AFTER 30 YEARS, ESSENCE FEST IS STILL THE “BLACK WOMEN SUPER BOWL” THAT UNITES GENERATIONS

For 30 years, the Essence Festival of Culture has connected generations of Black women from all over the world. As a third-time attendee, I was excited to attend this year’s Essence Fest on this milestone three-decade anniversary, not only because I’d get to see superstars like Victoria Monet, Usher, SWV, Janet Jackson, and a host of other household names, but also because I’d be attending the festival alongside my paternal grandmother, Sharon Yates (aka Nana). For all my 31 years on this planet, my Nana has always been the matriarch of our family, but more importantly, she’s proof that if you have a dream, anything is possible. My Nana is the daughter of sharecroppers and one of the first students to go to an integrated school in our hometown of Dinwiddie County, Virginia. Essence Fest is a multi-generational event that has something for everyone — from Gen Z to grandmas — and this year, through sharing it with my Nana, I learned firsthand how healing it is to experience this festival with Black women of all ages and walks of life, living it up in New Orleans. 

“The bond that we strengthened as three generations of strong Black women made the trip one of the most amazing experiences of a lifetime for me as a Nana and a mother,” my Nana told me during one of our many heart-to-hearts over the weekend. She also brought her daughter, Monique Yates (my aunt), along for the ride! Ironically enough, my name Shanique is the combination of both of their names, so sharing this moment with my namesakes was even more precious than I can put into words,

Kicking off the festival was New Orleans native and former 106 & Park host Rocsi Diaz, who moderated AT&T’s Dream in Black “NOLA: A Love Letter” event alongside special guest Danielle Brooks.

“Personally, Essence [Fest] is my childhood,” Diaz told Unbothered. “I grew up in New Orleans. A lot of people either forget that or remember once I get here, but New Orleans is home to me. Essence is a part of my growing up; it’s what I look forward to every single Fourth of July, and it’s so cool to be able to come back so many years later and actually be working panels and being a part of the concert. It’s kind of surreal, but it’s a full circle moment.”

Diaz has been to so many Essence Festivals, she can’t remember her first time going and has attended more times than she can count. But Diaz did share that her most memorable festival experience included the time she and fellow former 106 & Park host, Terrence J, hosted a live broadcast of the show from her home city.

“It felt so good to be able to come back to my city, host 106 & Park here, and have a freaking ball,” Diaz said. “It was just next level, kind of like going to a high school reunion, but you’re cute now, so it was like coming back to New Orleans, but it was cute and it was fun, and we had a really good time.”

For 30 years, the good times have rolled on as people from all over the globe descend on New Orleans for good food, fellowship, and fun. It’s almost as if the city wraps you in a warm hug once you step off the plane and holds you tight until it’s time to return home.

“It’s the Black women Super Bowl,” The Color Purple actress Danielle Brooks said when I caught up with her via phone after the weekend’s events. Brooks’ first festival took place in 2023 during the promotion of last year’s highly anticipated movie musical. “To be surrounded by so many Black women, Black girls, it really did my heart well, especially after The Color Purple has come out now,” Brooks said. “People at the festival said to me, ‘You know, I watched you on the plane over here.’ Just feeling so seen and reminding me that I’m a part of the legacy, it’s been so fulfilling for me. It’s been so affirming of my purpose and why I do what I do.”

The most memorable moment from the festival for me was heading to Saturday’s night show at Caesar’s Superdome where Usher’s headlining performance celebrated 20 years of his fourth studio album, Confessions. Preparing for the event alongside my auntie was the icing on the cake as I have her to thank for a lot of my music taste. As a little girl, she introduced me to artists like Usher, and now, with a few decades between us, we were listening to him jam out with a special “Let it Burn” spicy margarita that was served during the show.

A second close favorite was listening to an inspiring conversation between journalist Danielle Young (a personal favorite) and Sarah Jakes Roberts for their “Power Personified” panel powered by Target. Listening to this conversation alongside two of the strongest women I know left me in tears, because I know that there will come a time when moments like these will merely become a memory.

“Attending this event with my mother and niece was truly a special and memorable experience for me,” my aunt Monique recounted on the final day of the four-day event. “In the past, I had the opportunity to attend Essence Festival with a dear friend who unfortunately passed away in October 2021.”

With Essence Fest as the backdrop to some much-needed quality time with my nana and auntie, we had no choice but to make the most of the four-day event (which flew by a little too quickly for my liking). The full experience included attending the BeautyCon demo to sitting in on Hulu’s Reasonable Doubt panel, moderated by Forbes journalist Kenny Williams, Jr. and featuring writer Raamla Mohamed and key cast members Emayatzy Corinealdi and McKinley Freeman. 

The real treat, however, was us fangirling over show newcomer Morris Chestnut, a man who has been a fan favorite in my household for as long as I can remember. In all, this weekend had something to match all of our interests, while also showcasing how much we always have to learn from one another. 

It was also one of the few instances where my nana and auntie got to see me in action, conducting interviews with household names like Mýa, Danielle Brooks, and Rocsi Diaz, while reconnecting with peers that I typically don’t get to see often. When I departed my hometown of Dinwiddie County, Virginia in 2019 to chase my dreams of becoming an entertainment journalist, I had no idea that a full-circle moment like this could ever happen, but I am grateful that it did. 

“I was overly proud of my journalist granddaughter Shanique, as she flourished on the floor conducting interviews and making new friends,” she expressed as we said our goodbyes on the final day of the event. “I will cherish these memories forever.”

Whether it was racking up freebies, listening to insightful conversations, enjoying live performances at the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, or adorning all-white for the Frankie Beverly & Maze tribute that closed out the festival on Sunday night, this year’s 30th annual Essence Festival of Culture was a reminder of why it is important to celebrate and love on one another. This year’s theme was “Loving On Us” and perfectly depicted the joyous occasion, which has left an imprint on my heart.

“This is actually my first time fully engulfed in Essence,” said singer Mýa after gracing the AT&T Dream in Black stage where she performed hits that span her 26-year career. “I’ve been in and out to do appearances or quick performances in the midst of a tour, but I’ve never really been to the convention center or the Superdome for Essence Fest or to be at the events, to be on panels, to be a performer amongst all my peers or even amongst the culture, probably until this year,” Mya continued. “This is exciting for me to finally be able to do it uninterrupted and then also be submerged, where I can attend certain events and really experience the beauty of community and culture.”

Now that year 30 is under its belt, it’s only right that the Essence Festival of Culture will continue to solidify its legacy of being what Brooks calls the “Black Women Super Bowl,” bringing women from all generations and various parts of the globe together to unify, empower, and most importantly, love on one another.

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2024-07-09T18:17:05Z dg43tfdfdgfd