Why the Essence Festival has become a key gathering place for Black culture

Annual gathering in New Orleans this weekend is about much more than music.
Over 20,000 people watch New Edition on the final evening of musical performances at the Essence Festival, which was held at the New Orleans Caesars Superdome, July 3, 2022. The festival, the world's largest music and culture gathering held by, and for, Black women, typically brings more than 500,000 attendees to New Orleans, according to the organizers. (Nicky Quamina-Woo/The New York Times)

Credit: NYT

Credit: NYT

Over 20,000 people watch New Edition on the final evening of musical performances at the Essence Festival, which was held at the New Orleans Caesars Superdome, July 3, 2022. The festival, the world's largest music and culture gathering held by, and for, Black women, typically brings more than 500,000 attendees to New Orleans, according to the organizers. (Nicky Quamina-Woo/The New York Times)

The girls were getting worried.

It was at the 2000 Essence Festival of Culture when Tonya Hood left her concert seat to get something to eat. When she didn’t return, her crew — Lisa Haygood, Tonya Mahone Williams and Shelia Howell-Reynolds — went looking for her and found her in the cavernous Superdome talking to a guy.

Hood still remembers his pickup line. As Luther Vandross was crooning inside the concert, the guy told Hood that out of the thousands of women in New Orleans that weekend, she was the most beautiful.

“I said, wow, that says a lot because there are a lot of beautiful women here and he was saying that I was the most beautiful,” Hood said.

Lisa Haygood, Tonya Hood, Tonya Mahone Williams and Shelia Howell-Reynolds at one of their many trips to the Essence Festival.

Credit: Lisa Haygood

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Credit: Lisa Haygood

After the concert, all of them — including the guy — walked back to their hotel. While the crew slept, Hood spent the rest of the night talking to the guy in the hallway.

A year later, they got married.

“I think all of that was about what Essence means and says about our culture,” said Hood, a diversity and inclusion director living in East Point. “But it is also an opportunity to bond with my girlfriends over something that we really could enjoy, which was being in the presence of other Black people. It was our coming of age.”

For thousands of people, that story continues this weekend, with the opening of the 2023 Essence Festival of Culture in New Orleans, and its extended tribute to the 50th anniversary of hip-hop.

Atlanta’s Jermaine Dupri will take centerstage as the curator of a special set at the Saturday night concert, “The South Got Something to Say,” which will be a celebration of Atlanta hip-hop.

But in true Essence fashion (the magazine famously focuses on issues important to Black women), the ladies will be first. The three nights of concerts, which will feature dozens of performers, will be headlined by Lauryn Hill, Missy Elliott and Megan Thee Stallion.

‘A warm hug’

The Essence Festival started in 1994 as a one-time “party with a purpose,” to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the magazine. It was so successful that organizers decided to make it an annual event. It is now one of the nation’s premier showcases for contemporary Black music and culture.

By day, festival-goers attend the dozens of empowerment workshops, while connecting with Black authors, getting beauty and natural hair tips or visiting the food and wine events.

By night, the evening concerts are a who’s who of the Black artistic elite. Prince, Beyoncé, Aretha Franklin, Al Green, D’Angelo, Mary J. Blige, Jill Scott and crowd-favorite Frankie Beverly and Maze are among the hundreds who have blessed the Essence stage.

Barack Obama saw the power of Essence in 2007 when he was running for president and dropped by. Vice President Kamala Harris is expected to attend this year.

The 2017 blockbuster film “Girls Trip” was centered around a trip to “Essence,” as it is colloquially called.

“The Essence Festival is a cultural celebration, a family reunion and a warm hug that is bringing together all of the Diaspora for one weekend in one place,” said Erika Bennett, chief marketing officer for Essence Ventures, which puts on the festival. “And it brings forward the continued understanding that Black is not a monolith.”

Erika Bennett  Chief Marketing Officer at Essence Ventures

Credit: Essence Ventures

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Credit: Essence Ventures

The festival has been held in New Orleans every year except twice. In 2006 it moved to Houston after Hurricane Katrina. The pandemic forced a full cancellation in 2020.

That was also a year of racial reckoning and protest as the killings of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor were only overshadowed by the brutal slaying of George Floyd at the knee of a police officer.

“Anytime you have a community that’s gone through so much trauma unilaterally, it’s important to have a safe space where you can come and just be yourself and be celebrated,” Bennett said. “Essence is super important for feeding the other parts of us. To feel seen and loved and loved on.”

According to a study conducted by Dillard University, a Black college in New Orleans, the 2022 festival was the highest-grossing multi-day event in the festival’s history, generating an economic impact of $327 million with 1.9 million live and virtual attendees.

It created 3,605 jobs and produced more than $120 million in labor income and $49 million in federal, state and local taxes. Downtown hotel occupancy was at 90%.

Rochelle L. Ford, president of Dillard University, embracing one of her students. Dillard did an economic impact study on the Essence Festival.

Credit: Dillard University

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Credit: Dillard University

“If you look at the economic impact, it is probably the most consistent engine that the city has every year. We returned en masse after Covid and filled up hotels because we want to celebrate ourselves and grow politically, economically and culturally,” said Dillard President Rochelle L. Ford, who will be speaking on a Black college panel at the festival, where more than 40 of her students are working in paid or volunteer internships. “They are learning how to consume and produce culture.”

Girls Trip

Tonya Hood, Lisa Haygood, Tonya Mahone-Williams and Shelia Howell-Reynolds have known each other in various iterations for years, but their bond was solidified as undergraduates at Clark College in 1985.

They have been to Essence as a group at least five times.

They always drove there.

Always got two rooms at the Le Pavillon Hotel.

Always coordinated their outfits and did each other’s hair.

Just the four of them. Like in the movie “Girls Trip.”

Lisa Haygood, Shelia Howell-Reynolds, Tonya Hood and Tonya Mahone Williams pose beneath a poster for the movie, "Girls Trip," about four Black women who travel to New Orleans for the Essence Festival. “

Credit: Lisa Haygood

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Credit: Lisa Haygood

“I can identify with the level of camaraderie among the women,” said Howell-Reynolds, a special education instructor in Clayton County. “It was almost like Mecca, where we are all there together in affirmation, enjoyment and empowerment. It’s a spiritual thing and I enjoy that. You left Essence more empowered, more confident and more Black.”

The group doesn’t go to Essence anymore.

Life, in the form of births, deaths, aging parents, careers and children, got in the way.

But those times at Essence spawned what they call “BFF Wednesdays,” a once-a-month outing. Even when two of them weren’t speaking to each other, they still have to get together for BFF Wednesday. “No matter what,” said Haygood, a technology project manager in Atlanta.

Lisa Haygood, Tonya Hood, Shelia Howell-Reynolds and Tonya Mahone Williams.
“Essence allows you to just really be free to be yourself, and not worry about anyone judging you as a Black woman who has to be on point all the time,” Williams said. “At Essence, we have the opportunity as Black women to really just be ourselves and let our hair down without having to be on stage. It’s freedom.”

Credit: Lisa Haygood

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Credit: Lisa Haygood

The bond extends beyond Wednesdays.

In April of 2017, the group got together to help Hood bury her father. At the funeral, Haygood got a call from her father, telling her that her own mother had died.

She kept the news from her friends to protect Hood, who was grieving, but they sensed something was wrong.

“The love and the respect that we have for each other and the commitment to the friendship will last forever,” said Williams, a chief academic officer at a DeKalb County charter school. “That’s the element of Essence that isn’t written down on a piece of paper or in a book. It is something that happens as a result of that intentional experience of being together.”

Oh, and the guy that Hood met and eventually married?

“We got divorced,” she said. “Life moves on.”


THE FACTS

What: The 2023 Essence Festival of Culture

When: Today through Monday

Where: New Orleans