I headed down this year as part of the Essence Ambassador team, and the folks in charge made sure I saw and met everyone. I was on the scene from sun up to way after sun down. (And had tons of pics and interviews to show for it.)
It would take a book to share everything amazing that happened over the July 4 weekend—no worries, I’m working on one. It’s called Saw Some World. Get it? But in the meantime, I offer you my Top 5 actual Essence Fest related moments. (I’ll do a separate post on NOLA as a whole.)
In no particular order:
*Meeting the Cast of Empire
I have a love-hate relationship with Empire. Love, as in I rarely missed an opportunity to live tweet an episode for the first season. Hate, as in I find myself screaming at the screen like, “Wait. What?” And I have to “hold it” until commercial breaks cause I might miss something.
So, of course, I was goo-gobs excited when THIS happened:
Jawn Murray and I were both slated to interview Empire cast members. He got Yaz, I got Gabourey Sididbe. Yaz breezed into the small room ready to go. I got stuck behind the cameraman for the duration interview, lest I walk through the shot. LOL! After, and before I gabbed with Gabby, I asked for a photo, which I NEVER do unless I know a person personally, or they are on the cast of The Wire, which is the best show ever made. He obliged. Oh, and he smelled good. He's also 21.
Finally, I was up to interview Gabby about what's coming next for Empire. She's got an expanded role for season 2, so well see much more of her. Chick is hilarious and super sweet. And does not have time for folks to fumble with their cameras to get a pic. I asked her for a shot a well, and a friend was trying to get it. Gabby was all, “no, here, give me!” and executed our selfie.
*Meeting THE Ava Duvernay (again)
Confession: I didn’t know who Ava Duvernay was until Selma. I don’t know if I’m alone there. But there, I said it. Before Selma debuted, she invited a bunch of people to a screening in NYC. It was a Who’s Who of writer-thinker types and public intellectuals. I don’t really flip out over celebs, but I do over writers, and it took everything in me to not run around the room asking for selfies. Once we were comfortable seated, Duvernay informed us, that this screening was for the group she called, “smart Black people”. I was flattered to be included. Selma was obviously dope, and Duvernay stole a piece of my heart for being so gosh darm awesome and talented (and beautiful. Ugh!)
This is why I took a detour from partying my way through NOLA to attend her panel, “Power of Diversity in Media, Television and Film”, moderated by my friend (and Essence sister, and Essence Entertainment Director), Cori Murray. Duvernay spoke of the need for people of color to stop pushing themselves into studios who don’t want them or understand them, and create their own projects. Welp.
After the panel, I interviewed her very briefly about her next project, a love story starring David Oyelowo, and set in New Orleans circa Hurricane Katrina. Can’t wait.
Oh, and then we did this:
*Getting my face dusted (daily) at the My Black is Beautiful booth
In 2012, shortly after I went into business for myself (and was funneling all my money back into my biz), I got an invite to go to Essence Fest for a sponsor, ironically, one that was at the My Black and Beautiful booth. Back then, I'd never been to Essence Fest as not a part of the Essence family, so I missed some crucial details, like not having a make-up artist, a necessity if you’re going on stage in the New Orleans. I guess I did a crappy job on my face one morning because an industry-mentee casually mentioned, “you know they can do your face for you at the My Black is Beautiful booth, right?”
I remembered that this time around. So each morning, I headed over to see Sarah at the MBIB booth, who beat me beautiful, and I have no clue how she did it, but my face stayed on all day, and all night too. Like my lipstick never even smudged. She’s part make-up artist, part- magician and part-miracle worker. I loves her. (And if you’re in Atlanta or New Orleans and need an MUA: hit her up on Insagram at @starr_royl.)
This is the third time I’ve seen Kendrick perform. First at an ESPN party during Draft Week last year, then the week before Essence Fest, at the BET Awards in LA where he killed, “We Gon’ Be Alright”, with gigantic American flags waving, a not so subtle commentary in the light of the Confederate flag debacle that was happening in South Carolina at the time.
That said, I was a bit nervous for him performing at Essence. The Superdome is a huge arena, 76k seats. I’ve seen artists with more albums who have been in the game longer struggle to hold the crowd there.
Kendrick performed like his life depended on it, and the crowd who stuck around were dancing in the aisles. (That said, I’ve never heard so many n-bombs, f-bombs—for artistic merit—or seen so many white people in the Essence audience.) At one point, I was watching the show, and swelled with a sense of pride, a weird feeling to have at a hip-hop show, I know. I guess… it’s just good to see someone living their dream, and not just that, but for a person to get on a mic, have a platform and use it to say something worth hearing. It made me want to write more, or maybe even write only. I’m much better at that than that other thing I’m known for. (I’ll save that for a birthday post, if I write one this year. I promise nothing.)
*WGN’s The Underground
I’ll admit, I didn’t read the entire press release that was sent in advance of meeting the cast of WGN’s new show, which debuts in 2016. I read enough to discover that The Underground was about The Underground Railroad and that was enough to get me to show up for the presser.
Loosely, it’s the story of “a group of slaves who plan a daring escape from a Georgia plantation to cross 600 miles to freedom.” The series stars Series’ stars Jurnee Smollett-Bell (The Great Debaters, and also, yes, Jesse from Empire’s sister) and Aldis Hodge, who plays MC Ren in the upcoming Straight Outta Compton film.
I’m surprised there hasn’t been more press about this show as it’s a fascinating concept. Has this ever been tackled before? I’m going to chalk out the limited buzz thus far to its 2016 debut.