New Orleans’ Weekend of Smiling Faces

Summer Festival Road Trip: Essence Music Festival has plenty of distractions, but don't forget the music.

Mary J. Blige performing at the 2012 Essence Music Festival (Erika Goldring/Getty Images)
Mary J. Blige performing at the 2012 Essence Music Festival (Erika Goldring/Getty Images)

(The Root) — There was only one reason five guys journeyed to New Orleans on a Fourth of July weekend five years ago: women. Black women. All shades, shapes and sizes of ladies from all over the world were going to be in Nola for the annual Essence Music Festival.

To my four friends and me, this was a no-brainer, built-in holiday-weekend activity. Take a city as magical as New Orleans, add in what was sure to be thousands upon thousands of Essence readers (which translated to African-American women) and splash on a lineup of musical artists people wait their whole lives to see, and voilà! You have a weekend tailor-made for good times and great memories.

That was our theory the first year we went, in 2008. We continued to go back for the next four years.

I can get teary-eyed when I talk about the times I had at Essence Music Festival. Sure, my friends and I originally went for the very generous ratio of women to men, but that’s not why we came back (OK, I lied), but when we would leave, the women were not all we were talking about. We also salivated about some of the food we ate and broke out in a mini two-step when a memory of a concert consumed our whole body. We couldn’t wait to go back, starting from the moment we left.

Essence Music Festival, or EMF, began in 1995 and was planned as a one-time extravaganza in New Orleans to celebrate Essence magazine’s 25th anniversary. Clearly, it turned out to be more than just a one-time thing. The annual event — held during Fourth of July weekend — includes concerts and a massive convention, including vendors and seminars. Now in its 19th year, the festival has featured such music superstars as Prince, Mary J. Blige, Aretha Franklin, Kanye West and Janet Jackson. This year, Beyoncé will headline EMF for the second time.

My first trip to EMF was also my first trip to New Orleans. This was three years after Hurricane Katrina, and thus it was a city still reeling and recovering from devastation, both man-made and God-sent. The night I landed, I was expecting to see some trace of that in the faces of the people, but I saw no such thing. All that met my eyes when I walked off the plane from New York City were smiling faces. They knew why we were all there, and the good people I met were more than happy to host us.

It has been like that every time I arrive, and it remains that way the whole weekend. It’s like some sort of rule down there on that weekend, and the rule says if you want to attend EMF weekend, you have to wear a smile. Maybe this rule doesn’t last year round, but it has been applied like the law the weekends I’ve been there.

Now, of course, if you’re there for EMF, the best hotel is the W New Orleans (333 Poydras St.), a mere three blocks from Bourbon Street. If not there, go for the Sheraton Hotel or the J.W. Marriott Hotel, both on Canal Street. But whatever you do, a hotel in or around the French Quarter is the way to go. Take it from me, I spent one year at a bed-and-breakfast in the city’s flower district, which was comfortable and close, but not on top of all the action. A local once told me that EMF attracts the third-largest gathering of people after Mardi Gras and the Super Bowl. This means that if you haven’t booked a room at one of the more in-demand hotels like the W (which I might add is directly across the street from Harrah’s Casino), you might end up in a bed-and-breakfast far from the excitement. That’s what procrastination gets you. 

Wherever you stay, understand the bed is just extra space for you to spread out your clothes, because sleep, while an option, is not encouraged during EMF. There are things to do and people to meet — lots of things, lots of people. You won’t meet them all, because you’re human and not a social superhero, but you can give it your best shot, and EMF deserves your best, most well-rested shot. Sleep before you get there and sleep when you leave; while you’re there, nap at most.