What do you get when you bring hundreds of thousands of people to New Orléans and give them live music, fashion, film, beauty, art, and more? You get the magic that is Essence Festival. The 2017 festival, held from June 30-July 2nd, brought out performances from Diana Ross, Mary J. Blige, Chance the Rapper, Jazmine Sullivan, Moses Sumney, Teyana Taylor, and more. The three-day cultural extravaganza is so much more than your average music festival. Music and Other Drugs have attended many festivals, but when we arrived in New Orléans the Thursday before the festival, we knew there was something different about Essence Fest.
The spirit and culture of New Orléans is unlike any other experience in the world. The music, the food, the people, everything about New Orléans is steeped in a rich culture, and the blackness is felt as soon as you touch down. On the eve of Essence Fest, we went to Willa Jean to get dinner and drinks with a friend who raved about their “F’Rose.” When we arrived, many of the editors of Essence were sitting there, and we knew from that point, seeing all of these beautiful black women who run the publication, that we were in for a treat. One editor told us about the impact of Essence Fest stating “the festival brings nearly half a million people from all over the world.” Although the Super Dome doesn’t hold nearly that many people, in the days to come, we saw that Essence Fest was much more than watching musical acts perform at night, but more of a family reunion of the black diaspora coming from all over the world to be in one central place, and celebrate one another for all that we are.
As a black owned indie music site, we were excited for Essence Fests lineup of indie and up and coming acts. The lineup included Moses Sumney, PJ Morton, Yuna, Teyana Taylor, Lizzo, Daley, June’s Diary, Chloe x Halle, Ari Lennox and many more. Essence Fest provided a platform for these rising talents for the world to see. On Friday, our first performance was Moses Sumney. He captivated the crowd with his pure vocals. Sumney’s music seeps into your soul, and puts you in a trance from beginning to end. He sung his cut “Plastic” and you could feel the energies connecting in the room. Next up, we saw the super talented Gallant. He reminds us of a millennial version of Maxwell, and creates music for the heart and soul. Watching Gallant is an outer body experience, he puts his all into his performance, and leaves every bit of him on that stage. The “Weight in Gold” singer had the audience locked in as he went through his cuts “Bourbon, Bone + Tissue,” and our favorite “Percogesic.” As the night came to a close, we got an opportunity to see the legendary Diana Ross. Diana Ross put me in the back seat of my mother’s car, listening to Diana Ross as a small child. Ross’ music has transcended decades, and is still important today, as it was when it was released decades ago. She still has it, and never missed a beat.
Saturday’s lineup was super special. The lineup was curated by Mary J. Blige, who recently put out her Strength of a Woman album. The all-female lineup included The Jones Girls, Teyana Taylor, Remy Ma, Michel’le, Lizzo, Lalah Hathway, Jhene Aiko, Ari Lennox, Monica, Jazmine Sullivan, Chaka Khan, Jill Scott, and the Queen of Hip-Hop & R&B, Mary J. Blige. The night was filled with so much love, empowerment, and badass women showing us the many facets of a woman. Rising artist Lizzo was a fun way to start our night. Singing favorites “Good As Hell,” “Scuse Me,” and “Coconut Oil,” lifted us that Saturday night. Her energy is infectious, and her attitude is unapologetic. Lizzo is a star in the making, and Essence couldn’t have picked a better up and coming performer to represent for the indie women. As we approached Jhene’s set, one hiccup we realized with the super lounges is that the stage sits very low. We were standing in the back, and when Jhene came out on stage, we realized we couldn’t see much of her. The band was so loud that the softness of Jhene’s vocals were overpowered. Still, that couldn’t stray her fans from singing her every word. We then were blessed with the vocalist that is Monica Brown. MaOD are longtime fans of Monica, and she gave us the cuts we came to hear. An act we looked forward to see the most that night was Mary J. Blige. To see Mary in a room full of black women is special. The connection that many black women have with Mary J. Blige is indelible. Coming off of a public divorce, Mary put her all on the stage, and kept it 100 with the audience. As therapeutic as Mary’s performance must’ve been for her, you could feel the healing powers it provided to the audience.
The last night of Essence Festival seemed to feature mostly acts for us millennials. Chance the Rapper was headlining, and featured acts Solange, Chloe x Halle, Elle Varner, Tweet, June’s Diary, BJ the Chicago Kid, and more. The last night of Essence Fest was huge for us. This night was also the first time, fans got the see Xscape perform live in-person. The crowd just to get into the super lounge was crazy, and many fans were not let in the already at capacity room. We were fortunate enough to have made it inside to witness the Atlanta super group that provided us with many classic cuts. The girls never skipped a beat, and were incredible from beginning to end. A highlight of the night was also Solange. With the release of her album, A Seat at the Table, Solange’s performance was important to see for various reasons. The cultural impact that ASATT provided was felt as a collective audience as she performed. New Orléans as the epicenter of this performance also added to the blackness of the body of work. Dressed in all red, Solange and her band gave a performance we will never forget.
I was most excited as No Limit Records was performing live. Since I was a child, I was obsessed with Mia X, Mystikal Silkk the Shocker, Master P, and the entire No Limit movement. Being in New Orleans, seeing the artists of No Limit perform live was an experience that will never be forgotten. Master P even brought out Sons of Funk to perform “Pushin’ Inside of You.” I felt like the only person in the room, singing this classic deep cut. From Mia X’s “The Party Don’t Stop,” to Master P’s “Mr. Ice Cream Man,” No Limit defined an era, and with each song that was performed, it solidified their importance in rap music, the importance of New Orléans rap artists, and really encapsulated the Essence Festival experience. There is truly something here for everybody. The celebration of blackness, the celebration of women, the celebration of men, of hair, of body, of culture, of religion, of people is all felt as Essence Festival.
That Thursday we arrived in New Orléans, we knew we were in for something special. We left with a more defined purpose, of self-awareness, and proud of being black. Essence Festival is so much more than your typical music festival, it’s a way of life, it’s a family reunion, and it’s a bond that can only be known if it is experienced. One thing MaOD knows for sure, is that we will be back for many years to come.