I am a week removed from my first trip to New Orleans for Essence Festival and I am still recovering. Y’all, Essence Festival was EVERYTHING! This annual festival is hosted by Essence Magazine in New Orleans the weekend of July 4th every year. The festival celebrates African American culture through music, speakers, food and art. I am always on time for a celebration of US, so I finally made the trek to New Orleans for this amazing three day event. As a first timer, I learned SO much that I have to share, so I created my list of 10 Takeaways from Essence Festival!
Start at the Convention Center!
Like I said above, there are so many components to Essence, but they all seem to converge at the Convention Center (which is FREE to attend). Here, guests will interact with huge brands like McDonalds, Ford and Wal-Mart who are aiming to connect with African American customers. There will be giveaways, swag bags and gifts to catch your attention. For me, I loved seeing these big brands show the value of the black dollar. They showed up and showed out. Also, your top beauty brands like Shea Moisture, Creme of Nature and Cantu create pop up shop in the convention center. Because, really what black woman doesn’t love haircare products.
While you don’t typically come to the convention center for music, there are some performances there too! We caught Carl Thomas on the Wal-Mart stage and learned that John Legend performed on the same stage earlier in the weekend. Come Sunday, these music performances turn to churrrrcccchhhhh with gospel artists and popular preachers. This SO fits the Essence crowd.
Finally, the convention center is where you will see panels and interviews featuring your favorite authors, singers and actors. On the main stage in the center of all the action I saw quick interviews with the casts of Queen Sugar and Insecure. There is also a more private space dedicated solely to interviews and panels. We didn’t spend too much time there, but that is where you will catch the intimate personal interviews with the biggest stars.
My favorite piece of Essence was the concerts! On Friday, Saturday and Sunday, the Mercedes Benz Superdome plays host to SO many great black musical talent. In one weekend I saw Solange, Jazzmine Sullivan, Jill Scott, Mary J. Blige, the No Limit Reunion, Chance the Rapper and Elle Varner to name a few (yes just a FEW). In true festival fashion, the first acts began around 7:30pm and roll well until the midnight hour on all three nights. There are acts on the main stage and in the superlounges. The plus for the lounge is you can learn about some upcoming or underrated artists. Also it is smaller and more intimate.
We of course missed Xscape and Remy Ma in the superlounges because we did not get there early enough. The line to get in to see Xscape shut down a whole floor of the Superdome. I did see Elle Varner though who is so great in concert. As far as the main stage? Everyone was great, but NOBODY put on a show like Mary J. Bilge. I went full Auntie during Mary’s set. Artists are sure to put on a SHOW at Essence!
Another plus for Essence compared to other music festivals, their tickets are not an arm and a leg. You can pay as low as $50 per night for the nosebleeds. That also gives you access to the superlounges where you can be in the front row if you play your cards right!
I’m Too… to go to Essence
I’m too old, too young. It’s only for women. It’s too many couples. Or whatever excuse you want to make for not going. It’s wrong let me tell you. I saw a little of everything. Groups of women young and old embarked on girls trips to Essence. The same is true of crews of men I encountered. Even though people assume Essence is catered towards women (it is), men realized follow the women and a good time will be had! The common theme for those present? They love black culture. That’s it! If you fit that, then don’t overthink the rest and go!
Generally I advise against dining at tourist spots, because they are historically BAD and overpriced! New Orleans is a bit different though. You can safely eat at any of the Essence venues and dine on some good stuff. At the convention center, there is a bevy of local restaurants and caterers providing good food. I just hate that I did not have time to see them all before picking what I wanted. Even at the superdome you could get a shrimp po’boy and jambalaya. This works out great because you do not always have time to venture out of the French Quarter to eat!
No CP Time
It is horrible, but we have grown to expect black folk events to start late. We all then show up late just knowing it will not start on time, the event organizers then start late because no one is there. It is an endless cycle of lateness! Throw all of those rules to the side for Essence Festival, especially the concerts. These events start ON time, give or take a few minutes guys. We attended the concerts on the second night and got a slow start after a nap. Traffic to the SuperDome was slow going so we missed the opening act, one of my favorites Monica. We learned our lesson the next night and headed out early!
Secure the Bag!
As I mentioned above, the convention center plays host to some of the biggest brands and they are all vying to get you to their booth to engage with you. The biggest way they do this is through their swag bags. Each brand has a bag designed to entice black women. All weekend, we would see a bag that we liked, ask the owner where she got it from and head to that line to retrieve our own! These are the best Essence Fest souvenir, so if you go, it is imperative for you to secure the bags y’all!!
Stay in the Mix
We waited a little late to book our hotel for Essence. We lucked up on Hotwire and locked in a great rate for the Sheraton on Canal Street. This hotel is blocks away from Bourbon street and a short uber right to the superdome and convention center. Our hotel really maximized our experience. On our first night, an Essence party was hosted right in our hotel’s ballroom. Nothing like heading down the elevator in your heels versus walking on cobblestone. Plus because of the location, our hotel’s bar itself was a hotspot which a dj, food deals and a good crowd. I say all of this to say, location definitely matters at Essence. Keep this in mind as you book your spot!
Walk it Out
Despite having a great hotel location, we still walked A LOT. I clocked on average five miles a day during my time at Essence. We walked around the city which is typical in New Orleans, but then we walked the whole length of the convention center during the day. By night time, we were walking all around the Superdome to get to our seats and the superlounges. For that reason, we made sure to wear comfortable, yet cute shoes. I honestly did not mind the walking, it balanced out all of the good New Orleans food I was eating!
Pack the all White Outfit
Make no mistake, Essence IS a fashion show. When black folks gather that is too be expected right? It is a smart fashion show though with outfits that fit the weather and season. So many cute rompers, maxi dresses, midi dresses and short outfits too. We even prepared to have two outfits per day. One for day time and one for the concerts/parties. Everyone brought their unique style to New Orleans for the weekend, but the ONE thing everyone had?? An all white outfit! Because black folks LOVE an all white outfit. For Essence there are all white parties and even unofficial all white parties you just be sure that you come ready!
Can’t See it All
This was probably the hardest part for me. There is so much going on over the course of the weekend at different locations, that you just have to accept that you cannot see it all *sad face.* Like who decided to put BJ the Chicago Kid on at the same time as Solange?! Why did the cast of Queen Sugar i.e. Kofi Siriboe hit the main stage while I was in line for my Ford swag bag?? It was inevitable that I would miss SOMETHING. When planning, the best thing to do is to download the Essence app ahead of time. For example, cast members from Queen Sugar and Insecure were present at numerous official and unofficial events throughout the weekend. So if there was a conflict you could easily catch up with them later. The good thing though, is there is never a dull moment.
We had SUCH a great time at Essence Festival! By Friday evening we were already plotting on attending next year. We will certainly be back! For those who have been to Essence, what are you tips? Be sure to share in the comments section!
*I created an updated post with my tips for Essence Fest 2018! Be sure to check it out here*