If you know a Black auntie, the chance that she is already in New Orleans or headed there in the next day or two is high. ESSENCE Fest, the annual music festival hosted by the powers that be at ESSENCE magazine, kicked off Thursday, and it is one of the biggest events of the year for Black women in America. It was the setting for the 2017 summer smash movie Girls Trip, and to be honest, I’m more than a little salty that I’ve still never been. This year’s performance lineup includes Janet Jackson, Ella Mai, Miguel, and a DJ set from Idris Elba, just to name a few acts over the course of four days.
But ESSENCE Fest is more than just a music festival. It has been dubbed the “party with a purpose” because supporting the daily concerts is an expo and conference component that offers attendees to boss up in just about every aspect of their lives. Just a few of the themes include beauty and style, entrepreneurship and careers, technology, and entertainment and they are enacted with a series of keynotes, workshops, and panels. Foodies can watch renowned Black chefs prepare dishes in front of huge crowds. This year, Vivica A. Fox is giving a keynote about her career. ESSENCE Fest is one part turn-up and one part glow-up, encouraging the women who travel from all over to be a better version of themselves by the end of it.
ESSENCE Fest was started in 1994 to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the magazine, but when 142,000 people showed up to see the performances from their inaugural event, it became a yearly tradition. Since then, offering a little something for everyone has worked in the festival's favour.
In 2017, Nola.com reported that it drew 470,000 attendees, growing by 20,000 from the year before. In 2014, their 20th anniversary event had 550,000 people. Let’s put this in perspective. Coachella, arguably the most popular American music festival and certainly the one favoured by celebrities, brought out 125,000 people last year. Even Lollapalooza’s 25th annual festival in Chicago only boasted 400,000 concert-goers. So not only is ESSENCE Fest the biggest festival to celebrate African-American culture in the country, it easily outshines some of the more mainstream events as well. Black women did that.
The fact that ESSENCE Fest appeals specifically to Black women is obviously lit. But I also think it’s the reason that it lives in relative obscurity, a big deal only to the throngs of Black women who travel there each year. Sure, festivals are generally a young people’s scene, known for drugs, revealing outfits, and being on your feet for long hours. ESSENCE Fest caters to a more mature audience, hence the earlier reference to aunties. However, it is also true that events that cater to Black people, specifically, are often situated in cultural blind spots, however popular they may be. Black movies, Black music (excluding hip-hop, which everyone loves), even entire Black networks are often excluded from relevant conversations and dialogues.
However, problematic it may be that Black events like ESSENCE Fest don’t get the credit they deserve, I’m not mad about it. I may roll my eyes when Coachella and Governor’s Ball are raved about every year, but there is also an intense sense of satisfaction that I get from knowing that there are some spaces still sacred to Black folks. It’s a sacredness that is only possible with privacy and a lack of interest from everyone else. The numbers don’t lie, and no matter where we aren’t acknowledged, ESSENCE Fest is serving its own. That’s the truest meaning of "for us, by us."