ESSENCE’s top brass gathered on Saturday, July 1 at the 2023 ESSENCE Festival of Culture presented by Coca Cola to deep dive into the purpose and meaning of Oprah Winfrey Network‘s upcoming original docu-series, Time of Essence.
Marked as a celebration of the trailblazing magazine that has featured some of the most captivating and influential covers of the past half-century, the five-part, one-hour documentary series serves as a love letter to the platform that continues to serve Black women deeply to this day.
Hosted by ESSENCE Chief Content Officer God-Is Rivera, the panel consisted of OWN Director of Programming Kai Bowe, ESSENCE Vetures President and CEO Caroline Wanga, and ESSENCE Co-Founder Ed Lewis spilling on all things ESSENCE and its enduring relevance to the culture.
With a display of choice clips from the highly-anticipated documentary series, premiereing on OWN August 18, 2023, the ESSENCE leaders expounded upon featured commentary from some of the brightest celebs, thought leaders, journalists, and former editors of the past several decades, including fashion model and icon Beverly Johnson, Academy award-winning actresses Halle Berry and Whoopi Goldberg, Regina Hall, Taye Diggs, Sheryl Lee Ralph.
“You’ve already seen just a taste of this, but I want to tell you that it is five episodes of loving yourself, five episodes of intrigue,” said Bowe. “It’s fast moving, it’s music, it’s fashion, it’s you reminiscing on your whole childhood up to now. So, please know that even if you think you are not the documentary crowd, this is your documentary.”
Revealing a piece of little-known ESSENCE history, co-founder Ed Lewis recounted the tale of just how the iconic ESSENCE Festival of Culture came to be.
“In 1994, I was having drinks with the legendary jazz individual by the name of George Wein, who started what was the New Orleans Jazz Festival, then the Newport Jazz Festival,” Lewis said, crediting the famed festival promoter with planting the seed that would grow into the largest music and culture festival in the nation. “We were having drinks, and I was telling them about my upcoming 25th anniversary of the magazine. He said to me, ‘Ed, have you ever thought about doing a music festival in New Orleans, at the Superdome, over the 4th of July weekend?’ I had not thought of that. So, I invited him to my office to make a presentation to my key people. They were reluctant about doing it, but I made the decision in 1995. And it’s been just absolutely extraordinary.”
“The story of how this festival got started – it was a lunch conversation, y’all,” current president and CEO Caroline Wanga pointed out. “It was simply a lunch conversation that has created a three-decade experience for the Black community. What in the world is possible for you at your next lunch meeting?”
Speaking more to the possibilities that come to fruition when we use our impact, Lewis also revealed an additional historical tidbit that was all too relevant just days after the Supreme Court ruled to eliminate Affirmative Action.
“After the first [festival] in 1995, in 1996 the governor of the state of Louisiana made a decision to eliminate all of the affirmative action programs in the state of Louisiana. So, I made a decision not to come back here to do this festival.”
That refusal to return caught the attention of the governor, and earned Lewis a meeting in Baton Rouge to discuss his concern with the policy, which ultimately changed with the help of his influence.
“I agreed to do that, came to Baton Rouge, and I told the governor this, that one of our great entertainers – a man by the name of James Brown – he has some lyrics. ‘Open the door.’ All I ask is that the door be open to the hard, defined affirmative action policy. So, I just wanted to tell you that, with regards of all that’s going on, let us not lose any faith, let’s carry on fighting and keep on fighting.”