By this time next week July 3 through 6, 2014 more than a half million family members from all parts of the Continental United States and its territories will converge on New Orleans for the 20th Anniversary of the Essence Music Festival.
This annual gathering of African American music, art, and culture lovers is an outgrowth of what was proposed as a one-time celebration of Essence Magazine's 25th Anniversary. As a high ranking appointee in the administration of former New Orleans' Mayor Marc H. Morial, I had a front row seat as the Festival developed and flourished into an annual $241 million economic impact on the local community.
In 1995 during the initial Essence Music Festival planning meetings, government and tourism officials did not fully understand the economic potential of the Black consumer - which now has a combined buying power approaching $1.1 trillion. While it was believed that soliciting the African American market could bear fruit, the results to date far exceed what envisioned in 1994. Today the annual "Party with a Purpose" has become one of the major tourist attractions and economic infusions in New Orleans and one of the nation's largest summer festivals. It also serves as the springboard for the recruitment of other African American conferences and festivals during the otherwise slow summer tourism months in New Orleans.
Michelle Ebanks, President of Essence Communications, explains, "New Orleans has been just a tremendous home for the Essence Festival. There's not a better place. Louisiana is famous for festivals. We believe there is a symbiotic relationship that we have here." Research shows that the festival has also been good for New Orleans. Last year, more than 540,000 people came to New Orleans for the Essence Festival.
Vanessa Bush, Editor in Chief of Essence Magazine emphasizes "Essence has had an incredible economic impact on the city. It is not just a three month relationship leading up to the Festival, but rather a year-long relationship with the City and State officials that makes sure we not only bring the best experience but also one that makes sure that we are giving back in ways that have positive ramifications for local business. That is one of the things that Essence is most proud of."
Bush adds that whether it is the free Essence Family Day in Woldenberg Riverfront Park held on Thursday; the Empowerment Workshops and Market Place Experience at the Morial Convention Center on July 4, 5, and 6; or the nightly concerts at the Superdome; Essence always work with local vendors to make sure that the Essence experience is one that reflects a local flavor. In addition to the presence of great New Orleans food vendors, she reflects on the great performance by New Orleans R&B artist Kourtney Heart during last year's festival as an example of a local artist who was featured by Essence and has since used opportunity that to enhance her music career.
Bush says that "Family Day" which was added to last year's Essence Festival list of activities has something for everyone. The idea was to create an event where the multi-generations could come together and enjoy the Essence experience in a family reunion type atmosphere. Originally, Essence envisioned that up to 3,000 people would attend. Essence Festival producers were surprise when more than 55,000 people participated in the first Family Day experience. This year with changes to the New Orleans landscape with the expansion and renovation of The Outlet Collection at Riverwalk's Spanish Plaza, which now links Woldenberg Riverfront Park to the Morial Convention Center, Essence can expect an equal or greater turnout for Family Day.
New to the Essence Music Festival is the Empower U track which will provide more in depth information in "Ted Talk-like" discussions on topics ranging from Entrepreneurship; Healthy Living; Love & Relationship; Money & Power and others. These sessions will be led by celebrities and empowerment speakers such as Steve Harvey, Sarah Jakes, Dr. Denise Shervington, and more.
A new partnership with Essence and PowerMoves NOLA will be launched this year. This national initiative is centered around creating power through opportunity - the opportunity of high-growth minority entrepreneurship. Its focus is to provide access to capital, connections, and guidance to increase the number of venture-back minority entrepreneurs. PowerMoves NOLA will kick off with a series, including three Power Pitch events, during which 20 minority entrepreneurs in various stages of business development will participate. The winners of each pitch will be awarded $25,000. PowerMoves NOLA is showcasing the innovation that a diverse entrepreneurial community can provide.
Also premièring this year is the #YesWeCode Hackathon, an initiative in which Essence and world renown entertainer Prince have teamed to bring together nearly 200 of the tech industry's brightest developers, designers, and influential business professionals, working alongside 50 high potential youth to solve problems with the goal of transforming their neighborhoods into thriving communities regardless of race, gender, abilities or other factors. Essence's goal is to provide an encouraging and electrifying environment where everyone works together to build great apps centered on education, environmental sustainability, restorative justice, music/entertainment, and health/wellness.
Marc Morial who now serves as President & CEO of the National Urban League adds, "As then-Mayor of New Orleans, I served as founding mayor of the Essence Festival and was there when it began in 1995 as a one-time event to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of Essence Magazine. I am thrilled to see it blossom into more than any of us ever imagined - the largest, most exciting and purposeful gathering of African-Americans anywhere in the U.S. The partnership of the Essence Festival and the City of New Orleans was ideal from the start."
The Essence Empowerment Experience, featuring some of the most influential thought-leaders in America, has also become a high-point of the Festival. It offers free workshops, lectures and seminars at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center designed to "give you the tools to better your world." Morial says "I am proud to join such luminaries as Alicia Keys, Congresswoman Maxine Waters, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Rev. Al Sharpton and Bishop T.D. Jakes as part of this year's Empowerment Experience.
The National Urban League, in partnership with leading healthcare services provider HCA, is also running the Essence Festival Empower U Zone for Career Connections. This is the ultimate networking lounge where attendees can meet industry leaders, network with entrepreneurs, get career advancement tips and attend recruitment sessions with some of the top companies in the country. Special presenters include Lisa Nichols, CEO of Motivating the Masses, along with certified life coach, Dee Marshall. If all of that is not enough to get your attention, the musical line-up this year includes Prince, Mary J. Blige, Jill Scott, Erykah Badu, Lionel Richie and many other premier performers. "
Bush concludes that she believes that it is the day-time experience which distinguishes the Essence Festival from other music festivals. "The day-time experience, the empowerment experience is all free and has been that way since the inception". She credits the vision of founding Editor & Chief Susan Taylor with creating the footprint which guides their success. "She did not want to have just a celebration of the 25th anniversary of the magazine; she wanted a "Party with a Purpose". That meant that Essence had to develop content that focused on empowering people so that they took away inspiration that was aspirational, and addressed issues that are important to the community. The issues tracked during the day-time empowerment session are based on many of the same issues addressed in the magazine; whether it is health and wellness, career development, voting rights, racial profiling, preventing gun violence, or saving our daughters.
The festival also provides opportunities for New Orleans executives to receive recognition in front of a national audience. For instance, Henry L. Coaxum, Jr., a New Orleans business executive and civic leader, is one of this year's recipients of the McDonald's 365Black Awards. The national awards salute outstanding individuals who are committed to making positive contributions that strengthen the African-American community.
According to Mark Romig, President and CEO of the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation, "This has become sort of our kingpin, milestone event for the summer months." A testimony to this is that hotels throughout the city are reporting that they are nearly sold out.
Bush offered some words of wisdom for young women interested in following her footsteps through the world of fashion and journalism. Bush advised that one must be prepared and recognize that every work experience is valuable and will add to your ability to change careers or become a pioneer in any field of study or profession.
Prior to joining ESSENCE, Bush served in a variety of editorial capacities at publications such as Life and Glamour. Bush said when she made the transition from fashion retail to journalism that she used her full background as a starting point. "I knew that I could use my fashion background to build my own brand ... it's really about using what you have and being very confident that you can deliver. When I talk to young people, I encourage them ... you take the experience that you have and make the best of them, you leverage them, and be strategic about how you use them. I truly believe that is the secret to success "
An award-winning journalist and coauthor of the bestselling beauty and empowerment book, Tyra Banks Beauty Inside & Out, Bush has been a featured guest on several national television networks, including NBC's TODAY Show; MSNBC's Jansing & Co. and Melissa Harris Perry; CNN; HLN; HuffPost Live and more.
Bush received her Bachelor of Arts degree, cum laude, in English and American Literature from Harvard University, and her Master of Science in Magazine Concentration from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She sits on the board of ColorComm, a networking organization for women of color in communications. Her recent honors include recognition among The Grio 100 honorees for 2014, a distinguished Alumni Award from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, and an American Society of Magazine Editors (ASME) Award nomination for General Excellence in the Service and Lifestyle category.
To learn more about the 20th Anniversary of the ESSENCE Music Festival, visit www.essence.com/festival.
Kemberley Washington, Arielle Jordan, and Taylor Arnell Sylvain contribute to writing of this article.