NEW ORLEANS -- Nearly 30 years ago, creators of Essence Magazine came to New Orleans to celebrate the publication's 25th anniversary with a salute to Black women highlighting culture, empowerment conversations with the nation's thought leaders and, of course, music.
The Essence Music Festival has since morphed into the Essence Festival of Culture, which, in its 29th year, kicked off Thursday and goes through July 3 across various venues in downtown New Orleans. The Ernest N. Morial Convention Center will hold most of the free workshops, vendor exhibits and celebrity meet-and-greets. Blocks away, the Superdome will host nightly ticketed performances by artists including headliners Lauryn Hill, Missy Elliott and Megan Thee Stallion as the festival commemorates 50 years of hip-hop.
Hakeem Holmes, a New Orleans native and newly appointed vice president of the festival, describes the festival as a “crown jewel of Black culture” that “plays a pivotal role in the amplification and celebration of the contributions of the Black community through business, music and more.”
“This is the first time three black women emcees are headlining,” Holmes noted. “That's representative of the growth and the direction we're taking the event. It's important to have the attention of the audience we're serving. We're attracting younger generations now so we've had to grow. It's exciting that throughout out each night we'll feature younger artists alongside the legends.”
New Orleans has hosted every festival except for 2006, when it moved to Houston while the Superdome underwent Hurricane Katrina -related repairs. In 2020 and 2021, Essence was staged virtually because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hill returns to the festival's stage after a surprise cameo performance at last year's festival with her former Fugees bandmate, Wyclef Jean. Friday night's show will also commemorate the 25th anniversary of her five-time Grammy Award winning project, “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.” Rap icon Doug E. Fresh, to mark hip-hop's 50th anniversary, will lead a night of performances by rap pioneers including Slick Rick, Big Daddy Kane, EPMD and KRS-One. Also scheduled to perform are Tems, Jagged Edge, Ari Lennox and New Orleans' own Juvenile.
Juvenile had criticized organizers for not including him in the festival's lineup, questioning how it could celebrate hip-hop in the City of New Orleans without him. Essence Ventures CEO Caroline Wanga has said there was never any intent to not include New Orleans artists on the bill.
“When we started to source talent, there was no way in hell we were not going to have New Orleans artists,” she said. “We have always created a festival that had some things announced and some surprises. We would never plan a festival that didn't have involvement from the city that birthed us.”
Missy Elliott, the first female in hip-hop to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, will take center stage Saturday while music mogul Jermaine Dupri will curate a special segment of hip-hop's greatest hitmakers from the South called “The South Got Something To Say,” including performances by T.I., Ludacris, Gucci Mane, Lil Jon and Big Boi. Dupri is also marking the 30th anniversary of his label, So So Def. Jill Scott, Monica, Coco Jones are scheduled to perform and West Coast rappers Ice Cube, Ice T, Yo-Yo, J.J. Fad and E-40 will be showcased as well.
Three-time Grammy winning rapper Megan Thee Stallion will close out the festival’s concert series on Sunday, while radio personality Angie Martinez plays host to a celebration of women who influenced the culture with performances by Eve, Salt-N-Pepa, Remy Ma, Trina and New Orleans' own Mia-X. Others taking the stage will include Wizkid, Muni Long and Kizz Daniel.
The festival's lineup in the past has been heavily shaped by mostly R&B artists. Holmes said the 2023 look “evolves” the event's tone.
“We're hoping that everyone who attends feels seen and we hope that we're strengthening the things they want to see,” said Holmes, who noted elements of the festival targeting men, the Gen Z population and fans of alternative arts exemplified by Essence's Afropunk festival.
The 2022 festival had a $327 million impact on the City of New Orleans' economy, according to a study commissioned by Essence and generated by Dillard University. Before Essence, the city struggled in the summer because of the sometimes tumultuous and always hot, hot weather. Now, the festival is a major rainmaker for the city's summer tourism season.
Speaking ahead of a discussion organized by the Global Black Economic Forum, Vice President Kamala Harris told the crowd she was extremely disappointed by a U.S. Supreme Court decision Thursday essentially ending affirmative action in college admissions. She urged people to read a dissenting opinion from Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson and vowed the Biden-Harris adminstration will do everything it can to promote diversity.
“The court is not fully understanding the importance of equal opportunity for the people of our country,” Harris said. “And it is in so many ways a denial of opportunity, and it's a complete misnomer to suggest this is about color-blind when in fact it is about being blind to history, being blind about data and being blind to empirical evidence about disparities and being blind to the strength that diversity brings to classrooms, to boardrooms.”
Harris is scheduled to speak again Friday on issues ranging from protecting reproductive freedom to addressing the maternal health crisis. Also, as part of the administration’s Investing in America tour, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen will discuss Biden's legislative accomplishments.
Last year's festival saw 1.9 million live and virtual attendees of activities including Essence Food & Wine Festival, Essence Marketplace, Essence Film Festival, Essence Wellness House, Global Black Economic Forum, Essence Family Day and more.
Some of the events take place away from the main venues — a move Wanga said was aimed at encouraging people to visit other parts of the city.