There's something uniquely New Orleans about being serenaded by an Obama-hat-wearing trumpet player while perched next to the Mississippi River, munching hot beignets buried beneath piles of powdered sugar. Add to that the presence of thousands of doozied up black folks from around the country celebrating the Fourth of July. There, you have the Essence Music Festival.
Spanning three days and nights, the festival attracts an estimated 150,000 party people to the Crescent City each year. By day, attendees head to the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center for free seminars and mini-concerts, shopping, celebrity meet-and-greets and prize giveaways. Each night, concerts go down at the Superdome.
I'm still a rookie when it comes to the fest, now in its 14th year. This is only my sophomore voyage to the Big Easy. But after attending for the first time last summer, it has officially become the new annual trip for two primary reasons: location and demographics. These two elements blend to form a matchless experience that cannot be duplicated in any other city with any other group of people (Ask anyone who attended Essence 2006 in Houston.) Therefore, my attraction to the event has less to do with the festival itself, but more with the dynamics of meshing the city's heavy cultural roots with a mature and energetic crowd.
As the birthplace of jazz, New Orleans pulses with art and authenticity, making it a prime location to host the festivities. There aren't many cities where it's possible to be awakened by the sultry song of a saxophone player outside a window at 9 a.m. Nor is it a normal occurrence in Anywhere, USA to stumble across a 10-piece brass band comprised of black youths lighting up the street corner and jamming hard for hours.
In addition, everywhere you need to be downtown is within walking distance, and everywhere else is just a short cab ride away. Packs of black folks strolled the French Quarter and Canal, women in sundresses and thin-soled flip flops, men in jean shorts and Jordans, making the journey from point A to point B all the more appealing.
At night, we opted for downtown and French Quarter nightlife in lieu of the Essence concerts. Although headliners included artists such as Kanye West, Jill Scott and Patti LaBelle, I needed to sample local cultural offerings and taste the music found in the numerous hole-in-the-wall nightspots. Besides, I can wait for the other folks to go on tour.
The beauty of the nightlife in NO is the fusion of options. You can sip pinot grigio while listening to a jazz quartet at the Jazz Emporium, rock to a blues set at Sing Sing, The Old Opera House or The Funky 544 Club, and dance to the latest hip-hop at Razzoo. Or, you may just post up and observe the steady flow of bodies up and down Bourbon Street. In some spots, it took nearly two minutes to cross the street in order to diagonally ride the current of the massive crowds.
During the day, my girlfriends and I visited the convention center, where we enjoyed performances that included Avant and Dwele, danced to Biz Markie deejaying on the turntables, collected some free stuff and attended a seminar featuring Bill Cosby and Alvin Poussaint regarding failing schools and the achievement gap. We also attended a panel with Sean Bell's family and the Rev. Al Sharpton. Similar seminars of the political and social nature ran throughout each day, providing moments of inspiration and empowerment before the evening's debauchery.
Grown and sexy is the vibe during Essence Festival, with healthy helpings of friendly and familiar. You'll see families and kids during the daytime convention center activities, but I'll venture to say most of the crowd is probably 30 and up. Women aren't flashing their breasts for beads. Foolishness is at a minimum. Yet by no means does maturity equate to lame when it comes to partying. Folks still roam the streets until the wee hours of the morning sipping Hand Grenades, hurricanes and daiquiris.
"We're strong; we'll survive," the lead singer of In a Minute proclaimed to a packed house inside The Old Opera House club on Bourbon. When it comes to life after Katrina, the locals I spoke with all seemed to have the same sentiments. There is still much work to be done, but more than anything, residents are glad to be home.
Likewise, so are the thousands of people who consider the city home for Fourth of July weekend.
Faith Maginley is a freelance writer and journalist in Central Florida.
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