The Return of Essence Festival of Culture: ‘It’s the Black Joy for Me’

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris with actor Keke Palmer during the 2022 Essence Festival of Culture at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center on July 2, 2022 in New Orleans. (Jade Thiraswas / AFP via Getty Images)

After an in-person hiatus of two years, Essence Festival of Culture returned to New Orleans for its annual festival dedicated to celebrating and uplifting Black women. For the first time, Essence Fest was hybrid, accessible for in-person and virtual attendees. Essence also made programming available for livestream on Hulu.

The return of Essence Festival in person during this critical social moment was vital. With the theme “It’s the Black Joy For Me,” it was a moment for Black women to take time for themselves and each other, despite what’s currently happening in the world.

The festival began in 1995 as a one-time event to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Essence magazine, but soon became a yearly affair. It became apparent that the gathering of African American women together was necessary. Known as “the party with a purpose,” Essence Fest aims to educate and equip attendees with knowledge to better their lives—as well as provide amazing entertainment.

Caroline Wanga, a Kenyan woman from Minnesota and CEO of Essence, called it “the place where we get to celebrate [our] Blackness without [lessening it] for others.”

The festival hosted nightly musical performances, which also streamed for the audience at home. On Friday night, Wyclef Jean performed with a special appearance by Lauryn Hill—and the crowd went wild. Soca artists Kes and Machel Montano brought an incredible energy with their sound, paying tribute to their native home of Trinidad.

On Saturday night, Janet Jackson wowed the SuperDome with her incredible performance and a special appearance from Patti Labelle.

Sunday night was a mixture of music genres, from gospel artists to the Roots, The Lox, The Isley Brothers and New Edition. Lesser-known artists graced the stage of the SuperLounge, smaller stages around the venue, which were also streamed live.

Essence Fest has a history of inviting high-profile guests to its stage, including Michelle and Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey. This year, the guest of honor was Vice President Kamala Harris, the first woman and first person of color to serve in this role. During her conversation with actor Keke Palmer, Harris spoke of some of the issues affecting Black women today.

“This is a serious matter and it requires all of us to speak up, to speak out, and to be active,” Harris said of Roe v. Wade.

She discussed Black women’s maternal mortality: “Black women are three times more likely to die in connection with childbirth than native and white women.” She also spoke of the racial bias that can occur in the healthcare system and the ways in which the administration is working toward mitigating those issues.

Essence Fest also makes room for everyday women to showcase their work and participate in panels and conversations about issues related to Black women.

Dr. Joy Harden Bradford, a licensed psychologist who hosts the Therapy for Black Girls podcast, was a featured speaker at Essence Wellness House. Bradford joined Ashanti Lation, the owner of a Black owned beauty brand, alongside Raire Label, a brand consulting agency, for a discussion on Black women’s experiences with their hair.

Lation stressed the importance for Black women to show up as themselves, particularly in the workplace. “We should be allowed to show up in spaces the way that we are, not the way that is acceptable to everyone else.”

In addition to Essence Wellness House, other daytime festival experiences included Essence Beauty Carnival; Essence Eats Food and Wine Festival; Essence Wealth and Power; and Essence In His Zone Men’s Experience, a space for the men who attend Essence Fest; and an opportunity for attendees to purchase products from local vendors.

A shining moment uplifting Black women came during an interview with the live steam host Angela Yee and music artist Method Man, who discussed the history of the Essence brand.

“[Essence] magazine,” he said, “was started by Black men who wanted to praise Black women.” Three of the five co-founders of Essence magazine were indeed men. Method Man also referred to the overturning of Roe v. Wade: “I respect a woman’s right to choose.”

In the wake of the Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade, it is imperative for Black women to come together in community, as they represent 38 percent of women who seek abortions in the United States. Essence recently shared the stories of celebrity women who have had abortions and who’ve shared their stories publicly in an effort to raise awareness that women who have had abortions are closer to us than we might think.

Perhaps more than anything, Essence Fest offered a safe space for Black women to celebrate who they are and an environment where they could connect with and learn from other Black women with a gamut of backgrounds and expertise. The hope, said Wanga, is that Black people from across the diaspora will come together to create a “global impact and ecosystem that will return Blackness to greatness.”

Sign and share Ms.’s relaunched “We Have Had Abortions” petition—whether you yourself have had an abortion, or simply stand in solidarity with those who have—to let the Supreme Court, Congress and the White House know: We will not give up the right to safe, legal, accessible abortion.

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Judith Silfrene, M.Ed., is a high school teacher with a passion for women's issues. Her writing explores the intersection of faith, feminism, Black women and literature, with a hint of pop culture. She resides in Brooklyn. For more of her work, follow her on LinkedIn or Instagram.