Essence Festival wraps up a 4-day celebration of Black culture

NEW ORLEANS — For 30 years, the Essence Festival of Culture has brought together people from all walks of life and from around the world to connect through conversation, shared experiences and, of course, music.

The nation’s largest annual celebration of Black culture was set to end Sunday with musical performances by Janet Jackson and a special tribute to Frankie Beverly & Maze, the soul band that closed the event for the festival’s first 15 years. Beverly, now 77, has said he is stepping away from performing live, and the group has been on a farewell tour.

Others scheduled to perform included Victoria Monét, Teedra Moses, Tank and the Bangas, Dawn Richard, SWV, Jagged Edge, Bilal and Anthony Hamilton.

Barkue Tubman-Zawolo, chief of staff, talent and diasporic engagement for Essence Ventures, told The Associated Press the festival helps connect the global Black community.

“Historically, as Black people, sometimes we’re not sure where our heritage comes from,” Tubman-Zawolo said. “America is just one place. But within America there’s a melting pot of different Black cultures: Africa, Latin, Europe, the Caribbean. Understanding that allows our power to be even greater.”

Tubman-Zawolo said those connections could be seen throughout this year’s Film Festival, held at the city’s convention center, where fans heard from storytellers from Nigeria, Ghana and the Caribbean “who are targeting our stories about us, for us, globally. ”

She noted similar connections through the Food and Wine stage, where discussions highlighted Caribbean and African cuisine; the Soko Market Place, where vendors from all over the world shared their craft; and on the Caesars Superdome stage, which spotlighted Caribbean and African artists including Machel Montano of Trinidad and Ayra Starr of Nigeria.

“All of that occurred over four days,” Tubman-Zawolo said. “But the beauty of it is, it doesn’t stay here. (Fans) take it with them.”

New Orleans Mayor Latoya Cantrell said this year’s “We Love Us” theme was appropriate.

“This whole ‘We Love Us’ theme brought us together to build communities,” she said.

The festival’s impact on the city and state has surpassed $300 million, with more than 500,000 people visiting since 1994.

Essence started the festival as a way to celebrate 25 years of the magazine’s history.

“The locals are being incorporated in a manner that we can see and touch and feel and smell. That has been a part of the evolution of Essence,” Cantrell said.

The event’s current contract ends in 2026, but Essence Ventures CEO Caroline Wanga has said the festival’s “forever home” is New Orleans.

“That’s what we believe as well,” Cantrell said. “We have a foundation that’s been laid over 30 years. The city is always ready and prepared to host this event and more. I think staying in New Orleans is the best fit and best marriage, the best partnership.”

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