If Erika Bennett, chief marketing officer of ESSENCE Ventures, could sum up her team’s vision for the 29th ESSENCE Festival of Culture (EFOC), she would likely describe it as a safe space for African Americans that not only embodied Black culture but also supported the community. The team organized a variety of fun, resourceful and uplifting experiences that infused hip hop to provide an inclusive and empowering weekend for all attendees.
This year, paying homage to the 50th anniversary of hip hop was at the forefront of ESSENCE‘s priority list while planning one of the biggest festivals celebrating Black communities worldwide. Hosted in New Orleans, a place full of Black heritage, ESSENCE Fest attracts a multigenerational crowd of more than 500,000 people every Fourth of July weekend to “party with a purpose,” according to People. What began as a concert to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the magazine turned into a Black-centric experience that feels like a family reunion.
To ensure the essence of hip hop was embedded in the festival’s DNA, Bennett’s team and partners thoroughly walked through every fiber that makes the event a success. The representation of rap culture was an undeniable theme throughout the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center and the concert lineups each night.
“It was a very intentional process because we had a couple of things to think about, right? One is the nighttime concerts in which we have three amazing Black women in hip hop headlining our shows,” Bennett told REVOLT in an exclusive conversation during the fest. “I can’t think of a better connection to 50 years in hip hop than a Black magazine that serves Black women putting them at the forefront.”
She continued, “I think the second thing we really thought through was honoring local New Orleans artists and making sure that there were a lot of surprises, and we’re honoring our home city, our forever home in New Orleans.”
The festival has evolved into something bigger than uniquely curated concerts over a holiday weekend. It’s now a one-stop shop that offers all guests the opportunity to see impactful panels, partake in one-on-one sessions, see exclusive film screenings, discover educational opportunities, hear insightful business advice, support Black businesses, network with peers, take home gifts and much more during the day.
“We have to remember that we’re the festival of culture, so we’re not just nighttime concerts, but we are daytime experiences,” Bennett explained. “We have the graffiti walls, the DJs, there’s a boss talk with Rick Ross, and even our global economic forum… We brought in D-Nice and Doug E. Fresh to really talk about harder-hitting issues around Black equity. We smartly weaved in hip hop 50 throughout the entire weekend versus isolating it simply in concerts.”
“When I thought about the content for what we’re doing at EFOC this year, it’s a strategically pivotal year for us,” God-is Rivera, chief content officer of ESSENCE Ventures, co-signed. “We wanted to make sure we were able to scale this experience on what is relevant in Black culture, and 50 years of hip hop is massively impactful.”
Being a woman of color herself, Bennett shared this year was special to her because hip hop influenced her life in many ways.
“Hip hop means so much to me. It’s important for us as Black women to continue to honor the important role that Black women played in hip hop and continue to play in hip hop, so that’s a very big deal,” the executive said. “It’s my personal soundtrack when I’m walking down the street and when I’m working, it’s in the background. When I’m going to shows, when I’m spending time with my family… it’s always surrounding me. It’s an art form, it’s spoken word put over really great beats.”
“I think as a community whose often been silenced, [rap music has] been an important platform for us to tell our stories, talk about our experiences, and to globalize that and to make sure the rest of the world hears us,” she continued.
Hailing from the West Coast, which bred some of the biggest rappers and impacted rap culture tremendously, Bennett knew the importance of the artists and headliners performing at the Caesars Superdome. And this year was the first time in the history of ESSENCE that female rap artists — Lauryn Hill, Missy Elliott and Megan Thee Stallion — were headliners for each concert.
“I grew up in an era where Biggie, Pac, Nas, Wu-Tang Clan, E-40, Too Short — and I’m from Seattle, so even Sir Mix-a-Lot — were a very big deal. I feel like I just grew up in an incredible time where the South was popping up, the East Coast was taking off, the West Coast was holding it down, and so we really wanted to make sure we represented that as well,” she said passionately.
Next year, ESSENCE will be celebrating the 30th anniversary of EFOC, which will be a monumental moment for the company as one of the longest-running Black media outlets in America.
“We’re a 50-year-old brand and next year, we turn our big 3-0, but it’s such an incredible milestone. So many of our outlets don’t survive,” Bennett said.
One thing she wanted attendees of the festival to leave with in mind is the importance of investing in Black business ventures and collaboration. Bennett believes that without those components, it’s hard to continue to shift, engage and enhance the Black experience.
“Having the partners in crime in terms of making sure we continue to push the narrative around the importance of investing in Black — not just showing up to consume our culture, but actually showing up with dollars to make sure our community is served,” she told REVOLT.