In his compelling new memoir, The Man from ESSENCE (Atria, $25), Edward Lewis, our cofounder and former CEO and publisher, talks candidly about the brand’s road to hard-won success. Largely unknown is the fact that the preeminent magazine for Black women was started by a business partnership of four Black men—bold youngbloods who believed that the beauty and achievements of Black women could be showcased every month. In this excerpt, Lewis, who was the last remaining partner before the title was sold to Time Warner in 2005, recounts the creation of the Essence Music Festival and reveals why a second one almost didn’t happen.
I was nearly in tears as I stood onstage looking out at the audience in New Orleans’ colossal Superdome arena that first Sunday in July 1995.
It was the last night of the first Essence Music Festival. There were over 50,000 mostly Black women and men from all across America whose presence both humbled and overwhelmed me. “Thank you for being so supportive of what we’ve been trying to do in publishing ESSENCE these last 25 years,” I said to the crowd. “We don’t say that enough—thank you! Thank you for spending your hard-earned dollars by coming to New Orleans to be with us this weekend to share a magnificent milestone in ESSENCE’s history. Thank you for telling us by being here tonight, ‘A job well done.’ “
In 1995 ESSENCE magazine turned 25. A publication launched in struggle and uncertainty a quarter of a century ago was all grown up, prosperous and respected. The company was celebrating with a three-day blowout in New Orleans over the Fourth of July weekend.
If I dreamed of a knockout event to mark ESSENCE’s twentieth-anniversary year in 1990, I had even grander ambitions for the magazine’s twenty-fifth-year celebration. In fact, I started thinking about how to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary almost as soon as we had wrapped up the twentieth-anniversary fete with a glittering awards show at Radio City Music Hall. I knew I wanted to celebrate 25 years with something even more spectacular. I just didn’t know what.
I was having drinks one evening in 1994 with George Wein, producer of the legendary Newport Jazz Festival, and I told him I wanted to celebrate the twenty-fifth milestone of the magazine with something major—not just another red-carpet event or splashy after-party.
“Did you ever think of doing a music festival in New Orleans over the Fourth of July weekend?” George asked me. I’d known George for many years. Besides the Newport Jazz Festival, he produced a number of other jazz venues, including the concerts at City College’s Lewisohn Stadium, which I used to sneak into as a teenager when my father worked there as a janitor and would unlock the gate to the stadium, letting me slip in before a show started.
A music festival? In New Orleans over the July Fourth weekend? No, I told George, I couldn’t say that particular idea had ever occurred to me. I invited George to stop by the office and share his thinking with my top managers—Susan Taylor and Clarence Smith. I also invited Harry Dedyo, my chief financial officer, to the meeting. George outlined the concept: three nights of concerts in New Orleans’ famed Superdome stadium. ESSENCE agreed to partner with George Wein’s Festival Productions in producing the first Essence Music Festival in 1995. Anita Baker, Boyz II Men, Luther Vandross, Mary J. Blige, Gladys Knight and Earth, Wind & Fire were the lead acts lined up to perform on the Superdome’s main stage. Jazz venues in the arena’s Superlounges ran concurrently with the main stage acts, and featured that first year Thelonious Monk, Jr., Ramsey Lewis, Cassandra Wilson and Dianne Reeves. Our celebrity hosts over the weekend—Queen Latifah, Sinbad and the incomparable Bill Cosby—kept the evenings hot and the audience pumped.
The twenty-fifth anniversary of ESSENCE was also celebrated in grand fashion with the Eighth Annual Essence Awards program, televised from Madison Square Garden in the spring of 1995. Oprah Winfrey summed up the celebratory year at the awards program in her reading of an original poem created in special tribute to the magazine’s anniversary by writer Khephra Burns, the husband of Susan Taylor. Burns captured the essence of the milestone with these first two lines:
“Girl, look at me! Not even one month old and calling for a revolution. Truth be told, I was a revolution.
“I am 25 now. A woman of my time. A product of my own generation. I know who I am.”
As grand as the Essence Awards were, I have to say all of us were completely stunned by the success of the first Essence Music Festival, which became a crown jewel of the company. It drew 145,000 people to New Orleans during the Fourth of July weekend in 1995, and netted $500,000 in profit. The night I stood onstage looking at the 50,000 concertgoers whose presence confirmed the validity of the ESSENCE market and the power of the ESSENCE message, I knew the music festival was the beginning of an annual gathering of Black entertainers and thinkers, ESSENCE readers and advertisers, that would turn into the company’s most profitable and celebrated corporate-sponsored event, a distinction it holds to this day.