By Marc H. Morial
July 3-6 is the date. New Orleans is the place. Empowerment is the purpose. Iconic thought leaders and musicians bring the message. For the 20th year in a row, Essence Magazine is organizing the largest annual gathering of African American music, culture and inspiration in the nation. Thousands of families across the country have marked their calendars and are making final plans for the Essence Festival.
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. 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’s famous for festivals. We believe there is a symbiotic relationship that we have here.” The Festival has also been good for New Orleans. Last year, more than 540,000 people come to New Orleans for the Essence Festival with an estimated $100 million impact. 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.”
The Essence Festival has played a significant role in the rebuilding of post-Katrina New Orleans and brings much more than music to the city. For example, in addition to the Festival’s significant economic contribution, in 1995 Essence and the City of New Orleans co-founded the Louis Armstrong Jazz Camp, which exposes emerging jazz artists from all over the world to master jazz artists in New Orleans. Today, it is a continuing, self-sustaining organization that is making a tremendous community impact. This year, on Sunday, July 6, the Festival will hold its second “A Mother’s Prayer Vigil,” a gathering of mothers and grandmothers who come together to grieve and honor the children they raised whose lives were tragically cut short by gun violence.
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.” 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.
When the Essence Music Festival began in 1995, city officials did not fully understand the economic potential of the Black consumer – which now has a combined buying power approaching $1.1 trillion. Twenty years later, 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. Hope to see you there.
Marc H. Morial, former mayor of New Orleans, is president and CEO of the National Urban League.