I am an almost 21-year-old white woman who has wanted to go to Essence Fest for the past couple of years. I have family that live in New Orleans and the last time I was there was near the end of June, but I literally left right before Essence started. As soon as I learned about it from my aunt, I was saddened that I would not be able to go that year. The following year my parents and I were not going to go to NOLA again because we had to change up our vacation destination, but I still was wishing I could go. My aunt had posted on Facebook asking if anyone would go with her and I replied that I would love to go with her if I was there. I ended up promising her that I would go the next year with her and man, believe me, I was going to uphold that promise.
So flash-forward to June 2017: I ditched my parents, hopped on a plane with my older cousin, and together we flew down for a week to NOLA to stay with our family. Now while my cousin was there solely for the family, I made my intentions clear, Essence was my priority (sorry guys). Now let me explain why I was so excited to go to Essence. For one, I had this irrational belief that I would be able to see and meet my idol, Taraji P. Henson. (Spoiler: this did not happen, she was not even present because she is one busy lady working on 1 of 4 movies this summer.)
Second, I have for my entire life had this love and admiration for people of color. Anyone that knows me, will understand what I mean. But with that meant that even though Taraji was not there, I had plenty of people to be excited about seeing and hearing from. I only heard from about half the people I wanted to (because Essence is jam packed with tons of things happening at the same time) and I still had an incredible time. Thirdly, I wanted to learn from the amazing speakers that were there about Black culture. I have sat in on BSU meetings and talked endlessly with some friends about different topics, but I was hungry to hear from more perspectives. How will we ever come to truly get along with one another if we do not know people's experiences and perspectives? Therefore, before I move on to talking about my experience, I would like to say thank you to everyone at Essence for accepting me and letting me in. Essence is a magazine for Black Women, so for people to talk to me and accept me meant the world to me, because I understand that my presence could also have been perceived as an intrusion. I am very grateful that it was not taken that way.
Moving on to my experience! On the first day, Friday, I was lucky to get to hear from some amazing people. The first person I heard was Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, who spoke about being "woke" and staying "woke". Hearing her speak was so powerful for me. I was 15 when Trayvon was shot and followed the trial on the news for that year every morning before I went to school. I know deep in my heart, that the case was one of the many reasons that I decided that I wanted to become a civil rights attorney one day. Hearing this woman speak, who has been through so much pain, but yet was focused on the movement was incredible. Sybrina Fulton is a special kind of lady and she inspired me enough to go out a few days later to buy her book (I am looking forward to reading it).
Next I heard a stunning poem that moved me to my very core by the lovely and talented Cleo Wade. Following were four women that probably taught me the most that weekend. They were Luvvie Ajayi, April Reign, Angela Rye, and April Ryan. There was talk about what being "woke" is, that "woke" is just an evolution of the movement, and that the word should be removed from white people's vocabulary. Luvvie Ajayi said that last part, and I totally agree with her. It has become overused and downplayed with it being used by white people. Ajayi said, "It is clear, numbers tell us that all these woke people, ain't really woke. If woke means doing the things that make sense, that shows that you love black people, that shows that you find the humanity in people and you want to protect it; y'all ain't been woke." I believe that this was one of the most profound things that I heard that day, because it was the absolute black and white truth.
Following that talk was what most people, including myself, were waiting for. It was the "Strength of a Women" Panel that included, Niecy Nash, Queen Latifah, Dee Rees, Jada Pinkett Smith, Monica, and Kristi Henderson. The headline of the panel was Mary J. Blige who inspired it with her album of the same name. She came out first and was interviewed by Tamron Hall, who asked Mary questions about her divorce and how writing her album helped her get through it. Mary and the rest of the women on the panel were able to show myself and the other hundreds of women in the room the amount of strength that all women have deep inside them. The last question that the panel faced, was to me the most powerful one, "what would you tell your fifteen year old self?" They each had different answers, but Mary and Queen, in my opinion hit the nail on the head. Queen Latifah said that she would not tell herself anything, because anything she would say, might alter where she is right now, and she would not change where she is or the journey of how she got there. Mary J said that she would tell her younger self to remember to love yourself and I agree. I believe that is the most important message to be sending young women today.
The rest of my experience was the concert part of the festival. The music part had just as profound effect on me as the talks did. Each performance was powerful in its own way to me. I went on both Friday and Saturday nights. I saw a variety of different artists because I went to a few superlounges and was able to see some less known artists such as PJ Morton and MC Lyte. What I like about that is that Essence does not just care about big names, but people who are still striving to achieve more or just have a lesser name presence because they are a less popular genre of music. On Friday, after going to a few superlounge performances, my aunt and I settled into are very high seats in the Super Dome to watch John Legend. He is an artist that I have known for a long time, before he kind of blew up in the main stream of today. Seeing him was special since I have known him forever and I know all of his songs, so I was able to sing along. My favorite part of his performance though, was his last song, which was, "Glory". Hearing the song live in person with images of Selma on the monitors in that place with all of those people moved me to my very core. I was rocking back in forth in my seat from the power of it, and I did not really think anything else that weekend would move me that much, but I was wrong.
I'm skipping ahead for a minute, to the second night, when I was able to see Jill Scott perform, a person I first discovered as an actor, but soon came to realize is a singer with an amazing voice. She can tear through someone's soul. Being able to experience hearing her voice in person was an incredible thing. She described a song towards the end of her set as a love letter to the government to discuss her frustrations with everything that is happening through song and love rather than frustration. The song is called, "My Petition" and I was captivated the entire time. The entire stadium was shaking with vibrations near the end of it; I could feel it physically in my chest which made the feeling even more moving. There are honestly no words to describe being there and feeling that in that moment. She left me emotional, but speechless.
Going back to Friday night, after John Legend, I was able to see the iconic Diana Ross of The Supremes! That was the performance that made me the most giddy. She started singing Supreme songs and I was just sitting in my seat giggling like a girl saying every so often, "oh my goodness, that is Diana Ross." I am a huge Motown lover and I listen to The Supremes all the time, so being able to see someone like that was just a wonderful thing. Diana Ross, although she is iconic and reduced me to a little girl, did not win the weekend though for me. The winner, for me was Mary J. Blige, who performed Saturday night, during her very own inspired Ladies Night, meaning a lineup that included just women. She put on a performance beyond anything I have seen in my life. Mary sang incredibly, but danced around the stage all throughout her set. She literally never stopped moving. It was as if she was channeling all her pain on stage and using it to sing her songs and her dancing was her way of expelling that pain. Her set included several songs of her heartbreak, laying it all out there for us, until she sang one of her signature song, "Just Fine" followed by other songs that helped bring us out of the pit with her. It was like we actually experienced her heart and that is something special that not a lot of artists can do and she did it, all while putting on the best performance. Mary J. Blige is a true artist and I feel very lucky to have seen her live.
Mary is how my first Essence Festival ended, and I think that was a great ending note for it. I feel grateful, lucky, and humbled by this experience. I learned more than I ever thought I would in a weekend and was able to witness amazing artists. I can only hope that this is the first of many Essence Festivals that I will attend and that maybe I have interested someone else to go in the future. Thank you so very much Essence for having your festivals and for welcoming me on my first one.