Essence Festival Marks 20th Anniversary With Record-Breaking Attendance

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Sean Gardner via Getty Images
Sean Gardner via Getty Images

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The Essence Festival's 20th anniversary set a record for annual attendance, with more than 550,000 participants celebrating four days of R&B music, community and black culture at the New Orleans' convention center and Superdome, organizers and city officials said Monday.

That's about 10,000 more than attended the 2013 festival, which included a sold-out performance by Beyoncé.

"I woke up this morning and felt a great sense of pride and gratitude," Essence Communications Inc. president Michelle Ebanks said during a news conference about 12 hours after the last strains of Lionel Richie performing "All Night Long" rang throughout the Superdome.

More than 80 musical performances highlighted by Prince, Richie, Charlie Wilson, Mary J. Blige, Jill Scott, Erykah Badu, Janelle Monae, Trey Songz and The Roots highlighted the event which also saw more than 150 speakers addressing everything from solutions to crime and violence to growing entrepreneurs and maintaining healthy relationships.

"For us the highlight is the deep community collaborations we created that hopefully have left a lasting impact on the city," said Joy Profet, general manager of Essence.

She noted that 200 young girls and boys created and pitched new apps and web-based solutions as part of the #YesWeCode initiative, and an entrepreneur won $25,000 in seed capital as part of the PowerMoves Nola program for budding business owners.

Ebanks and Profet thanked Mayor Mitch Landrieu for the city's ongoing partnership, which officially ended as the final year of its current contract expired at the conclusion of this year's event. Both Landrieu and Ebanks said they're committed to locking the festival into a new deal, but several pieces to the puzzle remained in flux.

"This is our home and Essence is better because it's held in New Orleans and in this state," Ebanks said. "We're working through the (contract renewal) process and once we work through all the details, we'll let you know the outcome."

Landrieu recalled that before the festival launched 20 years ago, the city was dead in terms of visitors over the July 4th holiday. He said hotel bookings were at about 3 percent compared to today when occupancy over that same weekend is now consistently at about 97 percent each year.

"Twenty years ago, we weren't a destination city. Today, we're either No. 1 or 2 in the country," he said.

"I'm overwhelmed and overjoyed when Essence comes," he said, adding that "it's the kind of content this event delivers that's most impactful and when you leave, you always leave the community better than when you found it."

Ebanks said they've already begun work on next year's event, which coincides with the 45th anniversary of the magazine.

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