The Essence Music Festival vs. New Orleans
A corporate event in the struggling city brings stars and money but also creates tensions with the locals.
Mama Jen, whose business involves serving those communities of modest means, said Essence Fest provides great "camaraderie" and a chance for African Americans across the country "to come see the positive things that New Orleans is doing instead of always hearing about the negative stuff, like the murders." However, she also says they could do a better job of steering attendees to local brands. "They could make us more visible," said Mama Jen, from the back of the expo floor, behind spaces occupied by TV stations TNT and CNN. "I know corporations have all the rights. We just black, but they got all the green.
And while her space is smaller than previous years, she says, despite paying the same vendor rate, and she's not pleased that Wal-Mart was also in the house selling books, she said she was grateful of the exposure to new customers. Also, the revenue she collects from the festival is "a significant part" of their yearly gross. This ambivalence probably sums up best the Essence experience for the local New Orleanian: Love the tourism dollars, hate being overshadowed.
A study presented by the University of New Orleans, "2009 African American Travelers' Perception of Louisiana as a Tourism Destination" shows that black people are most interested in attending fairs and festivals when visiting the state and most popularly in July -- when the Essence Fest is. According to an Essence Music Festival fact sheet ("Presented by Coca-Cola") the focus of the event is "the 'rebirth' of New Orleans," and is "expected ... to benefit the local and state economy to the tune of $200 million." Since the first festival, it's added "nearly $1.5 billion" to the state's economy -- or about $100 million annually over 15 years (the summer after Katrina it was held in Houston). The spending at hotels, restaurants and shops outside the festival eases tax burdens and supplies jobs, but those are non-union service jobs that mostly don't pay living wages.
Meanwhile, New Orleans is facing a $62 million budget deficit, mostly attributable to overspending by previous mayoral administrations, according to the current mayor Mitch Landrieu. The past few years saw the city spend over $100 million more than it collected in revenue, and as a result jobs in city government might be lost until the budget can be balanced.
An interesting study would gauge African-American New Orleanians' perception of Essence, especially for those who can't make the concerts. The free daytime expo gives some spotlight to vendors like Mama Jen, and dozens of local non-profits throughout the city, such as Ashe Cultural Center, the Backstreet Cultural Museum in Treme, and the Gulf Restoration Network. This priceless entry fee for locals and visitors to learn more about the region's activism is more than what's offered by, say, the Voodoo Music Festival, or the Jazz and Heritage Festival, both corporate-saturated events with high gate fees.
The concert line-up this year included many top-brass names -- Janet Jackson, Alicia Keys, Mary J. Blige, Keri Hilson, and Trey Songz, to name a few. But not many brass bands were represented, though these make New Orleans the attraction it is, and many local musicians who play in these bands are struggling. Local reception to this emphasis on mainstream artists, and their performances, was uneven. "Very poor showing," said Deborah Cotton, who runs the local blog Notes from New Orleans. "The sound quality was so bad -- like boombox bad."