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2015 ESSENCE Festival: An Insider’s Guide

Usher will bring his unforgettable performances to ESSENCE this year. (Photo courtesy Usher on Facebook)

The one-month countdown is officially here: ESSENCE Fest starts July 2. This year is special because it commemorates the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. For one year after the storm, ESSENCE was held in Houston, but the next year the festival returned to its rightful home.

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If you’ve never been to ESSENCE Festival before, expect a lot of fun – and a lot of walking. Plan your itinerary with this insider’s guide. First up? The music.

Who to See on the Main Stage:

Thursday: Get your praise on with gospel rapper Lecrae and your laugh on with comedian Kevin Hart. Yes, you read that correctly. The religious rapper opens for the sometimes profane funny man.

Friday: There probably isn’t another city that loves Maze featuring Frankie Beverly as much as New Orleans. The band is back for the first time since 2009 and can expect a sea of adoring fans wearing white and dancing the Electric Slide.  Showstopper Charlie Wilson, songbird India.Arie, and soulful crooner Kem round out this perfect date night.

Saturday: Usher is a showman who models himself after Michael Jackson — he’s always worth seeing, and he doesn’t disappoint. Remember Katy Perry’s Super Bowl performance? She was upstaged by Missy Elliott. The rapper and hip-hop producer (who has been in demand ever since) will rock the main stage on Saturday. And we can only hope that Erykah Badu and Oscar winner Common team up for a duet.

Sunday: Kendrick Lamar, how do you pimp a butterfly, anyway? Perhaps he’ll show us. Mary J. Blige, an ESSENCE Festival favorite, returns, and Trombone Shorty – a former child prodigy who’s no longer short nor limited to the trombone – takes the big stage in his hometown.

5 Super Lounge Artists Worth Checking Out

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Lianne La Havas is one of several notable SuperLounge artists. (Photo courtesy Lianne La Havas on Facebook)

So what’s a SuperLounge, anyway? Well, there are a lot of talented musical artists in the world who don’t get enough exposure, and the SuperLounges are your chance to experience and support emerging artists who are on their way to the top (plus established artists who deserve more shine). These intimate, mini-clubs can be just as entertaining as the main stage acts.

1. Lianne La Havas: She’s seems like someone you could shop vintage deals with and drink lattes. Her voice is butter.

2. Avery*Sunshine: Her recent performance at the House of Blues New Orleans was a showstopper. This woman can sing!

3. Robert Glasper Experiment: Jazz and R&B lovers will appreciate this group. It’s all about the musicianship here.

4. Kindred the Family Soul: Who doesn’t love a husband-and-wife duo? As their stage name suggests, these Detroit natives have soul.

5. Mali Music: He earned a Grammy nomination for Best Urban Contemporary Album.

Don’t Forget the Locals

Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue, Dumpstaphunk, Dee-1, Tank and The Bangas, and Tonya Boyd-Cannon will represent New Orleans at this year’s fest. Also, be on the lookout for New Orleans leaders like Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, Judy Reese Morse (Deputy Mayor for Citywide Initiatives for the City of New Orleans), and Rev. Lester Love, pastor of The City of Love church.

Free Things to Do

The Ernest N. Morial Convention Center is the place to be during the daytime. All events are free with doors opening at 9 a.m. Thursday through Saturday and at 8 a.m. Sunday. Stop by vendors’ booths and watch for celebrities. You’ll be sure to take home some goodie bags, too.

Another free event is Empower U, personal empowerment workshops that are led by celebrities, leaders, and professionals. It’s a rare chance to get up close and personal with movers and shakers while also getting advice from them at the same time.


On Thursday, July 2 from 10:00 a.m. to 2 p.m., a thousand volunteers will team up with ESSENCE, NOLA FOR LIFE, and Walmart for the “Bring The Love” event which focuses on achievement for local youth by promoting literacy and healthy living. The ESSENCE Festival’s “Day of Service” will include refurbishing local schools in the 9th Ward and New Orleans East. Learn more here.

Where to Eat

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Take a cocktail break at Johnny Sanchez in the CBD.

The fest itself features plenty of food options, including the ESSENCE Fest Food Court inside the Convention Center chock full of local food options and seating. It’s a great way to take a break and refuel. Of course, in New Orleans, there are other food joints worth the journey:

  • Love the Food Network show, Chopped? Judge Aaron Sanchez teamed up with New Orleans chef John Besh to create Johnny Sanchez, a cool Mexican spot in the Central Business District (near the Superdome) that specializes in tacos and happy hour.
  • Top Chef finalist Nina Compton’s Compère Lapin brings flavor from St. Lucia to New Orleans.
  • Got a sweet tooth? Check out Salon By Sucre in the French Quarter.
  • For breakfast or a quick bite, try The Ruby Slipper Cafe on Canal Street. It’s within walking distance of all the daytime action.
  • Palace Café, on Canal Street, is a great stop for a mid-level splurge for a meal.
  • Check the French Market in the French Quarter for budget-friendly food options and art by locals.

Follow the Hashtag, Get the App

Stay social with the hashtags #ESSENCEFest, #bringthelove, and #SoulofNola. And if you want, you can follow me on Twitter for cool tweets about ESSENCE Fest at @BrassyBrownNOLA (I’m an official social media ambassador for the event). There’s also a great ESSENCE Fest App that helps you customize the fest to your interests. Download it here.

Go Beyond the Fest

Go beyond the fest and explore New Orleans like a local.


Ashe Cultural Arts Center: With a mission to support community development, this spot on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard hosts film screenings, performing arts, visual arts exhibits, health and wellness programs, and much more.

The George & Leah McKenna Museum of African American Art: Featuring the private collection of Dr. Dwight McKenna, this museum collects, exhibits, and preserves the visual aesthetic of people of the African Diaspora.

Snug Harbor: Live music every single night of the week. That’s what you’ll find at Snug Harbor on Frenchmen Street. Casual cuisine and the sounds of jazz are a hard combination to beat.

Magazine Street: Dining and shopping dot this quaint, lengthy road. Whether you choose to stroll leisurely or drive from shop to shop, you can find options for any taste and budget on Magazine.

City Park: A sculpture garden, golf, beignets, and boat rentals are just a few of the draws of City Park, a sprawling, 1,300-acre green space in Mid-City.

Stella Jones Gallery: Along St. Charles Avenue in the Warehouse District sits Stella Jones Gallery, an art space specializing in black art.


Lil Dizzy’s: This Treme restaurant serves Cajun soul food in a casual atmosphere on Esplanade Avenue.

Dooky Chase’s Restaurant: The restaurant’s gumbo is almost as famous chef Leah Chase.

Willie Mae’s Scotch House: Two words: fried chicken.

Kelly Harris is a Southern girl with Northern roots. By day, you can find her working as an early literacy consultant, handling public relations, and advocating for women; by night, find her eating shrimp and grits. Kelly is the founder of, a site dedicated to New Orleans women of color. She lives with her husband and child, a second-liner in training.

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