Essence Festival: Free Essence Fest convention experience dazzles with celeb sightings, giveaways

The gigantic, free convention center experience -- the complementary arm of the Essence Festival -- is nothing short of extraordinary.

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

A cheer goes up that one would expect to hear for a rock star when Rev. Al Sharpton enters the open MSNBC studio at the Essence Festival. “I love Al Sharpton,” one onlooker says as the activist and pundit takes his place in the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center.

In the middle of huge exhibits and interactive displays, the MSNBC host of his show Politics Nation talks Trayvon Martin and matters of policy with fellow network show host Alex Wagner for a segment on her program, Now.

It’s a thrill for the thick throng. Gathered in the electric atmosphere of the Essence Festival convention center expo, thousands will take in the many interactive showcases here, where spectators can interact with big brands, huge stars and impressive thought leaders.

Essence Festival: More than just music

The Essence Festival is not just about the music. Yes, the incredible concerts, featuring marquee names such as Brandy and Beyonce this year, are amazing.

But, the gigantic, free convention center experience — the complementary arm of the Essence Festival concerts — is nothing short of extraordinary.

“This is very exciting for us,” Fred Jackson, promotions director for Essence and the Essence Festival, told theGrio. “To gather what will probably be more than 400,000 people for this weekend to celebrate urban culture, music, and just celebrate us, is an amazing thing.”

You have to see the convention hall for yourself to get an idea of the extravaganza event organizers have created. Coca-Cola has crafted a dance floor, flanked with a three-story-high wall emblazoned with its iconic colors of red and white.

McDonald’s has a store and stage, complete with an exterior facade suitable for a city street. Inside, hundreds line up for free food.

“You can win a car from our partners at Ford. I can’t even name all the things that the partners are going to do, because I’ll leave somebody out, and I’ll be in trouble,” Jackson joked.

Celebrating black culture and consciousness

And the list of sponsors is impressive. Coors has a sprawling series of hubs, where singing contests and other festivities will take place. Walmart’s installation reaches the towering heights of the convention center ceiling. But the Essence Festival is not just about dazzling displays and freebies (not that this isn’t compelling).

Steve Harvey recently wrapped up hosting a game of Family Feud live on the Empowerment Experience stage, a separate room decked out like a talk show set. There, wellness experts including Iyanla Vanzant will lead festival goers in compelling discussions.

Did I mention: all of this is free?

“We worked really hard and we will continue to remind people to come out during the day, because this is free,” Jackson emphasized. “The fact that we are all here together — everybody is already excited,” he mused about the various facets of the black community represented.

Fully representing the African-American spectrum

Black culture in all its forms will be on full display all weekend. In addition to the MSNBC and Empowerment Experience stages, there are two additional, massive platforms on which anything and everything related to African-American life will be seen, discussed and shared. “We wanted to celebrate African-American culture. And that is what we are going to do. We are just so excited that so many people are going to join us and be part of that experience.”

This morning, one hundred people exercised in unison on and around one stage, the energetic workout leader projected on a wide screen. Later on, editors at Essence will lead discussions with groups on their areas of expertise from the same space. Surrounding all of this fanfare, smaller booths bring the culture of New Orleans into the halls through vendors selling local fare: crafts, art, clothing.

There are even outposts for universities. Medical organizations have also chosen the Essence Festival to urge the black community to get tested for the various conditions that disproportionately plague our community. Stars Victoria Rowell and Niecy Nash hold book signings at the Essence Book Store, a mini-convention in itself.

Convention expo brings perfect blend of “essences”

Culture, consciousness, and delicious celebration are mingling just as Essence Festival planners intended. In fact, the Essence Festival changed its name recently, dropping the word “music” from its moniker to emphasize that the total experience extends far beyond the late-night performances.

“This is the core of what Essence is,” Jackson said. “That is why we were so conscious about changing our name to Essence Festival, because it’s so much more than music. When you say ‘Essence,’ you say all those things. You say culture. You say communication. You say empowerment. You say experiences. When we say ‘Essence Festival,’ we say this is all that Essence is, and this festival is bringing all that together.”

All of these daytime offerings only enhance what Essence Festival concert attendants will groove to from July 5 through 7. Tonight, Maxwell headlines the stage at New Orleans’ Mercedes-Benz Superdome among a rich offering of over a dozen artists.

“This just kicks you off for all that you are going to see tonight,” Jackson assured.

Download the Essence Festival app to find all the free events that will take place daily in the New Orleans Morial Convention Center.

Follow Alexis Garrett Stodghill on Twitter @lexisb.

MSNBC, the parent organization of theGrio, is the media partner of the Essence Festival.