Photo illustration by Kaushik Kalidindi for Okayplayer. Photo credits: Megan thee Stallion - Itoro N. Umontuen/The Atlanta Voice; Coco Jones - Aaron J. Thornton / Getty Images; Tems - Kaitlyn Morris/FilmMagic (Getty Images); Janelle Monae - Paras Griffin/Getty Images; Salt n' Pepa - Getty Images for ESSENCE; Ari Lennox - Josh Brasted/WireImage; Jill Scott - Josh Brasted/WireImage for Getty; Monica - Amy Harris, invision, Invision; Jermaine Dupre - Ryon Horne / The Atlanta Journal Constitution.
Essence Festival 2023, a Melting Pot for Blackness, Has a Generational Gap Ahead
With a misguided assumption of what multiple demographics want to see and a rapidly evolving brand vision, the future of Essence Fest has a generation gap that needs to be mended.
This year’s Essence Fest was promoted as an event to celebrate the future of Black feminism, women in rap and hip-hop’s 50th birthday. The three-day weekend included panels spanning entrepreneurship, fashion, music, and other aspects that affect Black women as consumers. The festivities are a celebration that for the last 29 years has been defined by a specific age demographic. Often known as the “auntie fest,” Essence Fest has been branded as the event for Millennial and Gen-X Black women. This year, the New Orleans-based event, which includes a three-day concert weekend, attempted to create a generational melting pot.
Known as the largest Black music festival in the country, Essence Fest was tasked with appealing to a new generation of Gen Z festival-goers while honoring icons across five decades of music. However, what occurred was neither a uniquely thoughtful celebration of hip-hop nor a successful merge between demographics. This year’s Essence Fest failed to consider the nuances of featuring artists that appeal to Gen Z — like Wizkid and Megan Thee Stallion — to an audience that grew up on a different brand of rap.
The festival weekend kicked off with a press conference on Thursday morning in the convention center where the Essence Festival team adamantly promoted the panels and concerts as focusing on women, the future, and the expanding Essence Fest brand, which now includes Afropunk, Essence Gu, and BeautyCon. Yet inside the event, was an overwhelming zeitgeist of branded content and redundant panels tailored for influencer culture.
However, for the non-influencer attending with friends or their kids, the Essence Fest convention was a great place to sample offerings from a variety of heavy-hitters; the CEO of Essence, Caroline Wanga, and Rick Ross talking about entrepreneurship and owning Wingstop; VP Kamala Harris on the unspoken issues in the upcoming election, performances from Wale and Amerie at the AT&T stage; financial advice from the Global Economic Forum or Jamie Lee Curtis and Tiffany Haddish discussing their new movie, Haunted Mansion at the Disney booth. For those seeking self-care, there was the Afropunk meditation room, readings from controversial spiritual influencer, The Hood Healer, and hair products from Mielle at BeautyCon.
Notably missing from inside the convention center was the spirit of New Orleans. Outside, across the street in a parking lot, you could find Soko No.la — a marketplace of Nola businesses and brands. However, outside of the Nola-themed marketplace and the tributes to Magnolia Shorty, Soulja Slim and 5th Ward Weebie at the Essence Festival concerts, there seemed to be a disconnect from the city that has housed the festival for almost 30 years.
This remained true with the late addition of Juvenile to Friday’s concert lineup. Originally not included in the lineup, it took a tweet from Juvie questioning their hip-hop tribute, which was void of any New Orleans rappers, to land him a spot on stage. Headliners Ms. Lauryn Hill, Missy Elliott and Megan Thee Stallion aside, the Essence Fest concert lineup also included Ari Lennox, Jagged Edge, Janelle Monae, Coco Jones, Monica, Jill Scott, Muni Long, Tems, Wizkid, a surprise set from Lil Wayne on Sunday (arguably the best performance all weekend), and curated sets by Angie Martinez, Ice Cube, Jermaine Dupri, and Doug E. Fresh.
Despite this being a year to celebrate a major milestone with hip-hop, they maintained an allegiance to their festival roots in R&B. While acts like Tems and Coco Jones proved to be additions to the lineup which bridged the multiple generations in attendance, acts like Monica and Jagged Edge felt out of place. This could have been an issue of curation, an issue that became evident on Saturday night. After Jermaine Dupri’s electrifying “The South Got Something to Say'' themed performance with Big Boi, Sleepy Brown, Ludacris, Lil Jon, Gucci Mane, and T.I., Jill Scott’s sobering neo-soul set was mismatched against the energetic tone of Dupri and friends.
Clunky curation aside, the attempt to marry old and new performances on one stage was met with mixed reactions. Sunday night, following Tems’ sensual and energetic performance, Wizkid’s Afrobeat set received a flat response from the audience. Most notably, Janelle Monae and Megan Thee Stallion, who have been open about their femininity and sexual agency, faced backlash over their performances which were criticized by older attendees as being overly sexual. Between Janelle flashing her boob (partially covered by a pastie) and Megan’s signature twerking and spicy fan engagement, there was a clear audience divide as aunties in attendance could be seen exiting during their sets while the younger crowd rushed to fill in empty seats.
This clear divide draws from the age-old debate between the respectability politics of second wave feminism and the sexual agency and prowess of feminism’s third wave; all of which clashed at Essence Festival. Lost in the shuffle was the intention to provide a safe space. What were meant to be important moments for Janelle, who has openly expressed her ideas of sexuality and gender fluidity, and Megan, whose Essence Fest performance was her first major headline since retreating from mainstream media, were overshadowed by the opinions of people who weren’t the target audience.
Despite the creation of Essence GU’s House of Creators and the Essence GU kickback parties on Thursday and Saturday, Essence Fest also failed to fully consider the generation they were attempting to accommodate. A core example of this is the expense to attend and the fact that a lot of Gen Z’ers couldn’t afford the full experience the way older or more established attendees could.
Still, there were many moments that made Essence Fest worthwhile and overall, the experience of attending is one of pure Blackness that is undeniably rooted in sisterhood. But with misguided assumptions of what a multi-generational audience wants to see and a rapidly evolving brand vision, the future of Essence Fest has a generation gap that needs to be mindfully filled. The goal of shedding their reputation as an “auntie fest” leaves Essence’s core demographic in the cold, while overselling their brand’s range to the incoming Gen Z’ers.
Regarding the future of Essence Festival there remains an opportunity to release recycled cultural moments and tap into the common interests across generations of Black women who collectively want to feel safe, seen and surrounded by Black culture.