The New Orleans Essence Festival, at 30, is still “soul nourishing” for black women

NEW ORLEANS — For the past 25 years, Malina Crear has missed birthdays, weddings and family gatherings around the Fourth of July weekend to be in New Orleans. She packs four, sometimes five, suitcases of clothes and 20 pairs of shoes and drives 90 minutes from her home in Moss Point, Miss.

“If somebody schedules something at this time, I won’t be there! I’ll be at Essence,” Crear, who calls herself “The Princess of Essence,” told The Washington Post. “This might be the only time I get meet my friends, many of whom I have met here.”

Crear has been attending the Essence Festival since 1998, when she was 20 years old and Luther Vandross performed.

“I saw these older women with such swag and elegance. I wanted to be like them,” said the government technology consultant.

Essence Festival of Culture is an oasis for black women. It’s been a staple in the Big Easy for 30 years, but it really hit the mainstream after the 2017 movie “Girls Trip” starring Jada Pinkett Smith and Tiffany Haddish. Think of it as a grand homecoming to celebrate Black excellence, where the sultry air has everyone walking around waving portable fans, and knotless braids are the go-to hairstyle. But ask any longtime festival-goer: EssenceFest is a place to, figuratively speaking fill your cup.

So much is going on at EssenceFest that if the humidity doesn’t engulf you, the crowds will.

At the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, there are three days of jam-packed activities and hundreds of vendor booths – all free to the public. At one end, participants can catch ropes. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) on stage defending President Biden’s age before Vice President Harris emphasizes the importance of voting in this election. Visitors can walk to the center of the concourse and get free McDonald’s nuggets and fries, turn around and watch a runway fashion show, then follow the music and catch a surprise concert from singers Mya or Keyshia Cole. At every turn, a black music, movie or reality TV star is there to be seen or promote a project they have in the works. If you want goodies, stop by the BeautyCon or Target lines to get a bag full of travel-sized hair, makeup, and skin care products. Outside, on the walk to the hotel – because it’s almost impossible to get a rideshare – you see a security guard on a break double-bashing with teenagers.

But there is no rest. New Orleans restaurants and local businesses rely on tourists to come to EssenceFest every July. Have a cup of gumbo, grilled oysters and let the locals convince you to get the alligator appetite. As it turns into the night, head to the Superdome for evening concerts, where Charlie Wilson plays all his hits and Usher serenades the crowd with songs from his “Confessions” album but doesn’t even try to roller skate. Bourbon Street and the French Quarter are filled with people doing the Cupid shuffle until the wee hours of the morning.

Intimate and exclusive gatherings also take place throughout the city. SheaMoisture welcomed influencers to their “Camp Shea” private dinner celebrating the community of black beauty influencers. David Frisbey, who accompanied his wife Aisha Beau Frisbey, a content creator, to the dinner said, “My wife told me to prepare to see happy black women everywhere.” Divine Nine sororities and fraternities held brunches and all-white parties. At the Black Women in Business dinner at the Four Seasons, female executives from Uber, Disney and Visa lined up to get their headshots before Serena Williams was honored with the Investor of the Year award.

Before Facebook and other social media, there was a website forum called New Orleans Essence Travelers. Crear joined the group to connect with other women who would be traveling to the festival alone. Their group grew to 50 women. “We’ve traveled the world together but we always come back to Essence,” Crear said.

People who attend EssenceFest will tell you that it is not just an event but a movement. It is described as a soul-nourishing experience where black people can revel in the spirit of togetherness. “You can come here solo, but you’ll be going with a cousin,” Crear said.

The older generation wants their daughters to experience the magic of EssenceFest. Sharon Yates, 66, of Grand Prairie, Tex., has attended the festival since its inception and is frustrated that the concert lineup was not known until weeks before. “They used to publish who was going to be at the concert months before in their paper,” she said. But despite that, she sees the festival as a bonding experience with her 40-year-old daughter Clayvia. The two have attended the festival for years and wear matching t-shirts every day. “It’s a really special time for us,” Clayvia said.

Rylee Davis, 14, dreams of becoming an actress one day, so her mom, Angela Davis, 51, brought her to EssenceFest from Dayton, Ohio, this year for inspiration. “We’re here to celebrate black womanhood. I wanted her to be immersed in entertainment here at Essence,” Angela said. Rylee was excited to see JT from City Girls perform during a daytime event at the convention center. “I didn’t want to see JT ,” Angela joked. “But it made my daughter happy to see JT and the entertainers she loves, so whether you’re an aunt or a niece, there’s something for you.”

Some people traveled to EssenceFest specifically to see their role models. Connie Wade, 22, of Gulfport, Miss., stood in line for over an hour to get a book signed by best-selling romance author Kennedy Ryan. “I grow up with her books and I knew I had to meet her.”

Tanya Sam, a tech entrepreneur and former “Real Housewives of Atlanta” cast member, called Ryan “the Beyoncé of books,” during a panel discussion on adapting books for film.

Ryan told The Post that EssenceFest makes black women feel important. “My most trusted reader is a black woman. I have a very diverse readership but I know I wouldn’t be where I am today without black women.”

For Sharon Joseph, CEO of the Boys & Girls Club of Harlem, she came to EssenceFest for work but also for a safe space.

Joseph was diagnosed with breast cancer last month and is preparing for a double mastectomy. “Black women need to be freed from always being the strong black woman and taking care of ourselves.”

“This is a space for us to talk about self-care, to talk about how we can be whole and how we can heal,” Joseph said. “I’m here for my children but I’m also here to replenish and renew myself.”

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