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The ESSENCE of Friendship: A Look at ESSENCE Festival from Two Local Pals

Festing with a friend is always more fun, as proven by locals Whitney Mitchell and Ashley Smith.

Whitney Mitchell and Ashley Smith. (Courtesy photo)

There’s something to be said for attending a festival alone. Perhaps it’s a quiet moment reflecting on an awe-inspiring performance, or maybe it’s just the ease of finding food when you’re hungry and not having to worry about losing track of your pals in the process. But Ashley Smith respectfully disagrees.

“It should be a mandatory rule to have a friend to fest with,” Smith says. “I can’t imagine dancing until your feet hurt or screaming the lyrics to your favorite songs alone. To me, the best part about festing is recapping all the amazing moments and feelings you experienced with your friends afterward — those inexplicable ‘you had to have been there’ moments make festing with friends so worthwhile.”

That’s why Smith, a local health and wellness enthusiast, will be attending ESSENCE Festival (June 30-July 3) with her pal, Whitney Mitchell, a visual marketing creative and avid Instagrammer who was recently featured on ESSENCE to share her visual travel diary.

Mitchell and Smith were fast friends, they say, connecting over a shared love of health and wellness and the city of New Orleans. Salsa dancing on Frenchmen Street, all-hours hang outs at the Country Club pool, and pizza and garlic knots at Pizza Delicious (yes, even health nuts can’t resist) strengthened their friendship. But even if they somehow get separated at the fest, Smith isn’t worried, noting that another draw of ESSENCE is its overwhelming sense of warmth and welcomeness. “It has familial vibes,” she says, “like a family reunion.”

Read on for an ESSENCE Festival Q&A (complete with top tips) from Smith and Mitchell below.

Whitney Mitchell and Ashley Smith. (Courtesy photo)

Two Locals Offer INSIDE Tips For ESSENCE Festival

Ashley Smith

Health and Wellness Enthusiast

Ashley Smith. (Courtesy photo)

Smith loves the ESSENCE experience in 2010 so much, she actually moved to New Orleans from Washington, D.C. “[New Orleans] was the first city I had ever been to for a major event where everyone was so welcoming and pleasant,” she says. And celeb sightings are an added bonus, especially during ESSENCE. “Celebrities and festival attendees freely co-mingle at more than just the festival events,” Smith says. “Be prepared to see your favorite celebrities in the local stores and restaurants.”

See what else Smith is excited for at this year’s ESSENCE — and how she keeps New Orleans’ decadent food scene in check.

What musical acts will bring it this year? 

I’m a huge Maxwell and Mariah Carey fan, who will be performing on the main stage. I’m also excited to see Daley, The Brand New Heavies, and Lalah Hathaway [in the Superlounges].

Local group Big Sam’s Funky Nation performing at an ESSENCE Superlounge. (Photo: Paul Broussard)

Main stage or Superlounges?

I love the Superlounges because it makes the Superdome feel like a small venue. You can get up close and personal with the artists.

Any speakers you’re planning on attending this year?

I’ve actually never attended the speaking sessions, but … I’ve decided this will be my first year in attendance. As an athlete and fitness guru, I am most excited about seeing Misty Copeland. Her story of being rejected from ballet schools to becoming the first African American principle dancer for a major ballet company has really inspired me. I would also love to see Lezley McSpadden and Sybrina Fulton; both have become advocates for social change and justice following the tragic death of their sons [Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin, respectively].

The lobby at the Ace Hotel. (Photo: Fran Parente)

If you have downtime between acts and speakers, where are you headed? 

My new favorite spot in the [Central Business District, where ESSENCE is held] is the Ace Hotel. They have a Stumptown coffee shop, two restaurants, and great rooftop pool and bar that’s open to the public. For late night eats, I would suggest going to Juan’s Flying Burrito or Victory Bar for craft cocktails and small plates.

Crescent Park features a trail for walking and jogging along with some of the best views of the city. (Photo: Rebecca Ratliff)

Sounds like a lot of tempting treats for a health guru…

I know it’s easy to eat and drink your way through New Orleans, but I would not be me if I didn’t advocate for wellness and fitness. New Orleans has so many wonderful places to work out. I suggest taking a yoga class at Reyn Studios or Higher Power‘s newest downtown location. You can also get a day pass and work out at Franco’s on Magazine or take an HourBlast class. There’s also a great boxing gym, New Orleans Boxing Club, hidden in the Mid-City neighborhood. If you don’t want to pay, New Orleans has great free places to work out, such as Audubon Park, City Park, and Crescent Park. Or, you can run or walk on the levees that overlook the Mighty Mississippi.

Whitney Mitchell

Visual Marketing Creative

Whitney Mitchell. (Photo by Robert Warren)

With more than 60,000 Instagram followers, all eyes are truly on Mitchell, a local with a knack for stunning visuals that capture New Orleans in all its history, vibrancy, and personality. Follow her stat, @twomacks, and view her collaboration with ESSENCE by searching for hashtag #MyNOLADiary. You’re welcome.

It’s not a surprise that with such an affinity for the city, Mitchell is particularly excited about speakers with a local connection, including Melissa Harris Perry, Charles Divins, and Tank and the Bangas (she describes lead singer Tarrionna Ball as a “local poet superstar”). “Each of them have amazing stories of taking the leap to new surroundings and igniting success in their choices,” she says, adding that they’re also “tremendous mentors and leaders in the New Orleans community.”

Even more insight from Mitchell (including her favorite spot for “an off-the-grid experience”) below.

Who are you most excited about at ESSENCE this year?

ESSENCE always manages to outdo prior years, every year, with their fresh and current lineups. I’m super excited to see Faith Evans, the Robert Glasper Experiment, Digable Planets, and The Internet. I could never get enough of our local heroes, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band — I’ll be front and center to close my eyes and get lost in their tunes.

I could never get enough of our local heroes, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band — I’ll be front and center to close my eyes and get lost in their tunes.

Catch the Preservation Hall Jazz Band at ESSENCE or during nightly shows at their residence in the French Quarter. (Photo: Paul Broussard)

Does your passion and expertise as a visual creative affect how you view a performance? 

I’m always inspired when performers are relaxed and openly expressing their art on a stage. I pay attention to the entire experience: the visuals, the crowd reactions, the spirit that connects lyrics and sound to meaning.

How do the panels and speakers factor in? 

ESSENCE weekend extends farther than the music. The Convention Center is full of options to engage people of all ages.

The courtyard at the Catahoula Hotel features a larger-than-life mural of local burlesque artist Trixie Minx. (Courtesy photo)

What are your favorites spots near the Superdome?

I love cozy corners and places that create an off-the-grid experience; Catahoula Hotel has a cafe and bar that conjures up that feeling. Its rooftop oasis allows you to step away from the action and into paradise, with all the pineapples and drink umbrellas.

New Orleans is can feel like it’s at full festival saturation. What, in your mind, sets ESSENCE apart? 

ESSENCE celebrates the whole person. It isn’t a festival that solely offers a party — it gives you information about local and national resources; it offers mentorships; it’s a convening of people with shared experiences that are willing to share their experiences. ESSENCE is a celebration of life, color, and everything that creates the two.

One More Tip from Smith and Mitchell

It all comes down to one thing: shoes. Specifically, flat and comfortable ones. They can still be cute, Mitchell points out, but comfort is the priority. “It’s just a lot of walking in general, so be prepared,” Smith says.

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