“The festival has exceeded my wildest imagination,” exclaims Marc Morial of the 25th anniversary of the Essence Festival. Morial, who is currently the President of the National Urban League, was the Mayor of New Orleans at the onset of the now wildly popular and economically prosperous event.
“This is something that I’m quite proud of,” says Morial. He remembers how, in the fall of 1994, Essence magazine’s co-founders Edward Lewis and Clarence Smith and George Wein, the producer of the New Orleans and Newport Jazz festivals, came to his office to discuss an idea about presenting a large music festival to celebrate Essence magazine’s 25th anniversary.
“You had one of the largest African American businesses in the United States at the time that was headquartered in New York City, and it wanted to do an event in New Orleans,” Morial continues, with the awe of the proposal still resonating in his voice.
For the most part, Morial chalks up Essence’s desire to hold its celebration in the Crescent City to the uniqueness of the Superdome and its prime downtown location in walking distance to hotels, restaurants, and the French Quarter. “It’s a multi-purpose facility, not simply a football stadium,” he notes. “The Dome was built to accommodate conventions and concerts as well as football, basketball and baseball.”
A particularly singular element of the Dome that set the Essence Festival apart from a simple concert-style event was the four “Superlounges” that still allow for five musical performances to take place simultaneously, on the main stage and the four lounges. These areas on an upper floor of the building were originally created as convention meeting rooms.
“You could get lost in the Superlounges,” Morial enthusiastically suggests.
When the Essence Festival was forced to relocate to Houston, Texas in 2006 following Hurricane Katrina, organizers tried their best to recreate the Superlounges by using tents just outside the Reliant Stadium, though naturally they just couldn’t compare.
In part, Morial credits the disappointing experience of Essence Fest in Houston for really nailing down New Orleans as its home. “In the early days,[the organizers] had cities coming after them trying to take the festival,” Morial says, mentioning Atlanta, Chicago, Houston, and Los Angeles. “New Orleans is absolutely the best in terms of its venue, its facilities, its authenticity of culture and the authenticity of African American culture. New Orleans has natural appeal. It’s such a powerful combination.”
“As mayor at the time, one of the things I was working to do was to establish the city as the premier destination for multicultural tourism. I was working to build a stronger embrace by the city government of the music industry, and so we had the New Orleans Music Commission, which was brand new. The idea that we could birth another homegrown festival had appeal to me. Keep in mind, Jazz Fest was 25 years old, and the French Quarter Festival, which was started by my father [Mayor Ernest “Dutch” Morial], was ten years old.”
Morial reminds us that the first year of Essence Festival in 1995, conceived as a one-time event, didn’t have corporate sponsors, and all of the revenues were ticket-driven. Some leaders in the hospitality and tourism community, he says, were skeptical about the city hosting the festival. Worse yet, a few downtown and French Quarter business were downright hostile and closed their doors rather than welcome the primarily African American attendees.
“Their vision of an African American event was the Bayou Classic, a football game that attracts mostly people from Louisiana. They didn’t understand the African American marketplace, and that here you had a 25-year-old institution celebrating women.”
Morial saw one of his roles as educating the skeptics and “defending the buying power of not only Black America, but defending the buying power of Black American women—women from New York, Chicago, Dallas.”
Despite superstars like Aretha Franklin and Luther Vandross headlining the inaugural Essence Fest, the local media also lacked enthusiasm and didn’t pay much attention to the event. “Because they didn’t understand it, they marginalized it,” Morial offers by way of explanation. “They just didn’t get it.”
Almost forgotten, though still relevant now, is that, according to Morial, New Orleans almost lost Essence Festival as well as conventions scheduled to be held in the city by the NAACP and the Urban League when, in 1996, newly elected Governor Mike Foster threatened affirmative action programs. Following a march on the governor’s mansion and a reminder that, “These things have consequences,” Governor Foster relented and modified his executive order to halt affirmative action sufficiently to satisfy Essence and the other organizations.
“I told the hospitality people, ‘You don’t want to lose this. You have to realize we’re dead on the Fourth of July weekend and everything that’s been tried before Essence came along has flopped. It all flopped, flop, flop, flop. It changes the arc of the summer in New Orleans.’ After that, the ‘chieftains’ got it. They understood that Essence Festival is about green.”
As mayor, Marc Morial was on a panel at the first Empowerment seminar that was then held during the daytime in the Dome. The events were so popular, with attendance exceeding expectations, that they were moved to the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, where they continue to draw large crowds.
“I went to the shows every night, and daytime events every day,” says Morial of the time when he was in office. He has attended the Essence Festival every year since its inception, including the year it was held in Houston.
“I love the culminating acts with Frankie Beverly—those were spiritual experiences,” he says, adding that maybe people don’t realize that he is a “big time music person.” “Prince’s show at Essence Fest in 2014 was one the best concerts I’ve ever been to, ever.
“Celebration is at the core of Essence Festival, with the crowd being 75-percent women, dressed up nicely and having a good time hanging with their girlfriends,” Morial declares.
“It’s going to be beautiful. I’m hoping we’ll be celebrating the 50th.”