Essence Festival: Birthday Party That Has Grown

“It’s within our DNA as black women, and some of it is within the historical evolution of who we are as black women, where we were trained and groomed to give so much of ourselves. Essence was specifically created to be a platform where we gave to her. We’re not looking to take from her or to put more of a burden on her, but we just want her to come in a safe space – whether it’s with her girlfriends, herself, if she wants to bring her family, it’s up to her – but it’s all about her. It doesn’t matter what’s surrounding her; she comes and she gets energized and she feels rejuvenated and she feels safe and comforted.” Joy A. Profet, former Essence Communications CEO

For more than a quarter-century, each Independence Day weekend, my beloved hometown of New Orleans is transformed as it hosts the nation’s signature celebration of Black women, culture and communities, the Essence Festival of Culture.

Only three times since 1995 has New Orleans not hosted the festival: in 2006 it was moved to Houston as New Orleans recovered from the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina. The COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of the festival in 2020, and it was held virtually last year.

Bringing the Essence Festival to New Orleans is among my proudest accomplishments during my two terms as Mayor – not only because of what it has meant to the city, but because of what it means for Black women in America.

This year, it’s more important than ever to celebrate and lift up Black women. The past week has seen one of the high points in our nation’s history and one of its lowest. Just six days after delivering a devastating blow to women’s rights with its decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the U.S. Supreme Court inaugurated Kentaji Brown Jackson, its first Black woman justice.

The events of the past week prompted New York Times columnist Charles Blow to declare Women Will Save Us: “It simply feels in this moment that women, more than men, have a clarity about the danger we face and the courage demanded to fight it,” he wrote.

Nowhere is that clarity and courage more evident than at the Essence Festival of Culture.
This weekend, I’m proud to continue the National Urban League’s long tradition of involvement in the festival itself and the many events held in conjunction with the celebration, including:

* The unveiling of a historical marker recognizing Pontchartrain Park, the neighborhood where I was raised, as a “safe cradle for Black hope and prosperity.”

* The Global Black Economic Forum, an ESSENCE initiative committed to redefining economic and social justice around the globe for the Black Diaspora.

* The Gumbo Coalition Awards, honoring senior presidential advisor Cedric L. Richmond, U.S. Rep. Troy A. Carter, Jr., Grammy-winning artist and producer PJ Morton, former WWL-TV news anchor Sally-Ann Roberts.

* A ”State of Civil Rights” Panel Discussion, to discuss the impact and develop action items in response to the Dobbs decision as well as rollbacks on gun safety and Miranda rights.

* National Urban League’s Women in Harmony Awards, honoring legendary entertainer Tisha Campbell, social impact strategist Jotaka Eaddy, gospel artist Kathy Taylor, and the National Urban League’s own Senior Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer, Rhonda Spears Bell.

* The CROWN Awards, recognizing the success of the National Urban League’s advocacy in outlawing natural hair discrimination in 17 states.

In 1995, I was just a few months into my first term as Mayor and looking for ways to leverage New Orleans’ rich cultural identity for economic development and job creation. At the same time, Essence co-founder Ed Lewis and Festival Productions founder George Wein were looking for the perfect location for a 25th birthday party for the magazine.

As the nation’s premier publication focused on Black women, they were looking for a city with a strong Black cultural heritage and a Black mayor. New Orleans, I’m proud to say, was the obvious choice.

That first Essence Festival featured all the giants of soul and R&B, from Aretha Franklin and Gladys Knight to Mary J. Blige and Boys II Men. It also spawned the Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong Jazz Camp, the nation’s pre-eminent jazz education program devoted to developing the next generation of jazz artists and preserving the great American art form.

Among its alumni are virtuosos Jon Batiste, Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, and Natasha Harris, who leads The Original Pinettes Brass Band, the nation’s only all-woman brass band.
What was meant to be a one-time event evolved into the largest annual multicultural event in the nation, the “party with a purpose,” attracting international recording artists, political and intellectual luminaries, and bestselling authors.

It has become a cultural touchstone that holds a place in the hearts of women from all walks of life. New Orleans music writer Alison Fensterstock described the experience of seeing a reunited SWV perform in one of the festival’s “jam-packed” lounges: “Groups of women, and it was at least 90% women in there — cousins, sorority sisters, old friends — were singing along with every word, closing their eyes and shaking their heads with feeling, even weeping a little bit with their arms around each other.

“It was a special kind of intimate bonding in action, the kind that comes from seeing the music you love the most, live, in the company of people you love.”

Marc Morial is President and CEO of the National Urban League.

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