For The Love Of Black Music
It still surprises me that a few of my colleagues who regularly attend music festivals like Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival and Budweiser Made in America still haven't heard of, or don't seem to know much about, the annual Essence Festival, held every July 4th weekend in New Orleans at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Given that the Festival is now celebrating its 20th anniversary and pulling in record numbers of attendees, that benign neglect is not only a crying shame — it's a kind of organized ignorance.
A feel-good, four-day super-event that glorifies soulful black music as a means of African-American community building, the Essence Festival feels more pressing and urgent than ever. Many of our trailblazing black female artist-activists have passed away in the last couple of years — Jayne Cortez, Ruby Dee and Maya Angelou come to mind. In their absence, it's been heartening to witness contemporary African-American artists furthering conversations about identity and community in the age of social media spectacle (I'm especially thinking about visual artist Kara Walker's eye-popping, controversial, lines-around-the-corner "A Subtlety" installation at the Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn, New York this summer). So the value and meaning of a spectacular annual black music and culture festival that is spearheaded by a black female-focused lifestyle brand (Essence) that also manages to attract superstar talent and consistently shatter attendance records should not be lost on anyone. It's progress made manifest. Maybe it was just a random coincidence that this year's festival kicked off July 3, the day after the 50th anniversary commemoration of the signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act — but the timing seems entirely fitting.
The inaugural 1995 Essence Music Festival was supposed to be a one-off — a three-day event created to commemorate what was then Essencemagazine's 25th anniversary. If you've never thumbed through a copy, Essence is a glossy lifestyle magazine founded by entrepreneurial duo Ed Lewis and Clarence Smith: It continues to cater to its primary demographic target, black women ages 18 to 49, with columns and features about fashion, health, beauty and entertainment, among other topics. New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival founder George Wein (the indefatigable entrepreneur who more or less invented music festivals) and Wein's intern-turned-producer Quint Davis were the original producers of the Essence Music Festival (it's now produced by NOLA-based Solomon Group). The idea of the festival hasn't really changed: it's about extending the Essence brand of black female empowerment beyond the publication and its yearly awards show. New Orleans was an incredibly wise choice: Sure, the city has Mardi Gras, the Bayou Classic and the Sugar Bowl, but tourism is largely inert in the summer, given the sweltering heat and menacing hurricanes. Plus, New Orleans's awe-inspiring heritage of musical fusion and innovation — from Buddy Bolden to Louis Armstrong to Mannie Fresh and Big Freedia — make it the perfect setting for a large-scale mainstream black music festival.
If the Essence Festival has been through its ups and downs over the years, that's largely because its host city has been through the wringer, too. In 1996, Essence CEO Ed Lewis nearly pulled the festival because then Louisiana Governor Mike Foster issued an executive order to cut state affirmative-action programs (he quickly rescinded). In the early 2000s, raging oil wars and infrastructural challenges kept festival numbers down. After Hurricane Katrina devastated the city in summer 2006, the festival temporarily relocated for one year to Houston. And this year, less than a week before the start of the festival, one woman died and nine people were wounded in a vicious gun battle on Bourbon Street. Bad news seems to be little impediment to the Essence Fest (as it is casually called): It rolls on, undaunted, unfazed and unsinkable, much like the community whose culture and music it glorifies, and much like the host city itself.
Some time ago, Essence Fest producers discarded "music" from the title to better reflect the event's commitment to pro-social community initiatives. Head over to the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center and you can partake in daytime celebrity-studded speaker sessions and "empowerment" seminars: Good Morning America co-host Robin Roberts and comedian-turned-author-turned-talk-show-host Steve Harvey were among this year's talking heads; there was a hackathon for disenfranchised African-American youth revolving around activist-CNN-pundit Van Jones and Prince's timely Yes We Code initiative; and you could attend a heavily-promoted panel on "empowering black women to end AIDS" featuring Alicia Keys and moderated by MSNBC host/NOLA resident Melissa Harris-Perry. Essence Fest likes to call itself "a party with a purpose." But don't get it twisted: Music is by far the main reason attendees hop flights from around the country and shell out green bucks.
We've been told that a record 550,000 people attended in 2014. Essence Fest has stealthily become an African-American institution, surpassing rival R&B summer festivals like defunct Sinbad's Summer Soul Jam and still-puttering Cancun All-Star Fiesta. In fact, it's become the biggest annual African-American gathering of any kind in the United States, and one of the largest music-themed festivals — though it is rarely included in top ten festival lists. Even after twenty successful years, Essence Fest hasn't received significant coverage from mainstream media publications like Pitchfork and Rolling Stone, and I'd venture that's because the four-day event is so unapologetically catered to its core black female constituency. When singer-actress Jill Scott took to the stage this year to warmly thank the audience for "letting a sister grow" over the years, the collective feeling of estrogen-influenced black-on-black goodwill in the arena was palpable. And the night before, singer K. Michelle incited the audience: "How many of y'all still love our music, say yeah!" The secret of the Essence Festival is that it gathers half a million people every year to celebrate the vibrant art and achievement of black women — and the men who love black women — on a scale that is woefully absent in other aspects of mainstream culture. At a time in which global black music is still beset by numerous debates about authenticity and racial appropriation (Robin Thicke anyone?) the Essence Festival proudly — and wisely — asserts its pro-community status, even though it is inclusive and open to all races.
And, to boot, the sound of R&B keeps the festival spinning. In the last eighteen months, classic-sounding soul has returned to radio in a big way: look no further than the runaway success of retro smashes like Pharrell's "Happy" or Daft Punk's "Get Lucky" (also featuring Pharrell, along with Nile Rodgers). Still, R&B remains divided. On one hand, younger entertainers like Drake and Rihanna are sustaining worldwide popularity making hip-hop and electronic dance influenced soul. On the other, more traditional adult contemporary R&B (a.k.a. "grown 'n sexy") is still marching along — take, for instance, the music of vets Babyface and Toni Braxton or the penultimate closing act at this year's festival, Charlie Wilson — but it occupies a much smaller piece of the total market. No surprise, then, that R&B superstar R. Kelly, pushing 50, recently announced that he's going to be dropping an electronic dance music and house-inspired album, surely in the effort to stay relevant with the kiddies.
For four days inside the Superdome, the Essence Festival constructs an alternate universe where mature R&B performed by seasoned veterans is accorded the highest level of importance, while teen-oriented R&B is marginally represented. I consider it a relief that Essence Fest has never really been driven by the same demands for currency as music gatherings like Electric Zoo and Coachella, which live or die on their ability to lure hipster audiences with trendy acts. No need to call on Justin Timberlake or Iggy Azalea or Lorde to fill empty seats at the Superdome — at least not yet. Even during its 1995 augural year, the Essence Fest was an anachronism: headliners then included Luther Vandross, Anita Baker and Boyz II Men yet precious little of the popular youth-driven hip-hop dominating radio at the time. Essence Fest is not what you could call a topical affair: there was no official mention this year of Bobby Womack, the soul icon who passed away just a week before the festival began on June 27th.
Located in the heart of the Central Business District, the forty-year old Mercedes-Benz Superdome (formerly the Louisiana Superdome) has seen it all: it's played host to Pope John Paul II and Super Bowls and NCAA Final Four events. It is also, of course, where evacuees from Hurricane Katrina took refuge, in often inhospitable and dangerous conditions, in the days following the catastrophe. For the duration of Essence Fest, the air-conditioner-chilly Superdome sidesteps its accrued historical circumstance and morphs into an electrifying funhouse where black people come to be seen as much as to see the concerts, and to "show out." Women primp around in stilettos and layers of make-up, patterned skirts slit up to the waist, and men on their arms sport everything from muscle-revealing tank tops to full-on pimp suits: Everybody is a star. Part of the festival's unofficial appeal is people-watching, that you can revel in the everyday creative beauty and diversity of black people — not just on stage, but in the audience too.
If black folk dressed to the nines make the Essence Festival go 'round, nostalgia underwrites the total experience. Attendees are there to swoon to, and reminisce with, name-brand R&B singers cranking out classic slow jams and uptempo favorites. You won't hear much on-the-spot musical variation or technical experimentation, and you shouldn't expect to. The collective pressure toward nostalgic familiarity means that established heritage artists like Prince (this year's prized headliner) or even '90s stalwarts like SWV and Jagged Edge — that is to say, artists from whom you pretty much know exactly what to expect — consistently do very well at the festival. Performers who also happen to be songwriters boasting robust catalogs can simply play the hits they've written all night long, to the audience's unending delight. Nile Rodgers kept Friday night's crowd on its feet by reviving the numerous hits he'd co-written and produced for acts like Sister Sledge, Diana Ross and David Bowie. And savvy Prince kicked off his torrential set by announcing that he would begin with fourteen chart hits. Somewhere in the middle, he cheekily blurted out "That was just soundcheck!" before launching into even more jams. "You know how many hits I got?" Prince confidently gleamed.
Up-and-coming artists do get their fair shake — Atlantic Records singer-songwriter Sevyn Streeter and Def Jam signee August Alsina were among the rising stars invited to perform sets — but festival audiences can be unforgiving to newbies whose music is not already part of the collective cultural experience. Electro-R&B journeyman Jesse Boykins III had a rough time of it: Slotted as the first act on the pre-event Thursday night main stage, he played to a half-empty arena. Gyrating eccentrically to pulsating electronic glitches and beeps, and twitching his comb out from side to side while attempting to seduce, Boykins used his windswept falsetto to give it his all. But the very vocal ladies seated behind me didn't seem to think so. They did not take to his songs, which indeed tend to meander abstractly. And they had very little — OK, nothing — positive to say about his peculiar fashion choices, especially his gold, sparkly, body hugging turtleneck.
You could sense the anticipation in the Superdome for the return of '90s wunderkind Tevin Campbell: He hasn't released a new studio album in over fifteen years (he pitstopped on Broadway in Hairpsray) and he'd never before been invited to perform at Essence Fest. The 37-year old Texan crooner still looks youthful and slim. His sprightly, high-pitched tenor remains undiminished. But Campbell got off to a rocky start digging deep into obscure '90s album cuts (like his cover of Shuggie Otis/Brothers Johnson classic "Strawberry Letter 23") — only super fans had any emotional attachment to the material. When Campbell told the fidgety crowd, "I'm gonna sing a song you might not know," a woman standing next to me blurted out: "Well then, for God's sake, don't sing it!"
Lucky for her, Campbell was tongue-in-cheek, referring to his beloved Babyface-penned 1995 hit "I'm Ready." He had the audience eating out of the palm of his hand for the next five minutes. Still, the singer could do nothing to restrain audiences from singing along with total lung capacity to every lyric of his Quiet Storm chestnut "Can We Talk," virtually drowning him out in the process. "Stop!" Campbell cried in vain. "Just come in on the chorus and let me sing my song." No dice: The mercenary push toward familiarity at the Essence Fest means that audiences usually love and want and need their karaoke moments.
The festival programming itself rides on nostalgia: Mary J. Blige has played the festival a whopping 10 times in 20 years, and many other acts are perennials too. You won't find many independent, non-major-label-supported acts, no world music acts this year (unless you count British artists Daley or Marsha Ambrosius; I don't), no experimental acts, no openly queer artists and not much that's off the beaten path. If you're generous, you could chalk up the festival's strict focus on middle-of-the-road, ultra-mainstream entertainment to the work of producers who know how to stay in their lane — record attendance numbers confirm the success of that strategy. Or you might simply call it curatorial laziness. Everyone who attends Essence Fest has an opinion about the talent line-up, be it good or bad.
Essence Fest is also promoted as family-friendly, although I didn't see many kids or teens wandering around (there is a free family day in the Woldenberg Riverfront Park on Thursday before the main events). Rapper Nas headlined Thursday's pre-show and hip-hop band The Roots (featuring surprise guests Nelly and Naughty By Nature) graced Saturday night's main stage bill. But the festival tends to shy away from hip-hop acts in the effort to avoid explicit misogyny (wishful thinking to pretend that misogyny is the strict province of hip-hop) and to sidestep the problem of presenting artists likely to spew expletives. But R&B can be just as sticky: Bobby Brown once had his Essence Fest mic cut off for chatting about his sex life with Whitney, and in 1999 R. Kelly was forbidden from presenting a titillating set piece involving an onstage bed. A mild conservatism informs the festival's nostalgia, and it's easy to see that such conservatism is rooted in class.
The festival's high ticket price — the nosebleed section starts around $50 and a VIP weekend package will run you about $1100 — means that the event is most relevant to a middle and upper-class African-American demographic. Many attendees cannot afford to attend more than one or two night of concerts (consolation prize: There are some free non-music events at the Convention Center). The Essence Festival provides a huge, multi-million dollar economic boost to the city of New Orleans, as tourists go shopping on Magazine Street, stay at French Quarter hotels, chow down on head-on shrimp at restaurants, ride streetcars and public transportation, and partake in the buckwild nightlife on Bourbon and Canal Streets. But in 2014, not that much about the Essence Fest feels like a truly local experience.
Maybe that's because there are so few New Orleans acts on the official line-up (save for Trombone Shorty, Big Sam's Funky Nation, The Pinettes and August Alsina this year). Other than the always-pleasurable opportunity to stuff one's face on po' boys and beignets, the festival could technically be happening in any American metropolis with a large-enough black population — Atlanta, for instance, is an option. Aggrieved NOLA cab drivers I talked to were extremely vocal about what they perceived as negative aspects of the festival: that the festival only extends, rather than curtails, the troubling post-Katrina push toward gentrification in New Orleans — that it temporarily inconveniences the city's struggling lower-income communities and has no meaningful long-term cultural impact on the city (similar, I suppose, to arguments about the strain caused by World Cup/FIFA and Olympics events staged in developing or economically struggling countries).
The main arena of the Superdome is configured to seat just under 50,000: Gargantuan TV screens flashing commercials and selected live tweets flank the stage (certain performances are also live streamed on the festival's website). One significant change since the festival started twenty years ago is the now-ubiquitous presence of sponsoring corporations. The parachute-like Mercedes Benz awning dangling from the ceiling is relatively unintrusive: gotta look up to even notice it. Highly bothersome, on the other hand, are the endlessly-looping TV commercials and live main stage branding presentations staged between headliner sets: They make you feel as if there is no space inside the Superdome in which you are not subject to an aggressive sponsor message or advertisement.
I had the displeasure of watching R&B singer LeToya Luckett yuck it up with a paunchy Ronald McDonald clown. Actor-singer Tyrese, who got his precocious start in the mid 1990s singing in a Coca Cola commercial, delivered personal testimony about how the soft-drink manufacturer "was his family." Coke, he proclaimed, had recently sponsored a new contest to find the next singing "voice" of the brand, and on cue, the teenage winner of the contest walked out and sang the Coke jingle to the rapturous delight of the audience. Sure, the Essence Festival has to pay its bills; but a little less of this sort of hard sell would go a long way.
Four smaller stages known as the Superlounges orbit the main stage. Because of their intimate, compact size and also because they take a while to find (escalators were on permanent shut-down this year so you had to either walk multiple flights to negotiate the cavernous venue or wait endlessly for elevators), the packed-to-the-brim superlounges tend to be better suited for rising acts. (You can also find a more diverse selection of hot food choices in the superlounges than the alligator-dogs and artery-clogging nachos sold on the main stage floor.) In one of the superlounges, I watched Sevyn Streeter belt her way through a torrid set, surrounded by her male hip-hop dancers. She's professional and nervy, though the ghetto-centric jadedness of songs like "B.A.N.S." — a more profane than expected acronym — suggest she has a long way to go to achieve the self-assertive independence of superstar vocalist Beyoncé.
Afrocentric Los Angeles female trio King delivered a minimalist set, blending three-part jazz-harmonies and Patrice Rushen-esque chord progressions. Eccentric rock-soul vocalist Alice Smith, whose throaty alto is equal parts Ronnie Spector sneer and Deborah Harry bluster, moved resolutely and with uber-gravitas through a rebellious prog-rock set, including an insistent version of Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams." Boyband quartet 112 brought warbling vocals and oil-slick Temptations-like choreographed dance moves: They made the uproarious party ethos of millennium-era Def Jam and Bad Boy Records feel like a discrete historical moment in time rather than the recent past.
But white British soul crooner Daley — whose dark shades and architectural pompadour makes him look like a Tim Burton archvillain — really wowed. The most impressive male pop singer of his generation next to Bruno Mars, Daley has a reverberantly pretty tenor that's more adroit and flexible than current blue-eyed favorite Sam Smith. Cooing over ambient synth soundscapes and dub wobbles, Daley glides from melancholic falsetto to diaphragmatic declaration within a phrase or two. He really hit his stride guiding audiences through a smartly-curated medley of alternative Quiet Storm, surfacing bits of Usher's "Nice and Slow" (and "Climax"), Mint Condition's "Pretty Brown Eyes" and Frank Ocean's "Thinking of You." Won over simply on talent and audacity, the audience furiously smashed their hands together when the Brit boasted: "Even in London we know how to turn up just a little."
Unlike the smaller soundstages, the main auditorium at the Superdome thrives on "arena soul": It privileges performers who can reach the rafters and motivate attendees to get up out of their seats to shake their groove things. Atlanta's quicksilver Janelle Monae brought her usual showbiz pizazz on Friday night to surging rock anthems like "Cold War" and old-school funk blaster "Tightrope." But her enormous talent is not yet suited for stadium-size arenas: she remains more of a conceptual performer, regurgitating bits from the James Brown and David Bowie style manuals in the absence of an emotionally-endearing song catalog.
Prince surprised the audience twice that night: He appeared unannounced before his scheduled set to strum guitar on Nile Rodgers' evocative cover of Bowie's "Let's Dance" and also to perform on Janelle Monae's rendition of his own 1984 "Let's Go Crazy." But Prince himself performed "Crazy" again later that evening as part of his set, and his scalding rendition all but obliterated hers. Easily the most gifted and versatile live performer in contemporary music, Prince made his last Essence Festival appearance in 2004 with former Revolution bandmates Wendy & Lisa as well as Morris Day of The Time; this year he seemed determined this year to outdo himself. With a multi-member New Power Generation live band, including a full horn section, a bloated army of multicultural dancers and a boisterous gaggle of background singers featuring shorn-haired dynamo Liv Warfield, Prince moved deftly from fiery renditions of radio hits like "Raspberry Beret" to introspective album cuts like "Sometimes It Snows in April," the latter performed as a duet with unbilled English singer Lianne Le Havas. The show stretched on and on — not that you ever wanted it to stop — as he barreled through sweaty covers of Jam & Lewis produced Janet footstomper "What Have You Done for Me Lately" and Norman Whitfield-produced Stargaard anthem "Which Way Is Up?" After a few false endings, Prince walked on stage, silently, and released a handful of purple and white balloons into the air to honor of the festival's 20th anniversary. I'm told his House of Blues afterparty stretched on until the sun came up; my drooping eyelids forbid me from attending.
Reality TV R&B stars also found favor at the festival: Tamar Braxton (of Braxton Family Values) glammed it up on the main stage, and Love & Hip-Hop: Atlanta alumnus K. Michelle, whose feathered locks make her look like the spitting image of '70s-era Donna Summer, delivered an entertaining set that plumbed the depths of relationship trouble. Quintet Day 26, who got their dysfunctional start on the the P. Diddy MTV show Making the Band, bleated out their heats; apparently, every member feels the need to sing louder than the next and my eardrums had to escape the cacophony. Jazmine Sullivan, a Philly-based gospel-influenced performer with a raspy, nimble alto, first made her mark in 2008 fusing retro 1960s Amy Winehouse with retro '90s reggae Lauryn Hill. Though she's been absent from the music scene since 2011, she's a terrific vocalist and winsome songwriter and I look forward to her forthcoming album — tellingly titled Reality Show.
Other ladies brought their A-game too, including masterful Ledisi and ex-Floetry lead singer Marsha Ambrosius. Erykah Badu offered up breezy, jazzy versions of hit tunes like "Didn't Cha Know" and "Tyrone." Decked out in Afrocentric clothing and a tall hat, Badu remains a fiercely independent figure who seems to have long ago figured out that she herself is the spectacle, not her songs. "This is my therapy," she kept repeating, improvising the melody on poetic lines like, "Maybe we'll be butterflies" before launching into a optimistic cover of "If You Believe" from the musical The Wiz. Jill Scott opened with "Gimme," evoking the retro-funk fury of Aretha Franklin's 1972 "Rock Steady." Scott was engagingly sassy and bawdy, like a modern day Ruth Brown, and she had wonderful repartee with her eager trio of male backing vocalists, the Pipes — their turned-back caps and cartoonish high-tops made them look like a cross between Run-D.M.C. and the O'Jays.
If Jill Scott emerged as Queen of her all male band (in counterpoint to the way Prince functioned as King of his mostly female band the night before), Mary J. Blige royally descended an imperial staircase for her opening number "Enough Crying." Sporting 'hood-fabulous pant suits and twisted blond curls, Blige boasts the most impressive female song catalog in contemporary R&B next to Mariah Carey and Beyoncé: She had the luxury of performing nothing but hits for the whole night. Her "take me as I am" image of self-acceptance and hard-won empowerment feels right at home with the Essence Fest crowd; she was a commanding presence, storming the stage with her loping, idiosyncratic hip-hop gait. Where Jill Scott enjoys being a deliciously regal and golden pillar of strength, Mary J. Blige remains a round-the way, down-home presence — a kind of living reality star. Even at her gritty best, however, Blige couldn't quite hold a candle to soul sister Stephanie Mills: Her effervescent set was unfortunately relegated to a small soundstage that was packed to the rafters with eager fans. (She later took to social media to disparage the festival for not allowing members of her crew backstage and she claims the festival producers did not think she was a big enough act to play the main stage).
Sunday at Essence Festival remains a bit of a slog. After 3 full days of activities, fatigue begins to set in and attendees start thinking about making the trek back home and those Monday morning work cubicles. I spent much of Sunday at the Convention Center, bathing in the church service/all day tribute to Yolanda Adams, featuring golden-voiced gospel luminaries like Donnie McClurkin, Michelle Williams, Kim Burrell, Sheri Jones-Moffett. Magnificent Kierra Sheard (daughter of Karen Clark-Sheard of the Clark Sisters) essentially lit the room on fire, falling to the floor when the spirit overtook her and guitar-hero Jonathan Reynolds intimately drew the audience to him performing a deconstructed version of Adams' crossover hit "Open My Heart."
That final festival evening in the Superdome belonged to Charlie Wilson, the Oklahoma-born former lead singer of the Gap Band, who gave a rousing set. Few performers refer to themselves more in the third-person than Kanye and Snoop collaborator Wilson (he even has a hit song called "Charlie, Last Name, Wilson," for crying out loud) and he sees no shame in self-promotion. If his high-energy set occasionally descends into cornball camp — take your pick from the gold lame suit, the glow in the dark outfits, the keytar player, the plastic piano, the handmaidens dressed in white, the dry ice — Wilson compensates for it and endears himself to the audience simply on the basis of his sheer aerobic prowess (impressive at his age) and tremendous depth and range of voice. "I'm not a preacher," Wilson, who's survived addiction and cancer, cries out, "I just got a testimony." A bombastic showbiz vet to his core, Wilson may be Essence Fest's greatest annual asset.
For fifteen years consecutively, Frankie Beverly and Maze closed out the final night of the festival (rumor has it that the singer is experiencing vocal problems.) This year that honor went to Lionel Richie — but he stepped on stage and sucked all the good will and soulful energy that Charlie Wilson had just cultivated out of the venue. If Wilson gave a high blood pressure performance, Richie's was life-threateningly low pulse. Part of the problem was that Richie has not been truly associated with gutbucket funk since the late 1970s, and with the exception of his Commodores classics like "Brick House," he struggled to get the already-exhausted audience up on its feet. Treacly pop tunes like "Hello" and "Endless Love" will always be crowd pleasers, but Richie garrulously talked through the set up of every tune as if he was beamed in from an episode of VH-1 Storytellers. Neither physically limber like Charlie Wilson nor as vocally flexible, Richie tried to ride exclusively on charm and humor. But at no point did Richie seem to be living through his songs as he performed them. Just the opposite: he was like an automaton, cranking out his song copyrights before the clock ran out. A mass exodus from the venue ensued, long before Richie had finished his set: Needless to say, it did not go "all night long."
The Essence Festival remains a great gift for lovers of black music, especially those with disposable incomes. Like no other mainstream music festival, Essence Fest is about songs even more than it is about performers. It's about going to hear artists you know deliver songs with recognizable melodies that you can sing along to, songs with lyrics that actually mean something, songs that have narrative structure and development, songs from catalogs that have accrued historical relevance and value, and songs that you know you can return to year after year (in the same way that you return to holiday sings once a year to re-experience the sentiment). The Essence Fest audience is among the most discerning and discriminating I've ever come across: Performers have to be in good voice, they have to deliver material that people care about, they have to sequence their set smartly and front-load the hits, and if they don't have a lot of hits to work with they have work extra hard to win over the audience by clearly demonstrating that they have demonstrable vocal or stage skills — or just a great set of abs. It's the only large-scale music festival I can think of where hipster currency and cool aren't the most important commodities. And it's the only large-scale black music festival I can think of where veteran performers — whose biggest chart success might have been 30 or 40 years ago — are welcomed with open arms, purely on that recognition that they've already paid their dues and can now relax into their legacy.
To be sure, the festival has room to grow. Last year's Academy-Award winning documentary 20 Feet from Stardom tracks the history of African-American background singers and vocalists like Darlene Love and Merry Clayton who failed to get mainstream recognition despite making major contributions to the recording industry. Rather than extend that legacy of neglect, the Essence Festival could accommodate more creative programming and left-curve curation. It could give more dap to behind-the-scenes music makers and it could do more to pay homage to recording artists who made their biggest impact in '50s and '60s and are still living to tell the tale. Perhaps the festival might even encourage one of its branding partners to cough up some bucks to create a discovery tent where audiences can groove to a curated line-up of fresh-out-the-gate, independent, unsigned talent so that everyone has a better shot to democratically contribute.
Regardless, I'd bet that Essence Festival lasts another twenty years, because the electrical current at its core — nostalgia — can always renew itself. Mark my words: In 2034, we'll be there in the Superdome, singing along at full voice to the classic song catalog of Jason DeRulo. It's just a matter of time.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.