The Essence Music Festival's Marketplace and Art Expo this past weekend resembled a Monopoly board. Spaces around the perimeter of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center's conference halls were bought, or rather leased. Instead of houses and hotels marking properties, there were stages and DJ booths popping all over. The area held by carmaker Lincoln featured shiny, silver Navigator SUVs glimmering like updated versions of the tiny, aluminum race car that come with the Monopoly board game.
The massive area was far more marketplace than art, and all the top corporate sponsors — Coca-Cola, Wal-Mart, McDonald's — to name a few — were duly represented, along with prominent placement, curiously, for the U.S. Army. If nothing else, it was an exhibition of capitalism, and the corporations knew how to reach their captive market — through disc jockeys.
In a far back corner was a bookstore run by the local vendor Community Book Center, whose bookstore in New Orleans' Seventh Ward is an essential ingredient of the city. For 25 years, it's nourished families with books, educational seminars, art expos and its own musical festivals. When Essence visits, though, the Community's owners and operators Vera Warren-Williams and "Mama Jen" are in the Marketplace every year, greeting and rewarding the city's guests in a way that neither the mega-corporates nor the Army could. The Book Center is this event's version of Monopoly's "Community Chest."
However, the scene outside the convention center, beyond the Superdome where the nighttime concerts are held, is a city that's been failed by markets and the Army alike. When disasters such as oil spills and hurricanes have arisen, Louisiana has been left vulnerable by the Army Corps of Engineers' failure to build adequate levees and protective barrier islands. And when public housing was demolished, wiping away the few homes still standing for low-income families that the breached-levee floods didn't destroy, markets were supposed to chip in to help erect replacement affordable housing. That hasn't happened yet.
With Essence Fest, there's a legitimate question whether the 40-year-old women's magazine has a special obligation to provide more prominent placement to local businesses and artists. The expo is free — a great service — but the cost to attend the concerts can be prohibitive ($53 for nosebleed seats; $180 for the floor; as high as $3,000 for VIP access) in a city where close to a quarter live below poverty level (23 percent) and the median household income is $37,047 — both 2008, pre-recession figures.
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."
The fact that that Essence traded off Frankie Beverly and Maze — a group with strong ties to New Orleans that normally closes out the festival — for Earth, Wind and Fire, did not help their cause. And Alicia Keys swapping out New York for "N'Awlins" in her performance of "Empire State of Mind" did little — the state of mind here is less about taking over the world, and more about just making it until tomorrow.
Not all locals were unimpressed though. "While Jazz Fest and Voodoo give local bands and restaurants way more exposure, they have nothing in comparison to the empowerment seminars that Essence holds," says Westley "Papa Bear" Bayas, a native radio show host. As for the concentration of mainstream artists at Essence, Bayas says there are plenty of other festivals that already do that, the French Quarter Festival for one. Says Bayas: "Essence serves as the outlet to see national African-American acts that wouldn't usually stop in New Orleans. I don't think any locals mind that it's not solely about Louisiana music and culture. Heck, we like that all these beautiful black people come in for a weekend."
Still, there is a reason Essence tethers itself to New Orleans, as opposed to, say, Chicago. Tourists in general come here not to drink Coke and eat at McDonald's, but to drink Abita and eat at Lil' Dizzy's. It's fair for natives like Mama Jen to ask if Essence is doing all that it can. It's also fair to say that Essence brings a substantial amount of value to the Crescent City table. Ultimately though, New Orleans needs Essence as much as Essence needs it, which is to say not at all. The media company doesn't come in with a messiah agenda, like a Tavis Smiley, nor does it pretend to. It's not the essence of New Orleans, it's the Essence — trademark symbol of the magazine, not the city.
But oil continues to taint the tourism industry that helps sustain the region. And many working-poor families still haven't even been able to move back into the city. This isn't Essence's fault, but perhaps giving less of a monopoly to corporate interests and more to local concerns could go a long way to closing the gap.
On the first day of the Essence Music Festival, McDonald's hosted their annual 365 Black Awards, honoring Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, editor-in-chief of The Root; retired U.S. Army Lieutenant General Russel L. Honore, who's widely credited with restoring order in the chaos following the Katrina floods, and who was urged to run for mayor of New Orleans this year. Also honored were former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Rodney Peete, and his wife, actress Holly Robinson-Peete, both of whom have given money for many social causes, and Philadelphia-based McDonald's owner-operator Rita Mack.
Brentin Mock, a regular contributor to The Root, is based in New Orleans.