There they were decked out in every imaginable kaleidoscope and hue of brown and black hue, it’s hard to imagine a people so proud, so beautiful, so vivacious, so full of life could at the same time be so despised. But that’s what the 23rd Annual Essence Festival brought to the table, our own little brief respite from the pain of being Black in the US and placed people on a temporary island of tranquility.
Nevertheless, there they were and in the midst of them were arguably some of the most striking women in the universe,covering every spectrum of brown, black and even a shade of gray; they also came in caramel, butterscotch, honey, dark and milk chocolate, ebony and mahogany.
There was no mistaking the West African Mother land’s contribution, as they sashayed about with their big and almond eyes, big lips and big behinds, wide hips, wide set noses and toned thighs. Yes they wore broad smiles, with their high cheek bones and sometime high foreheads. They wore every kind of cloth and style imaginable and made every fashion, every dress, every skirt, every pair of pants and one piece outfit look as if it was tailor made for them. As a crown they wore nappy, curly, straightened and natural (and purchased) hair.
“Still I Rise,” you could hear if you listened closely! Maya Angelou’s paraphrase of the African experience in America in three words, seemed to be coming from the movement of the people.
“Still I Rise,” Essence seemed to prove, as it put on display of Black excellence, specifically Black female excellence. There were Black entrepreneurs, Black clothing, Black books, Black hair care products, Black artists, Black directors, even Black food vendors. Gospel music was also recognized and given a place in the Festival, as Essence honored Cissy Houston.
Every Black experience was accounted for, even our social/health issues, from HIV to Sickle Cell to police violence as there was even a booth entitled COP STOP to help people inform their friends when they are being stopped by police.
This year organizers presented the WOKE award for those who have contributed to the struggle against racism. Ava DuVernay and Patrice Cullars of Black Lives Matter shared the honor.
DuVernay made the interesting point that part of being WOKE is being there for those around you, she gave the example of the cast of Queen Sugar showing up at her father’s funeral. No doubt a part or real consciousness has to include restoring the idea of the “Village” along with a comprehensive understanding of the role of racism in our social/ political/economic system.
Racism and police violence, are principle parts of the Black experience in North America and was reflected in a song by Jill Scott during her Friday night Superdome concert performance. The song was accompanied by a video collage that included Philando Castile’s mother Valerie Castile’s press conference, after this system allowed yet another cop to get away with murdering her son.
How far Black America has come was also reflected in the music as the elder stateswoman Diana Ross closed out Friday night with a performance that brought back lots of memories.
Ross’ career has spanned 5 decades. It’s difficult to believe that she can still perform, but there she was going through a melody of her Supremes hits and her more well- known tunes from her solo career. And yes she opened to, “I’m Coming Out”
It was as if she was spanning parts of the sound track of the lives of the old- schoolers in attendance. “You Can’t Hurry Love,” “Baby Love”, “Love Child”, “Aint No Mountain” spanned a time of hope and turmoil. The 1960’s don’t seem all that important now, but at the time,Ross and her group helped folks dance through their pain.
Ross and the Supremes were touched by the times as well, as Barry Gordy according to rumors, projected Ross as lead singer over the vocally talented Florence Ballard in order to appeal to a “broader” audience. The Supremes indeed were a cross- over success, but it may have cost Ballard her well-being.
Skeletons seemed to dominate the landscape as Mary J Blige, who admits that she sang to escape the blues of living hardcore poor and Black in America, took the stage on Saturday night and vicariously sang away her pain, much to her fans delight.
Chaka Khan fittingly closed the second night with “ I’m Every Woman” which brought back memories of the late great Whitney Houston, who Black America watched die right in from of them, a painful reminder of the late 1980’s early 90’s crack scourge that hit the community like a storm.
Moreover, the Ninth Ward’s rundown shadow of its old self post Katrina, also casts a pale on the Festival. Hopefully the organizers will one day find a creative way to include its reconstruction as part of its yearly confab.
Yet,’ Still We Rise’ would encapsulate the Festival this year. It was held without Confederate statutes as a back drop, which have been torn down earlier this year. One of them was of Robert E Lee, which literally stood 300 yards from the Morial Convention Center.
justice then peace