Life Lessons from Essence

I realized that I was tired of sitting on the sidelines when I saw the 2017 film Girls Trip featuring my favs Jada Pinkett-Smith, Queen Latifah, Tiffany Haddish and, of course, Regina Hall. I decided I had to go to the 2018 ESSENCE Festival, so I talked with a girlfriend and we immediately booked a hotel to put us in the center of the action. I arrived expecting an explosion of #blackgrilmagic, dope concerts, celeb sightings, and really amazing food. What I got was that and so much more - particularly the food part! I’ve already vowed that I will NEVER miss ESSENCE Fest again. It is the mecca of all things black, affirming & empowering. The skills I gained and the relationships I built are unmatched. Allow me to recap some of my highlights.

Snoop Dogg Switch Up:

On Friday night I was geeked because Erykah Badu and Jill Scott were set to perform a set curated by The Roots. I had seen Erykah and The Roots in concert and they always go off. Everything I had heard about Jill’s performances in concert was amazing so I was excited as soon as my ticket was purchased. Performing on the main stage right before them was Snoop Dogg and while I knew his big hits, namely “What’s My Name?” and “Drop It Like It’s Hot,” I was less than pressed to be in my seat anytime before Jilly from Philly hit the stage. BUT BHAYYY-BEE, believe me when I tell you the Snoop Dogg set gave me everything I needed and so much more! Whew! Of course Snoop came out singing his hits, the five that I knew, and I was jamming, not really knowing the words but two stepping side to side out of respect. After he wrapped up “Murder Was the Case,” I was ready for him to crip walk off the stage and retire his dreads until next year, when he yelled, “I want to introduce y’all to my friend, Fred Hammond.” Now everyone who knows me (including y’all now) knows that I live for Fred Hammond. There are few gospel artists who are as prolific as Fred, and you’ve heard his hits like “We’re Blessed” and “No Weapon” if you’ve ever been to any Black church more than once in your life. His cannon is matched by few in the gospel industry and I found myself in full worship mode, reminiscing on my church choir days from my whole C.O.G.I.C. life when the Superdome erupted into song, harmonizing classics like “Jesus Is All”, “Glory To Glory To Glory”, and “They That Wait”. Hands were raised and we were basically praise dancing in the aisle, when Snoop popped back on and said, “Introducing John P. Kee.” John P. Kee is a classic gospel artist with a signature voice that was a central part of my church upbringing. He sang his new song “Defeated”, which featured Snoop Dogg (a banger, by the way) and then quickly went into familiar songs like “Jesus Is Real”, a youth choir favorite, and “Something About The Name Jesus”. I was smiling ear to ear by this point, feet stomping, and clapping with my entire row as we celebrated this great Black gospel moment, when Snoop once again approaches the mic and asked if “Detroit, is in the house?” I looked around because people from “The D” scare me (JK) but then he announced The Clark Sisters. The Clark Sisters are gospel’s “Destiny Child” plus two and these women sing DOWN. As they sang “You Brought the Sunshine”, I felt tears well up in my eyes. We were at CHURCH and I was so full. As I’ve reflected on this Snoop Dogg set, I see it as a reminder of two core principles that are important for us all to remember.

1. We can move beyond people’s expectations of us.

Weed-smoking, women-chasing, crip-walking Snoop Dogg has a viable gospel album, the support of renowned gospel artists and on a Friday night in New Orleans, turned the Superdome into a Southern Baptist revival. People change. They grow, develop, expand and change beyond our expectations of them; and that’s a good thing. Never let others’ expectations hinder you (or anyone else) from growing.

2. You can encounter God anywhere.

For the first 20 minutes of the Snoop set, two scantily-clad women danced across the stage while Snoop's mascot, a dude in a plush dog costume, worked to hype the crowd. That was exactly what I had expected. Everything seemed normal. But then God entered the space through Fred Hammond appearance and I was floored. There I was in one of my favorite cities at a Snoop Dogg concert, nearly in tears as a heavenly presence captured my heart. It was completely unexpected, and just what I needed. You can encounter God anywhere; and if you’re looking, find Snoop Dogg - apparently, they are mad cool.

Convention Center Conversations:

I’m a conversationalist. I pride myself on being able to chat it up with nearly anyone and always find a friend in the room. So when I woke up Saturday morning at Essence and my friend wanted to sleep in, I had no issues walking over to the convention center myself and checking out the scene solo. I walked in and there was a black mecca of beauty booths, music performances, vendors and, of course, food. I headed right over to the beauty booths and was drawn in by the beauty carnival and all the big beauty brands’ colorful displays. I started snapping pics and, before I knew it, connecting with other women who were also enthralled by the beauty and fashion in the convention center. As I started walking around to different booths and entrepreneur sessions, I simply walked to the front, sat down by someone who looked fun, and introduced myself. When I wanted to snap a picture and didn’t have a friend (i.e., photographer) I asked another woman and she was able to help me get my angles and lighting together! While most women were roaming in groups, I leveraged my personality, smile and ability to find the perfect compliment for every woman and connected with people. I finagled my way into invite-only meetings and events where I met some really dope women who I’ve already been able to collaborate with. ESSENCE is the perfect place to be chatty. Lean in!

Black 365

I was out until 6:30 a.m. Sunday morning, (Yes, you read that correctly. Bourbon Street really sucks you in.) so when a friend asked if I wanted to attend McDonald’s 365Black Power of Inspiration Awards Luncheon at The Ritz-Carlton New Orleans at 11:00 a.m., I had to rally because TIED, but I thought YOLO and I’m so glad I did. A long-time sponsor of ESSENCE Fest, McDonald’s hosts their annual 365Black Awards Luncheon there each year to honor cultural trailblazers. This year’s brunch was hosted by Essence Atkins and featured honorees Sherly Lee Ralph, Symone Sanders, Kimberly Bryant, Monique Van Brown, and Tishauna M. Wilson.

These are women who I came to admire as I listened and learned their stories; whose bold voices and work will inspire a generation. It was an electrifying room to be in and caused a moment of reflection that truly stuck with me. On that morning, despite all that I have been through, all that I’ve accomplished and all that I hope for in my future; at that moment, I belonged in that room. I was supposed to be there, to hear from those women, to absorb the knowledge that they shared and to learn from them. After the brunch and awards, I worked my way through the room, taking selfies with the awardees and sharing how they inspired me. They listened and poured the same back into me. It was a feeling of belonging that I didn’t know was possible. It was a reminder to show up, never turn down an opportunity, and know that you belong.

My first ESSENCE experience was more than I could have ever dreamed. The fullness I gained from that experience has stayed with me and if you’ve never been, make it your business not to miss ESSENCE Festival 2019. The stars, the concerts, the food, and the culture is unmatched and if you need a Blackness refill, this is the ultimate filling station. See you on Bourbon!

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