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16 Jul, 2024
New Orleans’ Essence Festival, Now in Its 30th Year, Continues to ‘Nourish the Soul’ of Black Women
7 mins read

New Orleans’ Essence Festival, Now in Its 30th Year, Continues to ‘Nourish the Soul’ of Black Women

NEW ORLEANS — For the past 25 years, Malina Crear has skipped birthdays, weddings and family gatherings around the July 4 holiday to be in New Orleans. She packs four, sometimes five, suitcases of clothes and 20 pairs of shoes and drives 90 minutes from her home in Moss Point, Mississippi.

“If anyone plans anything for that time, I won’t be there! I’ll be at Essence,” Crear, who calls herself the “Essence Princess,” told The Washington Post. “This may be the only time I see my friends, many of whom I met here.”

Crear has been attending Essence since 1998, when she was 20 years old and Luther Vandross performed there.

“I saw these older women with such grace and elegance. I wanted to be like them,” said a government technology consultant.

The Essence Festival of Culture is a haven for black women. It’s been a fixture in the Big Easy for 30 years, but it really hit the mainstream after the 2017 film “Girls Trip,” starring Jada Pinkett Smith and Tiffany Haddish. Think of it as a grand homecoming to celebrate black excellence, where the sultry air makes everyone walk around waving portable fans and knotless braids are the go-to hairstyle. But ask any long-time festivalgoer: EssenceFest is a place to figuratively fill your cup.

There’s so much going on at EssenceFest that if you don’t get wet from the humidity, the crowds will.

The Ernest N. Morial Convention Center hosts three days of packed events and hundreds of vendor booths — all free to the public. At one end, attendees can watch Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) take the stage to defend President Biden’s age before Vice President Harris emphasizes the importance of voting in this election. Visitors can walk to the center of the hall for free McDonald’s chicken nuggets and fries, turn around to watch a runway show, then follow the music to catch a surprise concert by Mya or Keyshia Cole. At every turn, a black music, film or reality star appears to make an appearance or promote a project they’re working on. For treats, join the BeautyCon or Target lines to get a bag full of travel-size hair, makeup and skin care products. Outside, on the way to your hotel — because catching a rideshare will be nearly impossible — you’ll see a security guard on break doing a double Dutch with teenagers.

But there’s no rest. New Orleans restaurants and local businesses rely on the tourists who come to EssenceFest every July. Grab a cup of gumbo, grilled oysters, and let the locals talk you into an alligator appetizer. When night falls, head to the Superdome for the evening concerts, where Charlie Wilson plays all his hits and Usher entertains the crowd with songs from his album “Confessions,” but he doesn’t even try to roller skate. Bourbon Street and the French Quarter are packed with people dancing the Cupid Shuffle into the early morning hours.

There are also intimate and exclusive gatherings happening all over the city. SheaMoisture invited influencers to a private dinner, “Camp Shea,” where they celebrated community among Black beauty influencers. David Frisbey, who accompanied his wife, content creator Aisha Beau Frisbey, to the dinner, said, “My wife told me to get ready to see happy Black women everywhere.” Divine Nine sororities and fraternities hosted white-only brunches and parties. At the Black Women in Business dinner at the Four Seasons, female executives from Uber, Disney, and Visa lined up to have their portraits taken before Serena Williams was honored as Investor of the Year.

Before Facebook and other social media, there was an online forum called New Orleans Essence Travelers. Crear joined the group to connect with other women who would be traveling to the festival alone. Their group grew to 50 women. “We’ve traveled the world together, but we always come back to Essence,” Crear said.

Those who attend EssenceFest will tell you it’s not just an event, it’s a movement. It’s described as a soul-nourishing experience where black people can revel in the spirit of unity. “You might come in here alone, but you’ll leave with your cousin,” Crear said.

The older generation wants their daughters to experience the magic of EssenceFest. Sharon Yates, 66, of Grand Prairie, Texas, has been attending the festival since its inception and is frustrated that the lineup wasn’t announced until weeks in advance. “They used to put in their magazine who was going to be at the concert months in advance,” she said. But she still considers the festival a bonding experience with her 40-year-old daughter, Clayvia. They’ve both attended for years and wear matching T-shirts every day. “It’s a really special time for us,” Clayvia said.

Rylee Davis, 14, dreams of one day being an actress, so her mother, Angela Davis, 51, took her to EssenceFest from Dayton, Ohio, this year to get inspired. “We’re here to celebrate black womanhood. I wanted her to be immersed in the entertainment here at Essence,” Angela said. Rylee was excited to see JT perform with City Girls during the daytime show at the convention center. “I didn’t want to see JT,” Angela joked. “But my daughter was happy to see JT and the artists she loves, so whether you’re an aunt or a niece, there’s something for you.”

Some people came to EssenceFest specifically to see their idols. Connie Wade, 22, of Gulfport, Miss., stood in line for more than an hour to get an autograph from bestselling romance author Kennedy Ryan. “I thrive on her books, and I knew I had to meet her.”

Tanya Sam, a tech entrepreneur and former “Real Housewives of Atlanta” cast member, called Ryan the “Beyoncé of books” during a panel discussion about book-to-film adaptations.

Ryan told The Post that EssenceFest makes black women feel important. “My most reliable reader is a black woman. I have a very diverse readership, but I know I wouldn’t be where I am today without black women.”

Sharon Joseph, CEO of Boys & Girls Club of Harlem, came to EssenceFest not only to work, but also to find a safe space.

Joseph was diagnosed with breast cancer last month and is preparing for a double mastectomy. “Black women need to break free from always being strong black women and take care of themselves.”

“It’s a space where we can talk about self-care, how we can be whole and how we can heal,” Joseph said. “I’m here for my children, but I’m also here to renew and renew for myself.”