Change is inevitable but is it always good? When it comes to this year’s Essence Fest, a popular 29-year-old musical cultural event, Gen Z, and Baby Boomers certainly don’t think so.
Each year that the Essence Fest takes place, attendees expect to see some of the biggest names in music, comedy, and entertainment. But the four-day festival in New Orleans, which centers on Black women’s empowerment, generational wealth, and wellness, took a turn for the worst this year according to the 40-plus crowd.
Since its inception in 1995, Essence festival-goers have had the opportunity to attend a variety of speakers, seminars, and workshops on topics such as health, beauty, and self-care. But since Essence Ventures, a Black-owned business that merges content, community, and commerce, acquired Essence Communications Inc. from Time Inc. in 2018, the trajectory of the festival is seemingly different.
Even with Caroline Wanga being named the President and CEO of ESSENCE Ventures, its recent reorganization now caters to a younger and ratchet crowd. That said, Janelle Monáe performed her hit single, “Yoga,” during which she briefly flashed one of her breasts, but her gesture, according to her, was a political statement. Freeing the nipple was a stance against recent legislation that rolled back abortion rights and the growing culture of policing women’s bodies.
While her expression of angst against anti-feminists was embraced by some concert-goers, and even shown on the Essence Fest’s social media pages, others had a different reading of the act.
“We want to encourage our women to think more of themselves than that. It’s not just how we look and how much we can shake around. I think we have enough of that right now,” said NYU student Tamara Blocker-Walker, who attended Essence Fest in 2011.
To add more fuel to the feminist fire, Monáe and a group of women joined rapper Megan Thee Stallion on stage, for a twerk-filled Hot Girl Boot Camp. Thee Stallion, who was the closing act of the performances, used her signature booty-clapping and poom-poom-popping antics for a collective shake, rattle, and roll.
“I don’t know what happened to Janelle Monáe. She started off as a much more positive artist,” Rasheem Palmer, Manager of REI and Community Engagement, told Ark Republic.
Ironically, the theme of Essence Fest was illustrated more clearly in her first song, “Tightrope,” which talked about keeping a positive attitude no matter what the haters say. “Maybe she changed the direction of her music for the money,” continued Palmer.
“Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with celebrating the beauty of Black women, and their curves. And maybe to a certain extent, women feel empowered when they twerk, I don’t know. But I just feel there’s a place and a time for everything,” shared Blocker-Walker.
Neo-soul singer, India Arie, certainly had something to say regarding the sentiment behind this year’s performance. “The issue is what is CONTEXT? Humanity does EVERYTHING. But does EVERYTHING BELONG IN A STAGE? No. Is everything for KIDS? No. Is everything for EVERYBODY? NO. So when we as a culture make something like this mainstream, it shows a lack of discretion [and] discernment.”
“[I’d] like to go on the record saying: this won’t age well, and that’s my issue. I LOVE Janelle and Meg the way I love us all—And I don’t like this moment,” Arie continued.
Indeed, music exerts a powerful influence and should be handled with great responsibility.
“You cannot tell me that you had Chaka Khan and Jill Scott [for] one year, and then you put Meagan the Stallion on the next. I just feel like that’s an insult. Chaka? Like, come on Jill?” added Blocker-Walker.
There is a certain caliber of artist that performs during Essence Fest and Megan Thee Stallion and Janelle Monáe are not in that class, according to Blocker-Walker. Indeed, the timeless subject matter in songs such as Chaka Khan’s “Woman Like Me” and Jill Scott’s “(The Fact Is) I Need You” are the polar opposite of songs that tout the message of put your hands on your knees and twerk.
While the philosophy of feminism promotes the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes, songs such as Jill Scott’s “(The Fact Is) I Need You” highlight all the things women are capable of without discounting the necessity of men.
In addition to the uncensored performances, there were also complaints about the amount of male rap artists, due to the 50th anniversary of hip-hop. Despite this, more can be learned from younger rap artists paying homage to their predecessors such as Doug E. Fresh and EPMD according to Blocker-Walker.
“I feel the older generation [can collab] with the younger generation. There are other younger artists, and younger trends that we can [use] other than twerking. It’s like what are we selling here? What are we doing?”
No need to reinvent the wheel
As the idiom says, leave well enough alone. Indeed, from the beignets, coffee, and gumbo to boat rides on the Bayou and the time-honored tradition of locals pinning money on your clothes if it’s your birthday, there is so much that New Orleans has to offer all by itself. It’s hard to get a better deal than that, especially when you add the seminars, workshops, and performances to the Essence Fest package.
Twitter user Nijia Vaughn said, “Essence Fest used to be a festival where a lot of RnB artists and legends would perform, and you could bring your family to enjoy it. Now they [are] trying to cater to Gen Z, and it’s looking like a ratchet fest.”
Aligning with the purpose
The lifestyle, fashion, and beauty of Black women are the focus of Essence magazine. The publication places a strong emphasis on issues relating to employment and wealth, healthy living, and fashion. Out of that Essence Fest was born and it is unquestionably the same sentiment that has been carried over to the festival. But did Essence Ventures mirror that vision this year? According to Essence Ventures Chief Marketing Officer, Erika J. Bennett it did.
“I can’t think of a better connection to 50 years in hip hop than a Black magazine that serves Black women putting them at the forefront,” said Bennett.
“Hip hop means so much to me. It’s important for us as Black women to continue to honor the important role that Black women played in hip hop and continue to play in hip hop, so that’s a very big deal, Bennett continued.
Chief Content Officer God-is Rivera, in agreement with Bennet, stated, “This year’s Essence Fest was strategically pivotal . . . We wanted to make sure we were able to scale this experience on what is relevant in Black culture, and 50 years of hip hop is massively impactful.”
“With Missy Elliot, I would say yes, with Megan Thee Stallion. I don’t know [about] Megan,” Rachelle Louis-Jacques, Senior Fraud Analyst of Bank of America told Ark Republic.
Although Lauryn Hill along with Missy Elliot and Megan Thee Stallion headlined the event, Louis-Jacques “[doesn’t consider] them to be in the same category.”
The finance professional once excited about attending Essence Fest in the near future is now not so sure if it is worth attending anymore. “I’m not sure there [will be] any good people that represent who we are or who we should be or who I want my daughter to look up to,” said Louis-Jacques.
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Like many companies that buy an established brand, there is a push-and-pull around its identity. Since the 2018 acquisition, it seems that the company that once owned Shea Moisture is still finding out what it wants to be in a rapidly changing society where A.I. seems to fastly encroach on reality, and we are wondering what is real versus what is fabricated. While Essence Ventures boasts to be a woman-led, all Black and independently owned company, those statistics are simply not enough anymore.
Will Essence Ventures pass the baton to more wholesome artists or, will they continue to sacrifice the integrity of the festival for the sake of remaining relevant? Only time will tell. Even though we can’t predict what the future of Essence Fest holds, Black women who made the festival what it is have made it clear that they’re unhappy with its ratchet overshadowing.