Diary of my first Essence Fest: How four days in New Orleans changed me forever

Fresh off of a bout with COVID, theGrio's Shakirah Gittens braved her first-ever Essence Fest—and found healing she could've never expected.

Floating down the Mississippi River in one of New Orleans’ legendary steamboats, I felt overwhelmed with gratitude. I had come to my first Essence Fest for work, but the “festival of culture” had turned out to be much more than that. The trip turned out to be much more than I could ever have expected, period.

2022 Essence Festival of Culture theGrio.com
Second-line performance during the 2022 Essence Festival of Culture at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center on July 3, 2022, in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Photo: Paras Griffin/Getty Images for Essence

It almost didn’t happen at all. Just prior to my trip, I had a terrible fight with COVID—which, in turn, impacted a previously undiagnosed muscle condition my body had been fighting, as well. I was unsure I would even be able to go, which ultimately probably made the trip even more impactful. 

Still, I was nervous about the plane ride, especially with all the changing mandates for masks and tests. I tried to make myself feel both secure and stylish, bringing a variety of masks to coordinate with my outfits, as well as plenty of 75 percent alcohol hand sanitizer—the best decision I ever made! (Pro tip: I boosted the alcohol content of my usual hand sanitizer to avoid like I just poured caramel all over my hands. You know…that gummy feeling? No longer an issue for me!)

The author, in an array of embellished face masks.
Photos: Courtesy of Shakirah Gittens

I arrived in New Orleans relieved to be COVID-negative but still with a lingering cough. Rather than risk getting anyone else sick, I decided I would somehow keep my distance. “Hey, I’m just getting over COVID! Don’t hug me,” I would say to everyone I ran into—but I was bombarded with love and hugs, anyway. That would turn out to be the essence of my Essence Fest experience.

Native New Orleanians and frequent visitors already know, but for me, it was the people I met and the vibe of the city. I have always respected New Orleans, rich in history—Black history—and as a jazz connoisseur, I was beyond excited to be visiting a dream destination of mine. It’s like you can feel it in the air, even as you exit the airport. As soon as I entered my Lyft, my driver and I were chatting about how to best occupy my time, as I’d strategically arrived two days prior to Essence Fest. 

New Orleans is, of course, also famous for its food. Funny enough, the first eatery the driver suggested I check out wasn’t Creole cuisine. I must say the Velvet Cactus was a great first choice, as it had outdoor dining, fun games like oversized Connect Four, sidewalk chalk, and mosquito spray, which I desperately needed—they even had little fans to keep insects away from your food and drinks. The Mexican dinner was beyond satisfactory, and I felt safe, the music was good, and I even spotted actress Rutina Wesley, known for playing “Nova Bordelon” on Queen Sugar. Reality had hit. I was really in New Orleans, at Essence Fest, and this would be the vibe.  

Day One of Essence Fest began with an event hosted by Disney at the famed Preservation Hall promoting “Princess Tiana’s Bayou Adventure,” which will replace “Splash Mountain” at Disney Parks in 2024. It’s ironic I would start my journey at this event. I felt like a big kid, especially after also having been loved heavily by my mother while sick. I was still wobbly on my post-COVID sea legs and trying to take care of myself in the aftermath, with the wisdom and love of my mother as my guide. 

“Princess Tiana,” posing with the author.
Photo: Courtesy of Shakirah Gittens

Tying in our first Disney princess, Princess Tiana, New Orleans, and Essence Fest was clearly a recipe for gold; as Princess Tiana was developing her journey, so was I. It was my first taste of what I now recognize as traditional New Orleans, with a brass band and even a musical performance by “Mama Odie”—better known as “Mother of Black Hollywood,” Jenifer Lewis. I love that Disney expanded and evolved the origin story of Princess Tiana; the character’s development was amazing. The seed had been planted, as it made me think about my own roots and development. And I got a parasol! That was the only souvenir I’d hoped to get since I knew I was headed to New Orleans. Disney had made another dream come true!

Later that day, it was off to the main event at the city’s Morial Convention Center. I was admittedly unsure of myself, my health, and what to expect. Between the city’s heat and my unsteady recovery, I feared I’d have a rough time concealing my difficulty, making others comfortable, and keeping my energy in line with the greatness around me. Confirming my expectations, the convention center was overwhelming. There were so many great booths, installations, and monuments to brands big and small, and through the sea of melanin magic, there were lines, enthusiasm, and love everywhere. Pushing my fears aside, I was proud to be in a space that was family-friendly, safe, and comfortable. It was like I had cousins everywhere! 

Photo booth at Essence Fest
Photo: Paras Griffin/Getty Images for Essence

However, I have to admit working in the media spaces wasn’t quite what I expected—everyone walked and talked with an elevated yet calm demeanor. It was tense and a little intimidating, to say the least. I’m typically jovial everywhere I go, so this energy was new to me. I was told before attending Essence Fest I would find a tribe. It may not have been in the media pool, but thankfully, I found I didn’t need one. I met neighbors from my city staying in the same hotel, I met young Black professionals to enjoy the evening’s concert with, and shared moments waiting in line with people I knew I’d never be in contact with again—but that didn’t make the interactions any less warm or special. 

Exercising my intuition was key, and the concerts—which this year included Janet Jackson, Nicki Minaj, The Roots, Patti LaBelle, Chloë x Halle, Lucky Daye, Jazmine Sullivan, Kevin Hart, New Edition,the Isley Brothers and more—were just the break I needed from that exercise. This was my first Essence Fest, so I didn’t know what to expect. I was just excited to be there and have this shared experience—though no one seemed too worried about COVID except me! Most folks were unmasked; I was kind of floored by that aspect (and kept my mask on), but I hope they were taking care of themselves!

Janet Jackson performs during the 2022 Essence Festival of Culture
Janet Jackson performs during the 2022 Essence Festival of Culture at the Louisiana Superdome on July 2, 2022, in New Orleans, Louisiana. Photo: Bennett Raglin/Getty Images for Essence

Working Day Two, I found myself walking with purpose and staying focused on my intuition. My gut told me what to do, where to go, who I needed to see, and how I could make the most of my Essence Fest experience. This time, that included how I used my media credentials. As crazy as it might sound, sitting in the press box waiting for footage of celebrities was great, but I was missing the Essence experience! I wasn’t going to do that two days in a row; not when I found more flow going to the activations outside the convention center.

On Saturday, Thee Media Mavens Brunch—an event that started with a tweet and ended up sponsored by VH1—started off my day great. Listening to Tami Roman and Amara La Negra speak on being women in entertainment and the wild world of reality television was eye-opening. Their knowledge of the industry and shared personal experiences created an atmosphere of instant camaraderie. If that ain’t Essence Fest, I don’t know what is!

Host and organizer Shanelle Genai, Amara La Negra and Tami Roman
(L-R) Host and organizer Shanelle Genai, Amara La Negra, and Tami Roman speak at VH1 sponsors Thee Media Mavens X EssenceFEST Takeover Brunch at Copper Vine on July 02, 2022, in New Orleans, Louisiana. Photo: Peter Forest/Getty Images for VH1

After that, it was off to Spotify’s House of Are & Be, where the who’s who were listening to up-and-coming artists while setting the ultimate ambiance of cool. Hosted at a classic New Orleans mansion, it was a welcome change of pace from all the commotion at the convention center. It was also an inspiring affirmation of our collective identity, in whatever arena we enter. During a podcasting panel hosted by Dope Labs, Dr. Zakiya Whatley said, “We want people to know who we are from the jump…Just showing up as ourselves, I think, is celebrating our Blackness. You can be in all of these spaces as yourself.” It hit me like a ton of bricks. Little did I know this statement would ring true as the motif of the weekend for me. 

Last but not least, the CROWN Awards, a fitting event for the final day of Essence Fest. I had no idea what I was in for. Created to further boost awareness of the CROWN Act to legislate freedom of hair expression in professional and academic spaces, among those honored were Karma Bridges, Mickey Guyton, Issa Rae, Kim Whitley, Tabitha Brown, Tina Lifford, LaToya Cantrell, Marc Morial and the cast of Tyler Perry’s Sisters

With each successive acceptance speech, I couldn’t keep a dry eye. I really let the tears fall when the three women who integrated schools in Louisiana on the same day as Ruby Bridges were honored. Say their names: those women are Leona Tate, Gail Etienne, and Tessie Prevost. I may not be from Louisiana, but I felt so indebted to those ladies. I felt so full of love and courage when I left the event, and proud to say I would never be the same—in the best way.

I had done it! I had created a well-rounded working trip. I had come to Louisiana filled with so much doubt, but going to Essence Fest gave me something to fight for—both emotionally and for my health. Getting up to work every day, getting fresh air, pushing through my lingering symptoms, and focusing on something other than being sick provided a will for wellness. More than that, it was a fresh start.

I had approached Essence Fest with the mindset that it would be work, with a little bit of play. I had entered the trip with the mindset of a college girl with an assignment, needing to report back as a rigid professional. Thankfully, that mentality didn’t last long. I didn’t realize it was removing me from the experience!

Reporters rarely want to be part of the story—or maybe I’m not used to being heard and don’t expect people to want to hear my story. Even as I approached this recap, I never expected it to be about me; I was just looking to report on the happenings. But between Essence Fest and the city of New Orleans, I could no longer remove myself. I had been affirmed so much throughout the weekend, that I learned how to affirm myself—and have a good time doing it.

In the space of a few days, I had people who welcomed me and wanted to hear from me. I became unafraid to stand up for what was right for me. I learned new boundaries to protect this newfound Black excellence that had seeped into me, and I became a certified woman standing on her own two feet. My first time at Essence Fest left me feeling stronger than I’ve ever felt, with a sacred confidence I know will be with me forever. 

Shakirah Gittens is the Operations Assistant of theGrio. She holds a Bachelor’s of Communication in Broadcast Journalism from Bloomfield College and an MBA in Media Management from Metropolitan College of New York.

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