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)

Now, of course, as the name of the festival implies, you have come for the music, but it won’t be easy to go to all the concerts, my friend. Sure, Kanye West is going to close out opening night at the Superdome, but you have met the woman of your dreams unexpectedly outside of the Sheraton Hotel on Canal Street, and she’s not going to the concert. She says she’s here for the free world-class workshops at EMF’s Empowerment Experience, which take place during the day at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. She’s also here for the parties, one of which is happening at the same time Kanye is scheduled to hit the stage.

What do you do?

Don’t be a dummy. You go see Kanye West. Not only is the music the reason you’re there in the first place; there will be more of the second reason you’re there (the women) at the Superdome who are also going to see Kanye West or Beyonc√© or Janet Jackson or Chris Rock or Mary J. Blige or Maxwell. I saw all of these acts live at EMF. This year, they’re bringing out Beyonc√©, which for EMF, is business as usual. The parties will go on long after the final act has left the stage, and you still have two whole days of parties ahead of you.

Save the sightseeing beyond the French Quarter for another trip to the N.O. During EMF, the French Quarter is where you need to be because, plainly put, that’s where the people are. Grab a bite to eat at Mother’s (401 Poydras St.), where they claim to have the world’s best baked ham, but I’m convinced they’re just being modest. Everything at Mother’s tastes like it’s the world’s best version of it. For example, the seafood gumbo, which I ordered.

If you don’t feel like waiting in the long line that stretches outside of Mother’s, walk over to Deanie’s Seafood (841 Iberville St.) in the heart of the French Quarter. There will be a wait as well, but you won’t have to stand in line; just lounge in the bar area or go outside and people-watch. Whatever you do, get there early enough to get a serving of crawfish. If you get seated at 2 p.m., there’s a good chance you’ve missed out.

Upon leaving your restaurant of choice, go get a Hurricane, and don’t sit down to drink it. Walk around the streets of the Quarter or all the way to the convention center, cup in hand. This is New Orleans; you can do that.

The same thing you did last night is the same thing you will do Saturday night, and the same thing you will do Sunday night. You will go to the shows at the Superdome. When you get in a cab to get there, try to share a ride with people you don’t know. There are more adventures that way. Catch a blast from the past like Raphael Saadiq in one of the Superlounges, or one of the legendary homegrown acts like Rebirth Brass Band. At some point, you will wobble, baby, wobble, baby, wobble, baby, wobble. At the end of the night your feet will hurt, but that’s nothing another drink can’t numb (don’t be alarmed, this weekend was made for drinking), and so you do what’s prescribed, and you go on to the next party.

The truth is that most of my Essence Fest memories, the best ones at least, are a blur. I remember the big-time acts I witnessed, and I will never forget the days my friends and I spent lounging in the lobby of the W Hotel, taking down shots of Jameson with a pretty bartender we called Coach. There were also the day parties at places like the House of Blues where 2:00 p.m. felt like 2:00 a.m. My brain pastes them all together, so they kind of blur into a Romare Bearden-like collage of food that appeals to all five senses. But in the middle of it all remains the one clear image I always remember about Essence Music Festival in New Orleans, Fourth of July Weekend: Smiling faces.

Click here for The Root’s ultimate summer festival guide, and find out where to eat, sleep and party while you’re attending some of the season’s hottest events.

Jozen Cummings is a writer living in Harlem, N.Y. You can follow him on Twitter and read his blog,