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You hear it every year:

Essence people don’t go out

Essence people don’t spend money in New Orleans

Fourth of July weekend is so slow in New Orleans, in spite of the Essence Festival

The griping usually comes from folks in the tourism/restaurant/hospitality/service industries, as well as the musicians who gig around town.

Thing is, the complaints are true, but don’t blame the folks who come to town for Essence for them. Blame the folks not going out on Fourth of July Weekend.

First, some background. Just what is the Essence Festival?

Rembert Browne is one of the people I listen to, on a number of subjects. Rembert likes Essence Fest. I would, too, if I was 28 years old, in a target-rich environment of a festival sponsored by a magazine catering to middle-aged women. Rembert starts with a bad number, though: 400,000. No, 400,000 folks don’t descend on New Orleans for Essence. That’s a four-day aggregate number. Think about it, you simply cannot put 400K people into Da Dome. You can easily put 100K people a night for four nights, though. So, with that note for perspective, here’s Rembert’s description of Essence:

Four. Hundred. Thousand. And I’m pretty sure 162 percent were black.

For the majority of Americans, regardless of race, this is not a comforting figure. Throw in New Orleans, alcohol, an oft-religious lean, and 90-degree weather, and that sentiment only intensifies.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that Essence is very black. So black. So black, it’s post-urban. I’m talking 2008 Inauguration-black. And by all that I mean, to many, worringly and uncomfortably black.

This is the foundation of the list of #whitepeopleproblems concerning Essence. To say it’s “worringly and uncomfortably black” nails it.

Then there’s his description of the attendees:

Yes, a reality of the festival is that it’s organized by a magazine aimed at black women, thus the crowd mirrors the readership. So the festival may be perceived as a “by us, for us” (BUFU) event, which I have to assume alienates Essence’s non-target audience. They may not feel “invited.”

“Alienates” – you ain’t kidding, Rembert. But that’s #whitepeopleproblems. The Bayou Classic “alienates” white folks. So does Jackson Avenue on Carnival Day. This isn’t because those involved in these events go out of their way to make white people uncomfortable; their blackness is all that a lot of white people need. But let’s put that basic concern about black people aside. There’s not much that’s going to change that attitude. Alas, it’s an attitude that takes money out of the cash drawers of restaurants in New Orleans on the Fourth of July weekend, though. It’s not because Teh Black People have invaded, either; it’s because white people don’t go out.

Rembert, Da Paper, and Hizzoner all make a big deal about all the people coming to town for Essence. Locals read/hear that 400,000 people are coming to town, and we tend to batten down the hatches. It’s not simply because they’re black; you can’t get me anywhere near Canal Street or Da Quarters on the days leading up to the Sugar Bowl, for the same reasons.

There are two main expectations when a big event comes to town: First, folks coming to town will fill up restaurants, clubs, and Bourbon Street. Second, because of the first, they don’t need my local support for the duration of the festival. With respect to Essence, both of these expectations are dead wrong. But anyway, back to the complaints.

Essence people don’t go out

Essence Festival is incredibly insular. It revolves around two locations. In the daytime, there are events at the Ernest N. Morial New Orleans Convention Center, and at night, the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Keep in mind, Essence is a music festival. Rembert on the music:

Beyoncé Knowles headlined the 2013 Essence Music Festival.

No, not India.Arie. Or Melba Moore. Not Evelyn “Champagne” King, either.

B E Y O N C E.

That about sums it up. You’re heading to Da Dome for the music. You came to New Orleans to go to Da Dome to hear the music. You’re not coming to New Orleans for the garlic chicken at Tujague’s, or to see some band at Le Bon Temps at 10pm.

You’re also making a night of it at Da Dome. Look at this year’s main stage schedule for Essence:

Screenshot from 2015-07-05 08:32:28

Assuming on-time starts for these acts, COMMON took the stage at 7:35pm. Usher’s set on Saturday night didn’t end until 1255am, so the house lights in Da Dome didn’t go on until well after 1am.

That’s typical for a music festival. Think about it, Jazz Fest acts start around 11-11:15am, and the closing acts wrap round 8pm. Shift the focus from afternoon to evening, you’ve got the same basic situation. It’s that time shift, however, that gives Essence a bum rap with NOLA locals. Back to the first complaint: Essence folks don’t go out. This is spot-on! They’re in Da Dome! They’re not at a classic Creole-French restaurant. They’re not at Jacques-Imos, or some small-plates place on Magazine Street. They’re in Da Dome, having the cultural/social/musical experiences that keep bringing Rembert back.

Here’s where the white-people-disconnect happens. A lot of white folks know how Da Fest works. We all have that friend (Hi, Kerri!) who gets out to the Fair Grounds before 10am and doesn’t leave until after 9pm. We all know folks who pass on the last act of the day, to get back to the hotel, shower, change, then have a nice dinner somewhere. The hours from 7pm-10pm are re-charge time. Sit, have a cocktail (something you don’t have many of at Da Fest, because of the prices), then head out to a late show at some bar/club.

Essence folks do none of this. Well, most of them don’t; I’m sure there are folks who come to town and don’t go to the concerts. They’re at Da Dome in advance of the first show they want to see. If you’re making a full night of it, that means you were there last night between 6:30-7:30 to catch COMMON. Earlier if you’re prepared, later if you’re with that gal who can’t get her shit together in the hotel room in less than two hours. And let’s not forget, there’s a lot of shit to get together. Essence isn’t about shorts and sandals. Rembert, again:

Fashion is not a game at Essence. It’s a sport. A professional sport. And everyone who shows up is a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer.

We nabbed some of the best on Friday and Saturday night as they entered the Superdome. Most had plenty to say, usually about their own outfits, and occasionally about my own.

Getting dressed up takes time. That’s going to start between 3pm-5pm, so there goes the early-bird dinner at wherever.

So, why do folks complain? Because white people don’t know how Essence works. They don’t know the schedule. They don’t know talent that comes to town.

Keep in mind, though, that not everyone who goes to a big music festival goes every day. There’s always a hardcore cadre who refuse to miss a minute of the music, but there are also folks who look at, say, the Friday schedule and think, we’ll pass. Maybe we’ll just have a nice dinner. White folks will notice that four-top of black folks in the restaurant, but they quickly forget about the overwhelming numbers in Da Dome.

Essence attendees don’t spend money in New Orleans.

Yes-and-no. They spend money on hotel rooms. They spend money on food and drink in Da Dome. They take taxis and shuttles to and from Da Airport. All that money goes into the economic impact estimates touted by the city. The money is concentrated in a few hands, though, and those hands aren’t those of waiters and bartenders.

I tried to crowdsource thoughts on the subject of “Black people don’t tip”, hoping to add that at this point. I can’t. It’s too all over the place. I’ll have to treat that subject separately.

Fourth of July weekend is so slow in New Orleans, in spite of the Essence Festival

Yeah, it probably is. Fourth of July is, for many people, an “escape” holiday. It’s a chance to leverage one, maybe two vacation days into a proper vacation. Want a good table at Antoine’s or Galatoire’s? Go on Fourth of July weekend. Everyone’s in Florida. Locals who stay around are at the lakefront, picnicking, in the backyard, grilling, or over at their brother-in-law’s house. You know that family member who has the swimming pool.

The bottom line

Fourth of July is a mixed-bag weekend for New Orleans. There is a positive economic impact to having Essence in town. It’s a limited impact, however. The fact that it’s a very-black event stirs a pot of racial bullshit that is just incredible. It’s not indecipherable, though. It’s #whitepeopleproblems.


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