Essence Festival Kicks Off Weekend of Celebrating Black Joy and Culture

Essence Magazine’s annual celebration of Black women and culture got underway with a press conference at the Ashes Powerhouse Theater in New Orleans on Thursday.

Essence Festival, known as the “party with a purpose,” was started in 1995 as a one-off event to celebrate Essence Magazine’s 25th anniversary. Over the years it has grown into the largest Black culture and music event in the world and provides a space to highlight Black creators, innovators, businesses and icons.

Thursday’s press event was held to recognize the event’s sponsors and the contributions of the city of New Orleans for its uniquely Afro-centric identity as well as the city’s leadership. Sponsors for the event include the likes of AT&T (a Fair360, formerly DiversityInc Hall of Fame company), Target (No. 27 on the 2022 Top 50 Companies for Diversity list), Ford Motor Company, Disney and more.

This year’s theme for the event is Black joy, conveyed through the tagline “It’s the Black Joy for Me.” That theme is something every speaker at the press event was keen to emphasize, with Target’s Laysha Ward driving that point home in her remarks.

Target’s Laysha Ward spoke during a press conference Thursday at Essence Festival in New Orleans.

“Over the next four days, Target and Essence are working together to create a space for us to experience Black joy,” Ward said. “We’re going to celebrate and rest because we need that and we deserve that. We’re often pushed to be so resilient, but we need to rest and I’m somewhat tired of hearing about us being resilient. This is a chance to lift up all the things that make us unique, beautiful and powerful.”

The current and first female Black Mayor of New Orleans, LaToya Cantrell, echoed that point as she celebrated New Orleans’ unique place in Black culture and the stress that comes with being the mayor of a city that carries traditions as significant as Essence Festival, particularly after a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic.

“The investment and impact on our local economy truly does meet us where our needs are in our community, but make no mistake, as a Black woman and the first one to be Mayor of this city in its 300 years, you have to know that it’s the Black joy for me,” Cantrell said. “As the fifth Mayor to be in leadership and in partnership with Essence, it means I have the responsibility of keeping it going. Sometimes when you’re carrying on traditions, the hardest part is not messing it up. You keep building and keep growing because it’s about the investment in the Black community not just in New Orleans, but across America. But I also have to say that when we talk about that rest, I need that too. It’s leaders across the country, mayors leading like no others are, we need this, and I want to thank Essence and their partners for doubling down on their investments in Black people in this country.”

Marachel Knight, Senior Vice President of Technology Planning and Operations at AT&T, said “Essence is proof that convening and supporting Black women has ripple effects beyond the individuals here in New Orleans. At AT&T, we’re in the business of connecting people to greater possibilities. Possibilities that come from empowering multiple generations of Black women who positively impact their families and communities, much like what happens here at Essence Festival.”

Each sponsor for the event will also have the opportunity to showcase its work with Black creators, innovators and businesses through “activations” or showcases that display their products and the work they’re doing with the Black community.

AT&T is bringing two unique experiences to Essence Fest this year. The Tree of Dreams presented by AT&T Fiber and the Dream in Black NFT Video Booth powered by AT&T 5G.

Using the power and hyper-gig speed of fiber, Tree of Dreams attendees will be able to share messages of Black joy as a glowing reflection of community and connectedness. The messages will be populated through a tablet and will instantaneously appear as a takeover moment on the Tree of Dreams.

AT&T’s Dream in Black NFT Booth at Essence Festival in New Orleans.

The Dream in Black NFT Booth is a celebration of Black women with a custom curated photo featuring artwork from NOLA-based artist, Jade Meyers, with the chance for the first 500 guests to also receive a custom minted AT&T Dream in Black NFT of Jade’s art.

Target’s activation will highlight entrepreneurs and content creators the company is working with. The company has set a goal of spending $2 billion with Black-owned businesses and suppliers by the end of 2025. Target also aims to spend at least 5% of its annual media budget with Black-owned media and has already increased company spend with Black-owned brands and suppliers by 50% while doubling the number of Black-owned brands on its store shelves.

“These efforts are about making a sustainable impact and lasting legacy,” Ward said. “After George Floyd’s murder in our own backyard in Minneapolis, we felt like we needed to do more to fuel the economic, social and structural vitality of Black people. The work isn’t always sexy, but it’s important. We’re making progress and we’re taking steps to help Black-owned brands be retail ready so that this creates some intergenerational wealth.”

Caroline Wanga, CEO of Essence Communications addresses the crowd at Thursday’s press conference.