Founder: Essence Fest became more than he ever imagined

Essence Fest Weekend 2019

NEW ORLEANS, La. (WVUE) -Thousands packed the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center Friday (July 5) for the start of the Essence Festival’s daytime events.

And one of the men who launched the festival 25 years ago in New Orleans said it has exceeded his ‘wildest’ dreams.

Some people attend the festival every year, others hear about it and show up for the first time.

"I am a brand-new Essence newbie, my husband and I were coming down to celebrate our four-year anniversary, so we've been here since Tuesday, enjoying Essence Festival, starting last night,” said Marisa Livingston of Chicago.

This year is special for many people, it is the 25th anniversary of the festival.

John Andrews said he is proud to have attended almost all of them.

Essence Chief Operations Officer Joy Profet, Essence Magazine Founder Ed Lewis, and former New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial at Essence Festival Empowerment session.
Essence Chief Operations Officer Joy Profet, Essence Magazine Founder Ed Lewis, and former New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial at Essence Festival Empowerment session.

“This is my 24th. My wife and I have been to every Essence except the one in Houston,” said Andrews.

The devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 forced the festival to move to Texas for 2006.

Andrews is grateful for the event’s long-term success.

"Being able to have an event like this that can sustain for 25 years is just awesome and each year it seems to get better and better as opposed to decreasing," he said with a smile.

Lauren Thurman walked around the people-filled Essence marketplace inside the convention center.

“I am having a blast. I'm here with my family, I'm here with my sister and my mom. I have no idea where they are,” she said.

Vendors from across the country display an array of unique wares.

“The colors are vibrant, they’re similar with music, high notes, loud colors, low notes,” said Jeffery Stephenson of his eye-catching artwork.

Though from California, he looks forward to coming to the Essence Festival each year.

"It’s always exciting because business is going to be great,” said Stephenson.

Vendors, many of whom are small business owners, welcome the opportunity to have thousands of people see their products over three days.

Artist Joyce Lomax said that keeps her coming back year after year.

"Very profitable for me, that’s why I’ve been coming for 15 years,” said Lomax.

Another vendor echoed that.

"I love it here; this is my ninth year. I think it's absolutely fabulous, it's a wonderful turnout and it's still early in the day,” said Keenyah Brooks.

Ed Lewis, one of the founders of Essence Magazine, which targets African American women launched the Essence Festival in New Orleans.

He said it is obvious that was the right decision when asked if he imagined at the time that the event would become so large.

“Not in my wildest dreams at all. In fact, in 1996 we almost didn't come back,” said Lewis.

Lewis referred to the festival’s second year when then La. Governor Mike Foster talked about curtailing affirmative action programs and Essence responded by threatening to cancel the nascent festival.

Eventually things were worked out to the point where the festival went on as planned in 1996, but Lewis said he lost $1 million dollars over the uncertainty of whether the event would happen.

The festival was birthed when Marc Morial was the city’s mayor.

Morial shared the stage with Lewis during an opening empowerment session.

"I said Ed, let me tell you what New Orleans wants. New Orleans doesn't want a one-night stand, New Orleans wants a marriage with Essence,” said Morial of the first festival’s success.

And a quarter of a century later the relationship continues, and attendees are thrilled.

"I like the fact that they're really promoting African-American culture and the idea of just being together and promoting our rich history,” said Zack Livingston of Chicago.

Because so many people from around the country attend the festival some discover that they have friends and family also in town for the event.

"I posted a few pictures and videos on Instagram, and I’ve got friends all over the country saying, hey, I’m here, so I’ve been able to link up with quite a few of my friends unexpectedly,” said Marisa Livingston.

Organizers said the festival has had a $4 billion economic impact on the state over the years.

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