In early 2008, Stephen Rehage received a surprising message. “I randomly got an email asking if I could go to the Essence offices for a meeting. I did, and that’s where it all started,” says Rehage, the head of concert promotion company Rehage Entertainment. That meeting was where Essence Communications told him of its decision to go in a different direction for their annual flagship event, the Essence Music Festival, which takes place yearly over the July 4 weekend in the Louisiana Superdome. This year’s event starts July 3 with a night that includes Ne-Yo, John Legend and Beyoncé.
This announcement caught many New Orleanians off-guard, as Jazz Fest promoters Festival Productions was involved in the creation of the event and had successfully produced it since its inception in 1995. The timing of the announcement was not ideal for anyone involved when it was made January 18, 2008, as it dealt an unexpected blow to one of New Orleans music’s iconic production companies and gave Rehage Entertainment only 5 months to prepare for what has come to be known as “The Party with a Purpose.”
However, Rehage Entertainment was not without experience, having founded the Voodoo Music Experience in 1999, and it has steadily grown it into one of the fall’s premier music festivals. Rehage was also no stranger to the Essence festival. “I had known Michelle Ebanks (President of Essence Communications) for a number of years from working with her on various projects and had been to the festival a number of times as a spectator,” he says, but he points out that he had no official involvement prior to 2008. Ebanks told The Times-Picayune in 2008, “This speaks to the opportunity we have to keep the festival fresh and exciting and innovative…. It’s just a reflection of how we want to evolve the festival.”
The 2008 event featured few noticeable changes for spectators, the exception being a brand new main stage, and the production team was able to utilize much of the infrastructure put in place from the previous year’s event. This resulted in a fairly seamless transition from Festival Productions and Rehage Entertainment, with little noticeable difference for the attendees. According to Rehage, “The event spoke for itself last year, both in terms of the production values and the fact that we had four months to produce it, broke attendance records, and for the most part had a flawless production.” He downplays his role, though, adding, “It’s really just taking the older festival and adding some bells and whistles.”
Those “bells and whistles” could not be fully implemented in 2008 due to the late change in production teams. As a result, both Rehage and Essence Communications targeted 2009 and the Essence Fest’s 15th Anniversary as the time for Rehage Entertainment to make its mark on the fest. “The Road to Essence” was one this year’s additions—a three-pronged tour that goes into many of the major media markets, holding concerts and showcasing New Orleans and what Essence has been doing in the city over the past decade and a half. Rehage Entertainment is also responsible for producing a brand-new Essence Fest-related television show, along with all audio/visual coverage of the events, seminars and concerts.
Fans of local artists should not be troubled by these efforts to broaden the Essence festival’s national base. Rehage has no plans to phase out New Orleans music, and a full third of all artists on the bill this year are local, including Irvin Mayfield, Marva Wright, Little Freddie King, Big Sam’s Funky Nation, Trombone Shorty and Orleans Ave. and the Rebirth Brass Band. Also on the bill are some high profile former New Orleanians—Ledisi and the Knux. “It’s a music fest in the greatest musical city in the country, and it’s our heritage; local musicians will always have a large part to play,” Rehage says. The superlounges provide an intimate atmosphere in which to see the locals, but the only one to play on the main stage is DJ Soul Sister, who’ll spin music between sets every night.
The roots of Essence Fest seemed to be threatened on another musical front after the release of the preliminary 2009 schedule—a schedule with perennial Essence closers Maze featuring Frankie Beverly conspicuously absent. Despite rumors to the contrary, “there wasn’t any scandalous drama,” Rehage says. “It’s not like Essence didn’t want him or he didn’t want to play. The Frankie Beverly snag was a matter of them changing the booking agent without informing anybody, and that booking agent telling the Frankie Beverly camp that we were not interested at a certain level.” It took some time and some direct intervention, but the issue was eventually resolved. “I called Frankie directly, and once we got to speak cell phone to cell phone, there was a deal in 15 minutes.”