. Puff Daddy closed out the Fest, inviting familiar faces such as Faith Evans, Mase and French Montana to join him during the Bad Boy sets. Lil’ Kim, who was slated to appear, cancelled due to an unspecified business conflict. Tyrese was also a no-show due to filming in another city. Despite borrowing a celebrity pal’s private jet to race to New Orleans, he didn’t arrive in time, but did make up for it with an event appearance the next day. Sidestage in the VIP lounge, a virtual who’s who of black Hollywood congregated to watch the concerts on TV monitors while food and cocktails flowed. Everyone from Solange to Tasha Smith to Keri Hilson were seen taking in the festivities.
Coca Cola remained the presenting sponsor of the Festival with a score of smaller sponsors coming together to make the hugeness of the event a success. It is literally impossible to attend everything the Festival has to offer, so attendees have to carefully plan out their days to gain the most from the experience. Essence Festival attendance in 2014 was the highest with more than half a million participants, but 2016 attendance still boasted more than 400,000 bringing in an estimated $200 million into the New Orleans community. A South African version of the festival is slated for November 2016. The Festival sold to Time Inc. just as the magazine had a decade prior, but the focus on black empowerment has remained intact. In addition to the music, food and fun, Essence also broached more serious topics such as police brutality and allowed the mothers of slain youth like Trayvon Martin to have a platform to speak. In a time where Black Americans seem to be gathering in mass numbers all to often to protest a senseless shooting or cry out to be heard, events like the Essence Festival where people are able to join in peace, positivity and purpose are critical. Empower Magazine was honored to be on the scene. See you next year Essence!