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GoNOLA Guide to Essence Fest

Essence Festival takes place July 6-8, 2018 in New Orleans.

As a proud NOLA girl, nothing delights me more than to see visitors enjoy what locals are fortunate enough to experience every day. Not many happenings exemplify the jewel that is New Orleans like Essence Festival.

The party with a purpose, which began to commemorate Essence Magazine’s anniversary in 1994, now attracts over 400,000 visitors to downtown New Orleans over the 4th of July weekend. So, how do you choose what to check out?

“Get on the app!” Essence Entertainment Director, Cori Murray says.   

Downloading the Festival app allows you to register for the weekend events and take advantage of easy check-in. Registration is required for admission at the Convention Center events this year. Only the Festival app lets you in on breaking news, updates, and celebrity sightings.

convention center
The Essence Empowerment Experience takes place at the Memorial Convention Center. (Photo: Zack Smith)

A good place to start is the Morial Convention Center for the Empowerment Experience.

Formerly called the Empowerment Seminars, this inspiring, good-for-the-soul get together has grown into an experience. The event features conversations, workshops, and expos that educate and motivate you to live your life to the fullest, complete with consultations, sampling opportunities, and more.

Iyanla Vanzant, Angela Rye, Lester Holt, Michael Eric Dyson and Tarana Burke are just a sampling of the influential voices slated to take part in this year’s event. And you never know which one of your favorite celebrities you might meet strolling through the Convention Center.

Essence Fest
The Marketplace at Essence Fest features clothing, jewelry, and art from over 100 vendors. (Photo: Zack Smith)

Essence is going all out for fashionistas and beauty enthusiasts with the Beauty & Style Expo this year. Thanks to the Essence Festival Beauty Bungalow, attendees can take advantage of mini makeovers, celebrity and influencer meet and greets, free hair and beauty products, and more. The popular Marketplace, one of my personal fest faves, offers clothing, jewelry, and art from over 100 vendors.

The Roots
The Roots perform at the 2014 Essence festival. (Photo: Paul Broussard)

I recommend taking in at least one night of the concerts at the Mercedes Benz Superdome. You just may be able to knock off a few items on your bucket list. Janet Jackson, the Roots, and Erykah Badu are just some of this year’s performers. And everyone should experience Mary J. Blige on the Essence Fest stage at least once.

This will be a year of a few firsts: Both Janet Jackson and Queen Latifah will make their Essence Main Stage debuts. New Orleans’ own Big Freedia is going from the Beauty and Style Expo stage in 2017, to the Superlounge this year. Also included in this year’s Main Stage and Superlounge lineup: Erykah Badu, Snoop Dogg, Jill Scott, Teddy Riley, Idris Elba, Jussie Smollett, Daniel Caesar, and more.

The Convention Center isn’t the only place holding Essence-related happenings. Be sure to check out area Downtown Hotels for many fashion, style and networking events. The Roosevelt Hotel will play host to Essence of Curves 2018; taking the Big Easy by storm with a panel discussion of upcoming curvy bloggers, entrepreneurs, and influencers, along with a runway show, celebrating and representing the plus size fashion community.

If networking is one of your goals, Essence Empowerment Experience Executive Producer and NOLA native Gina Charbonnet recommends The Revolution. This Central City hotspot is pretty new (opening in March of 2018) but has quickly established itself as an inclusive space where arts and culture collide.

The Revolution will feature 3-day and 2-night events during Essence Fest weekend. Kicking things off is a 90’s Birthday Bash, honoring singer and actress Tichina Arnold, known to fans as Pam from the decade’s popular series, Martin. Fellow Martin co-star Tisha Martin, who we remember as Gina, will be joining the party as well.

According to Charbonnet, the purpose of Essence Fest is to give something attendees can take with them. So save some room to bring inspiration and great memories back home with you.

Tips for first-time Essence Festers:

  • Connect with Essence Festival Pros. Though we absolutely loved the movie Girls Trip, it was a movie. Get some insight from folks who know have a few events under their belts.
  • Stay centrally located: CBD/Warehouse District/ French Quarter and Lower Garden District hotels are the way to go. Properties along these areas will keep you close to the events. You’ll be a streetcar or short Uber/Lyft ride from everything.
  • Talk to locals. Whether it’s where to get the best snowball (or the best drinks), which souvenirs are worth grabbing, or where to find gumbo done the right way— if you ask, we will tell you the truth.
  • Dress Cool. It’s July, so less is more-meaning…it’s July. It’s New Orleans. Choose comfort at all costs, especially when it comes to footwear.
  • Hydrate. It’s New Orleans, so naturally, you’ll indulge in a libation or two. However, it’s New Orleans in July, so remember to stay hydrated.

Must See Spots While You’re in NOLA:

  • Squeeze in a NOLA brunch, and agonize over the wonderful dilemma in choosing. The Ruby Slipper, Refuel, Court of Two Sisters, Another Broken Egg, and Cake Café are just some of my personal favorites. I’ve never found a NOLA brunch I didn’t like!
  • If you don’t take part in the Gospel events on Sunday at the Convention Center, attend Mass at St. Augustine Church in Tremé. Founded in 1841, St. Augustine is the oldest African-American parish in the United States. The church was founded by free people of color, who purchased additional pews for the enslaved. Civil Rights activists Homer Plessy and A.P. Tureaud were parishioners there.
  • Stop in for coffee at Backatown Café. This black-owned, Basin St. Coffee Parlor serves as a gathering space, blending art, music, spoken word, and good brew.
  • Check out Bayou Road. For some time, festers have been told to skip Bourbon Street and enjoy the cool vibe of Frenchman Street. However, 2018 visitors should put this 7th ward corridor at the top of their to-do list. On Bayou Road you’ll find the popular dining spot, The Half Shell, and opening just in time for Essence Fest (July 7th), is the high-end bar, Whiskey and Sticks serving straight spirits and cigars. Many stores and shops along the corridor will offer July 4th specials.
  • Have a po-boy of your choice at Parkway Bakery and/or Gene’s po-boys. Both have been endorsed by Homer Simpson and Beyoncé. Enough said.

Kelly Dorsey-Parker is a native New Orleanian and proud Gentilly girl who loves writing about the wonderful people and places in the city. She’s written for publications such as the Louisiana Weekly, NOLADefender, New Orleans Magazine and the Lake Charles American Press. She is currently working on a book project, celebrating a subject dear to her heart: New Orleans Black Carnival Queens. Along with writing, she loves nothing more than fashion, football, Mardi Gras and people watching (in that order), and she’s never met a brunch she didn’t love. Want proof? Follow her adventures on Instagram @kellyparkerwrites

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