The party begins on the plane, of course. It’s the Fourth of July weekend and I’m headed to New Orleans for my first Essence Fest—a damn near diasporic gathering of a half million people in the name of Black women. It’s a full flight from Atlanta to NOLA and folks are crowded around the gate. Lively bursts of laughter and choruses of “Awwwww!” pepper the hour and a half ride. A sister with blue braids walks down the aisle in a t-shirt that reads “BLACK GIRLS BEEN DOPE AF.” She ready.
Once the plane has landed and I’ve settled in my hotel (the Sheraton lobby was LIT) and had my first Nawlins meal, I check the ESSENCE app to see the goings on. First is the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. Traffic is atrocious so daily I walk a mile up to Canal and Convention Center Blvd: past food trucks selling bloomin’ onions, past the towel man, past kids selling bottled water, past a young brother playing the saxophone in a vest, loin cloth and motorcycle boots. Whoever made up the saying “it’s hotter than fish grease” was talking about New Orleans. I say hallelujah every time I feel the blast of cool air that greets me when I step inside the center. The iconic ESSENCE logo looms large above the archway as the people pass through: old women with walkers, babies in strollers, couples holding hands, a motorcycle gang of women wearing purple and gold shirts and waving red bandanas over their heads, chanting “Black Girls Ride!”
The space is vast and abuzz with kinfolk. There’s so much to do and see: a global marketplace; a Global Economic Forum; Essence Eats with folks like Slutty Vegan and Patti LaBelle cheffing it up; Rosci Diaz on Center Stage telling her audience, “I’m from here, I’m from New Orleans, I’m from the West Bank–the best bank–and if you don’t know where that is you probably won’t go visit that side of town.” In the Beauty Carnival, the My Black Is Beautiful interactive brand experience is doing hair–dry twisting, flat ironing, steam rising–and asking influencers on-camera how they redefine the word Black. I spy Dr. Joy, creator of Therapy for Blackgirls, whose site helped me find a therapist of my own. On the Power Stage, Ava DuVernay comments on how three of her films—Middle of Nowhere, The 13th, and When They See Us—address prison reform. “I didn’t always want to be known for doing the serious, social justice stuff,” she says. “Sometimes you have to lean into your calling.”
As the afternoon wanes, daddies can be found sitting on the sidelines with their children in their laps. A man turns to his woman and asks, “We ain’t getting in any more lines right?” Now’s the time to find food, head back to the hotel and prepare for the evening. (And buy some deodorant because this natural stuff ain’t cutting it.) I’m walking down Poydras and notice a crew of four women with shirts that say “Brown Sugar.” Just as I’m feeling a little lonely for my girls, one of the women says, “Hold up. Karen?” We both stop and stare at each other till the connection clicks. “It’s Ralonda from Howard!”
Moments like this—of recognition and reunion—will happen all weekend. The world shrinks a bit at Essence Fest, even as it expands. Community finds you. The power of the squad is strong, and it’s delightful to see crews two, four, twelve deep in matching outfits. (I mean, a whole blockbuster movie, 2017’s Girls Trip, was dedicated to the Essence Fest squad.) These sisterhoods are a microcosm of the Black woman macrocosm ESSENCE represents, one that is stronger together in every way, one that debunks the lie that Black women don’t get along, a necessary reminder that regardless of what we’ve seen and where we’re from, we can always find common ground. This truth will change you if you let it. Have you doing things you might not otherwise, like when the sisters sitting next to me at Cochon ask if I want to taste their fried alligator and pass me their plate. I do.
If the convention center is the heart of Essence Fest, then nighttime at the Mercedes Benz Superdome is surely the soul. Walking in, it’s not lost on me that fourteen years ago, thousands of people found shelter—and many suffered—here during Hurricane Katrina. This weekend, it feels a little like kismet when Mayor LaToya Cantrell—a Black woman and the first female mayor of New Orleans—welcomes the Essence Fest audience to her city.
On the main stage, Gayle King asks Michelle Obama what she thinks about sex at any age, and Michelle answers, simply, “Yes.” Bobby Brown dedicates “Roni” to Bobbi Kristina with tears streaming down his face. Doug E. Fresh beatboxes like it’s 1986. Both Nas and Mary J. Blige celebrate the 25th anniversaries of their debut albums, Illmatic and My Life. Black people dressed in white do the electric slide in the aisles and two-step with the ushers while Frankie Beverly and Maze (who traditionally close out the weekend) perform “Joy and Pain,” while Black people dressed in white do the electric slide in the aisles and two-step with the ushers. I join the chorus of thousands belting out “Before I let you gooooooooooo” as Beverly closes his eyes, opens his arms and takes in our energy like reiki.
Each night ends in the early morning. Folks spill out of the Superdome slew footed and spent, crossing the street slow against the red light. Back on Canal, the line at Popeye’s snakes out the door.
* * *
Come Monday morning, the hotel lobby is quiet and Canal street feels wide again. In a few days, the rain will come. The weekend’s fairydust lingers and there’s a tinge of sadness in the acceptance that life must go on. There’s so much I didn’t do; hell, I barely got to Bourbon street where for a few minutes I watched young men drum in the center of circles. Still, I’m fortified. I stood thisclose to Raphael Saadiq while he sang “Still Ray” at an intimate jam session, and was wowed by Ledisi and Mumu Fresh. I previewed the riveting first thirteen minutes of Queen & Slim, the new film by Melina Matsoukas and Lena Waithe. I breathed the same air as Cicely Tyson and watched the 94-year-old recite Langston Hughes’ “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.”
God knows I needed this weekend. I needed the cocktails, the thundering bass. I needed the African prints, the custom Dapper Dan jacket, the pretty sundresses and bold bodysuits. I needed to swag surf with strangers. I needed the warm embrace that is the Essence Fest experience, especially living in a nation where some would sooner snuff out our light than see us shine. I needed that Blackety Black feeling that lets you know we gone be alright. Tuck it in my bra like money.