The annual Essence Festival of Culture returned to New Orleans from June 29 to July 3, banding together more than 200,000 people to celebrate Black excellence, with programming spanning across music, beauty, food, wellness, finance, publishing, art and beyond.
“I feel like I’m back home,” one attendee told Sweet July as we entered the doors of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. It’s a sentiment that could be felt in every room and on every stage throughout the festival. It was the energy of community; the uplifting feeling that we’re all in this together.
Sweet July broke down a few of these bonding moments:
A celebration of Black hair
National Crown Day very fittingly fell on the last day of Essence Fest (July 3), as the beauty and versatility of Black hair was front and center. Braid and loc styles definitely won the popularity contest—they are, after all, the styles of the season (and ideal for the Nola heat!). BeautyCon returned with its first in-person presence since 2019. L’Oréal had an activation where attendees could sign a petition that would require all states to have cosmetologists learn how to do all hair types (it is currently only in effect in Louisiana) and were also inviting attendees to get their hair touched up. Bevel had an activation in walking distance from the convention center and was giving haircuts to both men and women. Tracee Ellis Ross’s Pattern Beauty held a House of Hydration event, with people on-site giving edge tutorials and curl refreshes. And we can’t forget the craze that was Mielle Organics’ popular booth!
Honoring 50 years of Hip-Hop
This year’s nighttime concert series was all about celebrating the legacy of hip-hop—50 years after its inception in the Bronx, New York. Music legends including Doug E. Fresh, Big Daddy Kane and Slick Rick took the stage to remind everyone in the audience (and at home) of hip-hop’s origins. Angie Martinez hosted an “In Real Life” all-female hip-hop showcase featuring Eve, Mia X, Remy Ma, Salt-N-Pepa, and Trina. AT&T Dream in Black hosted a variety of performances from emerging artists including LaRussell and Mali Music.
Sweet July also attended a Pinterest “Throwbacks Brunch” featuring the best music and accessories of the 99s and the 2000s, and a tooth gems booth from Bling By Bianca.
Spotlighting the value of HBCUs
Acknowledgment of Historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and their value was a buzzing discussion—timely, given the Supreme Court’s ruling banning affirmative action in the college admissions process. Leaders, including Vice President Kamala Harris weighed in to express their disappointment regarding the decision. Others seized the opportunity to emphasize how proud they are to have attended an HBCU. During Sunday’s Superdome concert, the set was paused to shout out Divine nine organizations, during which the many calls of the Black fraternities and sororities could be heard across the audience. The DJ proceeded to play “Swag Surf”—the unspoken Black college anthem. And, our very own Sweet July resident Alex Hill co-moderated a panel highlighting the importance of HBCUs.
Highlighting Black art
Black creativity and innovation was abundant. Essence Authors highlighted wordsmiths like Kevin and Melissa Fredericks, and Essence Food & Wine gave chefs a platform for interactive cooking demos. Soko Market showcased a sea of Black-owned vendors and housed business-focused conversations like its panel around building and scaling a food startup, moderated by Dine Diaspora’s Nina Oduro. For the first time, the film festival incorporated a day to celebrate Nigeria’s “Nollywood,”—Africa’s biggest sector of the film industry. Essence Studios also featured talks where actors, directors and producers compared their experiences in Hollywood.
Of course, championing sisterhood
All three nights of Essence Fest’s concert series were headlined by a woman (Lauryn Hill, Missy Elliot and Megan Thee Stallion). And on each of those nights, sisterhood was front and center, in moments like Jill Scott giving Missy (whom she opened for) her flowers and expressing what an honor it was to be sharing the stage.
The same energy could be felt during the festival’s daytime experiences. Sweet July roamed the streets of Nola asking Essence Fest attendees what they look for in forming strong tribes. Turns out many were attending the festival with their best friends. Others had met new promising connections.
We also caught up with Run The World actress Bresha Webb to learn what she cherishes about her real-life friendships with her co-stars.
“We all connect in a very deep, spiritual way and we lift each other up when we need it,” Webb tells Sweet July. “It’s real, because sometimes you just need someone to lean on who can lean back on you and say, ‘It’s alright girl, come on’ and give you the inspiration to move forward.”
Amen to that!
Writing and reporting by Brianne Garrett and Imani Bashir