Essence Fest: When Is a Music Festival Not About Music?

New Orleans and the Essence Fest make sweet music together

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Sean Gardner / Getty Images

Chaka Khan performs at the 2011 Essence Music Festival at the Louisiana Superdome on July 2, 2011 in New Orleans

New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz, has a longstanding relationship with music—music contributes to the city’s sense of history as well as the present-day atmosphere of the region. And with the Essence Music Festival opening in the city today, it’s clear that music also has tangible, measurable benefits for the city.

The latest U.S. census data places New Orleans as the fastest-growing city in the nation, according to Bloomberg, due to post-Hurricane Katrina bounce-back. At least part of the city’s economic growth is due to tourism; $5.5 billion in tourist revenue came into the city in 2011—and a portion of that sum comes from the Essence Fest. The festival, an annual African-American music celebration that was originally intended to mark the 25th anniversary of Essence magazine (owned by Time Inc.), has now taken place each July for nearly two decades and attracts about 400,000 attendees. “The city and state recognize the significant economic contribution that’s been made there—over $100 million over the July Fourth weekend, which had, prior to that, been a lull in the tourism season,” says Michelle Ebanks, President of Essence Communications. This year, the weekend is also a chance for the New Orleans Business Alliance to show off the city to executives who could bring future business, reports the Times-Picayune.

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It’s not unique for a music festival to benefit city coffers: last year, Bonnaroo made about $20 million for the Tennessee region in which the music festival is held, and the South by Southwest festival in the same year contributed a cool $167 million to Austin. But adding dollars to the city’s economy is not the full extent of the Essence Festival’s commitment to New Orleans, the city that has hosted all but one of the festivals (the exception took place following Hurricane Katrina). Throughout the weekend, the festival hosts empowerment-themed discussions for attendees, as well as events to both celebrate and help citizens.

The pairing of music and community is a natural one for Essence, says Ebanks. “The relationship of the music, empowerment and community is seamless. The fact that there are these three key pillars of the Essence Fest is what makes this experience unique,” she says. “Essence is created to affirm and empower black women and, while we’re there for a celebration and a great time, we also believe it’s important to reflect their passion for family, community and personal and professional growth.” When the festival was first created, she adds, the editorial director at the time—before Ebanks joined the company—said that they couldn’t “just have a party,” a statement that set the tone for years to come. This year’s festival theme, “The Power of Our Voice,” lends itself to a focus on election-year discussion topics such as education and the role of the black church in politics; the speakers will range from the Rev. Al Sharpton to Congresswoman Maxine Waters of California.

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In addition, the typically three-day festival is expanding its focus on youth empowerment by adding a fourth day to the line-up. Today is the festival’s inaugural youth day, which will conclude with a performance by millennial-generation artists (Diggy Simmons and The OMG Girlz, among others). During the day, events include presentations from the empowerment groups: Saving Our Sons, under the aegis of Mayor Mitch Landrieu, provides mentoring to help teenage boys avoid violence in New Orleans, the U.S. city with the highest murder rate. Girl Up NOLA, led by New Orleans’ First Lady Cheryl Landrieu, focuses on personal development and positive role models for young girls. “What we know from our surveys and insights with the audience is that this generation of black women feels a tremendous responsibility to refocus on efforts to educate our youth,” says Ebanks. “This fourth day is a recognition of that heightened focus.”

After the youth day, the community-development elements of the festival will address adults who are also still growing. For example, a program called the SuperLife Transformation was begun at last year’s festival, and on Saturday singer Chaka Khan will speak at a public “commencement” ceremony for the participants, 33 local women who completed a program (run by the Chaka Khan Foundation, Essence and IWES—the Institute of Women & Ethnic Studies) built around helping each one determine and achieve her personal goals.

The connection between the program and the festival is no coincidence: SuperLife was born last year at the Essence Fest, when Chaka Khan visited the city for the first time since Hurricane Katrina.”I felt a very strange vibe,” says Khan, who asked the women who worked at her hotel how they were doing—and learned that, even years after the hurricane, they were struggling to cope with losing their homes and, in many cases, their families. “I heard such devastating stuff,” she says, “and I thought, ‘I can’t just come down here and sing a song and leave.'” She says she approached Essence about finding a way to help, and the connection to IWES was made. When Khan returned this spring to see the women who had taken part in the program, she says it was like meeting new people: they had closed on houses, started businesses—and one had even formed a band, with whom Khan will perform. Following this weekend’s graduation ceremony, that first group of participants will serve as mentors to the next class.

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While it was a music festival that brought the group together, Chaka Khan says that the giving is on equal footing with the music. “I just happen to hold a station in life where I can reach many people at once, but it’s not the quantity of the giving, it’s the quality of the giving,” she says. “I’m Chaka Khan. I’m a singer. That’s one thing I do. That’s how I make my living; it’s my job but it’s also my calling. But I have a calling that’s equally strong, and that is to be of service.”

And those organizing the music festival agree: “The festival’s relationship to the city and the state of Louisiana has never been stronger,” says Ebanks. “It’s truly a partnership.”

More information on the Essence Music Festival, which takes place July 5 – 8 is available here.