4:09pm

Mon July 9, 2012
The Record

Essence In New Orleans: A Festival That Knows Its Audience

Originally published on Wed July 31, 2013 1:23 pm

For the last 18 years, the Essence Music Festival has been the go-to event for African-Americans, especially African-American women. For three days in New Orleans, hundreds of thousands show up for R&B and gospel concerts and panels on politics, financial planning and parenting.

If it's a party, as creator George Wein describes it, it's a party with a purpose.

"New Orleans is a party city and they party," Wein says. "People party here. If you go to the hotels — 40-floor hotels — [there's] like 40 floors of parties."

Wein also started the Newport Jazz and Folk Festivals as well as the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, but he says that starting to plan a festival that would take place in New Orleans in the middle of the summer of 1995 was a big risk.

"Everybody thought we were crazy," he says. "I said, 'No, no, no, no. The people that'll come to the Essence Festival, they'll come from Georgia, they'll come from Mississippi, they'll come from Texas, they'll come from Baltimore.' It's just as hot there as it is in New Orleans. And we'll have a beautiful air-conditioned Superdome."

Not everyone thought he was crazy. Ed Lewis, then the publisher of Essence Magazine, had been looking for a way to celebrate the 25th anniversary of his magazine. He wanted something to appeal to his target demographic — African-American women. That first year, 140,000 people showed up. Last year, more than 400,000 did. In 2006, following Hurricane Katrina, the festival missed a year in the Superdome, but it returned in 2007.

This year, the festival's headliners included R&B stars Mary J. Blige, Aretha Franklin, Trey Songz, Keyshia Cole and D'Angelo, plus gospel stars like Mary Mary and comedians like Kevin Hart.

"I don't know that any R&B stars could fill this arena by themselves," says Lolis Elie, a writer from New Orleans who has been to Essence many times, "but by having all these people together it's that much more attractive to fans and also it's that much more attractive to these people who can get to play in front of this huge audience, even though they themselves might not be able to sell 50 or 60,000 tickets."

That's one reason stars like D'Angelo, who played his first big show in the U.S. in more than a decade here on Friday night, choose to make comebacks at Essence. D'Angelo, still best known for the video for his 2000 single "Untitled (How Does It Feel)," in which he appears naked from the pelvis up (and dangerously close to more than that), is now trying to distance himself from that image.

That's just the way Essence likes it, Wein says. He remembers Susan Taylor, the long-time editor-in-chief of the magazine that lends the festival its name, insisting on keeping things clean. In its early years, producers dropped the curtain on Bobby Brown and cut short a performance by R. Kelly.

"These are not kids that come to the Essence Festival," Wein says. "These are adults! This music was part of their life. I always say the difference between a rhythm and blues African-American festival as opposed to a rock, pop, young white kid audience — the rock, pop festivals are an escapism for young kids who come from middle class and upper middle class families and can afford $150 tickets for a weekend to a big festival. For African-Americans, the music is a reflection of their life. It's not an escapism, it's an understanding of their own life and their own trials and tribulations and their own blues that they've had. And so it's a totally different experience."

That's why Essence calls itself "the party with a purpose," and why, a few blocks from the Superdome, at the New Orleans Convention Center, the magazine offers panels on education and relationships. On Sunday afternoon, the stage is devoted to prominent gospel performers. Little kids and their grandparents show up. Everyone's wearing flats, not stilettos.

Bringing all these people out is very good business for Essence, its corporate sponsors and the musicians who play the festival. It's good for the city's coffers, too. The hotels are jammed. There are lines out the door at guidebook restaurants. Every cab company in town works overtime. That's important for more than just monetary reasons, says Lolis Elie.

"Another thing that I think Essence is doing, which is unparalleled in terms of New Orleans commercial history, is bringing a lot of black tourists here," he says. "If you go to the JazzFest, you go to the Carnival events, you don't see as many black tourists as you do at Essence, obviously. And it's important, to me, that the city and its wonders be introduced to a larger black audience."

Essence is changing as it grows. Until recently, the festival always closed with a performance by '70s stars Frankie Beverly and Maze, dressed all in white. Now R&B singer Mary J. Blige is the perennial. She pulls in a somewhat younger audience.

"Most people who've been listening to Mary probably have been listening to Mary since they were, like, teenagers," says Binita Naylor, who made the trip to the festival from Detroit. "And so, when she starts singing her old songs, the crowd just sings along with her. They can really get into the show because we know her music, we grew up on her music. And we kind of grew up with her. For me, when I was younger she was singing about songs — things that I was going through when I was younger. And as I got older, and married — she's married too — she started singing about more things too that I was dealing with as an adult."

At Essence, many brands are competing for Naylor's attention. "You see a wide, diverse range of people of color. So it's a phenomenal experience," says Keshia Walker,the president and CEO of Insights Marketing. Walker, who has been putting on events during Essence for all of its 18 years, says Essence's audience belongs to a community that runs on word of mouth and referrals — and if they like your product, you're golden.

"I've been to every continent except for Antarctica, and there's nothing like it," Walker says. "Nothing."

Nothing like it. Until next July.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And now to New Orleans where the Essence Music Festival just wrapped up in the wee hours this morning. For the past 17 years, it's been a go-to event for African-Americans and especially African-American women from all over the U.S. It attracts hundreds of thousands of people for R&B and Gospel performances, along with panels on politics, financial planning and parenting. NPR's Frannie Kelley was there and reports on this party with a purpose.

GEORGE WEIN: New Orleans is a party city, and they party. If you go to the hotels, those 40-floor hotels, like 40 floors of parties.

FRANNIE KELLEY, BYLINE: That's George Wein, creator of the Newport Jazz and Folk Festivals, Kool Jazz and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. What he's talking about sounds like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC FESTIVAL)

KELLEY: But Wein took a big risk in 1994, when he began planning another music festival in New Orleans - this one, in the middle of the summer.

WEIN: Everybody thought we were crazy. I said no, no, no, no. I said the people that'll come to the Essence Festival, they'll come from Georgia, they'll come from Mississippi, they'll come from Texas, they'll come from Baltimore. I said it's just as hot there as it is in New Orleans.

KELLEY: Not everybody thought he was crazy. Ed Lewis, then the publisher of Essence, had been looking for a way to celebrate the 25th anniversary of his magazine. He wanted something to appeal to his target demographic: African-American women. The first year, 140,000 people showed up. Last year, there were more than 400,000. Lolis Elie has been to Essence many times. He's a writer from New Orleans, and he says the festival is the single biggest event of its kind.

LOLIS ELIE: I don't know that any R&B stars could fill this arena by themselves. But by having all these people together, it's that much more attractive to the fans and also it's that much more attractive to these people who can get to play in front of this huge audience, even though they themselves might not be able to sell 50 or 60,000 tickets.

KELLEY: That's one reason stars choose to make comebacks here. Take D'Angelo, who played his first big show in the U.S. in more than 10 years on Friday night.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

KELLEY: He's been away from the game, but he knew the Essence Festival would guarantee an audience.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KELLEY: D'Angelo became a star with the music video for this song, in which he was naked from the pelvis up. Now, he's trying to distance himself from that image, and that's just the way Essence likes it, says George Wein. He remembers Susan Taylor, the longtime editor in chief of Essence, often called its conscience and her insistence on keeping it clean. In the early years, producers dropped the curtain on Bobby Brown and cut short an R. Kelly performance.

WEIN: These are not kids that come to the Essence Festival. These are adults. This music was part of their life. I always say that rock-pop festivals are an escapism for young kids who come from middle-class and upper-middle-class families who can afford $150 tickets for a weekend to a big festival. For African-Americans, it's not an escapism; it's a totally different experience.

KELLEY: That's why Essence calls itself the party with a purpose. A few blocks from the Superdome at the Convention Center, the magazine offers panels on education and relationships. Sunday afternoon is devoted to prominent Gospel performers. Little kids and grandparents show up. Everyone is wearing flats, not stilettos. Bringing all these people out is very good business for Essence, its corporate sponsors and the musicians. It's good for the city's coffers too - the hotels are jammed, there are lines out the door at guidebook restaurants, and every cab company in town works overtime. Lolis Elie says that matters in more than a monetary sense.

ELIE: Another thing that I think Essence is doing, which is unparalleled in terms of New Orleans commercial history, is bringing a lot of black tourists here. If you go to the JazzFest, you go to the Carnival events, you don't see as many black tourists as you do at Essence, obviously. And it's important, to me, that the city and its wonders be introduced to a larger black audience.

KELLEY: Essence is changing as it grows. Until recently, the festival closed with a performance by '70s stars Frankie Beverly and Maze, dressed all in white. Now, R&B singer Mary J. Blige is the perennial. She pulls in a somewhat younger audience, like Binita Naylor, who came down from Detroit.

BINITA NAYLOR: Most people who've been listening to Mary probably have been listening to Mary since they were, like, teenagers. We grew up on her music, and we kind of grew up with her. When I was younger, she was singing about songs of things that I was going through when I was younger. And as I got older, she started singing about more things, too, that I was dealing with as an adult.

KELLEY: At Essence, many brands are competing for Naylor's attention. That's because she and her peers are highly influential consumers. Keshia Walker says they belong to a community that runs on word of mouth and referrals - and if they like your product, you're golden. She's president and CEO of Insights Marketing. She's been putting on events during Essence for all of its 18 years.

KESHIA WALKER: So you see a wide, diverse range of people of color, so it's a phenomenal experience. I've been to every continent, except for Antarctica, and there's nothing like it in the world. Nothing.

KELLEY: Until next July. Frannie Kelley, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "WOBBLE")

V.I.C.: (Rapping) All the shorties in the club. Let me see you just back it up, drop it down. Let me see you just get low and scrub the ground. Let me see you just push it up, push it up. Let me see you just. Wobble, baby. Wobble, baby. Wobble, baby. Wobble, yeah. Wobble, baby. Wobble, baby. Wobble, baby. Wobble, yeah. Wobble, baby. Wobble, baby. Wobble, baby. Wobble, yeah. Wobble, baby. Wobble, baby. Wobble, baby. Wobble, yeah. Get in there. Yeah, yeah. Get in there. Yeah, yeah.

BLOCK: You are listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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