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3 Times the ESSENCE: An Inside Look from Local Pros

DJ Soul Sister, Justin Shiels, and Fresh Johnson share their top tips for navigating the Superdome (and the Superlounges).

essence festival group shot
From left: Fresh Johnson, Justin Shiels, and Melissa Weber. (Photo: Paul Broussard)

Three ESSENCE veterans share their top tips for navigating the Superdome (and the Superlounges). Read on for their top tips…

Photo: Paul Broussard

DJ Soul Sister

DJ artist, radio programmer, and music writer

Melissa Weber’s stage name – DJ Soul Sister – says a lot about her preferred genre.

“As a DJ artist, I only play what I love,” she says, “which is soulful music.”

ESSENCE Festival gives her the chance to seek that soulful sound, by way of artists like Charlie Wilson, Andra Day, Maxwell, and many others.

With so many events to see, Weber says carrying the official schedule is a must. “There’s too much good stuff going on for you to miss anything.”

Check out even more “good stuff” below:

Hey, DJ… how does your background affect your ESSENCE experience? Do you think you’re more critical of acts? More open minded?

I only go see what I love, and if it’s someone I’ve never heard before, I’ll always gravitate to whoever has that soulful sound. The ESSENCE Superlounges make it easy for me to be open minded and try something new that I may not already be familiar with, but that soulful sound is what will keep me in the room the longest.

ESSENCE Fest has always been dedicated to celebrating black music, culture, and life. It’s for everyone, but it’s a celebration of us.

Music and speakers give ESSENCE a great energy. What else sets it apart?

ESSENCE Fest has always been dedicated to celebrating black music, culture, and life. It’s a beautiful coming together of people from around the world who are part of this culture and who love this music and culture. It’s for everyone, but it’s a celebration of us.

What will you be scoping out in your off time during the Fest?

Dee’s Coffee is a great place to grab coffee, tea, and pastries during the daylight hours. The best bet for Southern food closest to the Superdome is the excellent Little Gem Saloon restaurant on South Rampart Street, with dishes like shrimp and grits and fried chicken with savory bread pudding. Lunch and dinner, too.

Everyone at ESSENCE loves to look his or her best, and there’s a brand new “multi-textural” salon in the CBD that caters to our special hair needs – Ringletts Express at the Hilton Riverside.

Catch DJ Soul Sister at her residency on Saturday nights at the Hi-Ho Lounge.

Justin Shiels

Designer and creative entrepreneur 

Ironically, you can’t boil ESSENCE down to a single word.

Photo: Paul Broussard

“ESSENCE Music Festival is a cross-general experience celebrating black identity,” says Justin Shiels, a creative strategist who’s working on launching Curious Tribe, a subscription-based monthly digital magazine for creative entrepreneurs.

He isn’t afraid to stick it to Starbucks or venture outside the CBD when looking for a fried chicken fix, and he’s quick to acknowledge jazz getting its due at ESSENCE.

Here’s what else he’s up to at ESSENCE:

It’s beautiful to see so many people from across the United States converging in the city of New Orleans.

Photo: Paul Broussard

Festivals… well, we’ve got our share in New Orleans. What makes ESSENCE special?

More than anything, ESSENCE Music Festival is a cross-generational experience celebrating black identity. It’s beautiful to see so many people from across the United States converging in the city of New Orleans.

Hunger strikes mid fest. Where are you headed in the CBD?

Willie Mae’s Scotch House. It’s a cab ride to the French Quarter, but it is hands-down the best fried chicken and red beans in the city!

Borgne [in the CBD] has an amazing happy hour with delicious cocktails and hearty portions. You should also order the beignets at The Ritz-Carlton and grab a Sazerac at The Roosevelt New Orleans. Cochon Butcher for the meat lovers, and Carmo for vegan and vegetarian-friendly dishes.

For coffee, I recommend Merchant. [This coffee shop] will convince you to dump Starbucks for good.

Check out Shiels’ website here

Fresh Johnson

Radio personality, video host

Fresh Johnson isn’t limited to behind-the-scenes gigs – whether she’s hosting a GoNOLA video or holding down the ESSENCE stage at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center during the festival, Johnson knows that whether on camera, in person, or even on the radio, you’ve got to look good. And at ESSENCE, you’ve also got to be prepared.

“ESSENCE is one of the biggest networking weekends that our city sees annually,” Johnson says. “I promise you’ll meet a potential client or two… or five.”

Photo: Paul Broussard

In addition to bringing fashionable clothes and your business acumen, Johnson has a few other recommendations:

The CBD is a whole world in itself. Folks will be swooning over the changes in this area since last ESSENCE Fest.

What will you be wearing?

During the day, I’m all about a maxi dress and some fancy sandals. You never know the atmosphere of any given place you’ll drop into, so it’s best to stay in flats, but accessorize your look with cute bracelets and fun earrings.

For the concerts, I typically do a wedge with a nice dress and a soft face of makeup. You’re still walking a lot around the Superdome and keeping it sassy is a must. If you’re not in the mood for a dress, you can never go wrong with a pair of skinny jeans and a v-neck tee during the day, then dress it up with a blazer for the night.

Your best tip for ESSENCE Fest newbies. Go!

ESSENCE is one of the biggest networking weekends that our city sees annually. If you’re in business, bring business cards and a short pitch!

But what if you’re in full-on vacation mode? Any non-work tips?

Keep a big bag for all of the goodies you’ll get. The goodies are a huge perk. Don’t forget your camera – lots of memories to be made.

New Orleans’ Central Business District plays host to the fest. What else will you do while you’re in the neighborhood?

The CBD is a whole world in itself. Folks will be swooning over the changes in this area since last ESSENCE Fest. The Ruby Slipper Cafe is a must for brunch, and Geisha Sushi Bistro for a pre-concert meal. Merchant on Common is great for some quick coffee. When it comes to a nice, welcoming bar, Victory wins! (See below)

Tune in to POWER 102.9 to hear Johnson.

What they all agree on:

  • Grab a drink at Victory. “A handcrafted cocktail from Ian will set you up for a great night,” says Johnson. Weber agrees, citing the bar’s “great vibe and excellent cocktails.”
  • Wear comfortable shoes. End of story.
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