Recap: Essence Festival Brings Together Thousands to Party with a Purpose

Last weekend, a massive crowd numbering in the hundreds of thousands descended on the city of New Orleans for the 27th Essence Festival of Culture. Attendees enjoyed a weekend filled with art, music, technology, film, wellness and a whole lot of opportunities to network with Black advocacy organizations and support Black-owned businesses.

The festival made its return to New Orleans after the event was virtual-only for the last two years because of the pandemic. Many speakers and leaders at the event echoed the New Orleans community in welcoming the event back to in-person attendance.

“Nobody does it like us and nobody needs it more than us,” Essence Communications CEO Caroline Wanga said. “The Essence Festival is never leaving the city of New Orleans. Katrina tried it once, COVID tried it for two years, but we will always come back here. This year we have both a virtual offering and in person. That offers a unique opportunity for our global diaspora to be with us even if they’re not with us and what that unlocks is the power that Black joy needs to fuel a return of Blackness to greatness in a way we should have always had it.”

When Time Inc. sold Essence Magazine to Richelieu Dennis in 2018, it wasn’t clear if things would change with Essence Festival. But as Wanga pointed out in her event kickoff remarks, it was important to the Dennis family that the event be put back in Black hands.

“They entrusted me with a sacred cultural treasure,” Wanga said. “It was important to them that it was back in Black hands so that it could serve Black bodies, minds and spirits. What we have here is a cultural heirloom of Black culture and we should be relentless in seeking the highest version of its value and accept nothing less. We should store it in the compartments of our minds with the right care and preservation and ensure that the next generation receive the full accurate story of origin and value of this. We have to welcome those that don’t get it and need to learn it.”

The Essence Communications team has essentially been renewed over the last two years, leading to a fair amount of concern over its first attempt to organize the live event. While the team faced some difficulty around creating and executing COVID-19 protocols, in all Wanga and her team executed the event and the influx of more than 400,000 people smoothly.

Essence Sponsors

The free daytime activities at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center gave attendees a chance to shop with Black-owned businesses, learn about community groups and see some interesting performances ranging from fashion shows to live DJ sets. Upstairs, the Essence Film Festival highlighted the work of Black filmmakers and writers and offered panel discussions and opportunities to meet creatives.

AT&T (a Fair360, formerly DiversityInc Top 50 Hall of Fame company) continued its Dream in Black initiative as it took over the Essence Tech summit with a discussion that featured musical recording artist Ashanti regarding her investment in non-fungible tokens (NFTs).

AT&T has an entire team dedicated to planning, designing and building its footprint at the event, a footprint that is designed to be interactive and forward-looking.

With a theme centered on connection, AT&T’s activations also focused on Future Makers and bringing speakers that should send visitors away with a better idea of what AT&T is doing and how it is driving impact as a company.

“This whole weekend is about uplifting Black women and education and awareness of issues that are unique to a Black woman’s experience,” Corey Anthony, Senior Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer at AT&T said. “We understand the importance of an experience like this whether that’s our own employees or the customers and communities we serve. We are a company that is about connections, and we talk about connecting to a world of greater possibilities and that fits perfectly with what Essence does.”

Target (No. 27 on the 2022 Fair360, formerly DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list), meanwhile, turned its activation space into an interactive party experience, complete with a photo booth, custom tote bag design station, a roller-skating area and a live DJ. Target decided to partner with Essence this year as its theme of “It’s the Black Joy for Me” fit well with its own Black Beyond Measure campaign that supports Black-owned and founded brands.

A photo of Target's activation at Essence Fest in New Orleans.

That multi-year partnership features storytelling and experiences in the years to come that demonstrate the company’s commitment to Black-owned media.

“Essence Festival is an incredible opportunity to build an experience that celebrates Black women, honors their role in defining culture and amplifies the joy and energy of the community coming together,” Maurice Cooper, Senior Vice President of Marketing at Target said.

Target’s Racial Equity Action and Change (REACH) initiative is an ongoing effort that informed the company’s decision to support Essence Festival. As part of that, the company has committed to spending 5% of its overall media budget with Black-owned media. How the partnership blooms from here is something that Target is hoping will fuel other growth initiatives for Black entrepreneurs and creators that the company is currently putting into play.

“We do this work to drive equity and create lasting change,” Laysha Ward, Chief External Engagement Officer at Target said. “Essence allows us to raise voices and share stories, but this is also about raising our impact on commerce and culture. It keeps us excited about what we can do year-round to create an inclusive and equitable economy where the Black community can flourish in ways that create growth.”

Disney was another key sponsor as the company was able to use its might as an entertainment powerhouse to be the event’s entertainment sponsor. Whether that was the stages, tech summit, food and film festivals, e-suite panels and more.

In addition to that, the company’s ownership of streaming platform Hulu was able to be leveraged to live stream the weekend’s concerts and events from throughout the day.

“You can imagine the amount of planning, teamwork and stress that has been involved in the last few months as the exclusive entertainment sponsor of the event,” Latondra Newton, Senior Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer at Disney said. “Around 100 of our own employees are on site to help make that happen. We’re proud to celebrate joy, innovation, creativity and excellence throughout the entire weekend.”

“As storytellers at Disney, we’re uniquely positioned to inspire, encourage, uplift and create content experiences that touch the lives of millions of people,” Newton said. “We want to raise the industry standard and lead the way in telling authentic stories developed by Black creators featuring Black talent and executed by Black producers. Representation matters in our storylines, characters and experiences. We want our communities and consumers to see themselves in that.”