Caprice Hillman and Sheila Smith flew into New Orleans on Wednesday night for the 19th annual Essence Festival, coming all the way from the cultural hinterlands of New Jersey.
It was Smith’s first time in New Orleans, and she was geared up for an epic four-day romp through town.
Hillman, however, was no rookie: “I’ve been here for Mardi Gras!” she reported as she sipped a Coors Light in Woldenberg Park, site of Essence’s first-ever “Family Reunion Day,” a free all-day music and food fandango that kicked the festival into gear on the Fourth of July. Smith was resplendent in a “Bow-Wow-Wow”-inspired Mohawk and oversized sunglasses.
Both women were the picture of contemporary African-American female chic, the women who make up the prime demographic of Essence — the magazine and the festival.
The pair displayed an uncanny knack for answering a question before it was asked. “We’re here for the great music, the great food, and the great people,” Smith said. “We’re here to see our people.”
Woldenberg Park was bathed in a sultry, breezy glow as throngs of families wended their way through a crowd that seemed to be about just-right for the narrow riverfront confines: nothing like the shoulder-to-shoulder madness that, say, the French Quarter Fest has become.
“Now, excuse us,” said Hillman, as she and Smith shimmied toward the music stage, where the Original Pinettes Brass Band, veteran Essence performers, were about to start their set. Umbrellas bounced jubilantly in the air as the Pinettes — New Orleans’, and by extension, the world’s, only all-female brass band — punched through a hard-driving take on Aretha Franklin’s 1971 classic “Rock Steady.”
A pair of Mardi Gras Indians and a man on stilts made the scene as the Pinettes played, parting the crowd.
An elderly man raised his gnarled, wood-carved cane in the air and shouted: “More of that second-line music!” as the Pinettes took a turn at the theme from “I Dream of Jeannie.”
Rochelle Edmonds was taking it all in with a bemused grin. She had traveled from Peoria, Ill., with a friend. It was Edmonds’ first time in New Orleans since before Hurricane Katrina. Between the requisite shopping and eating and carousing, she had one prize gig on her agenda over the Essence weekend.
“I’m grown up,” she said with a slightly embarrassed laugh, “but I still love me some Mint Condition. That’s going to be my highlight.” Mint Condition plays the Superdome’s Superlounge Sunday night.
Others didn’t have far to travel to honor the family-reunion vibe.
Donald Reed, who lives in New Orleans East, ambled through the crowd wearing a military cap.
The Navy veteran and retired nurse served on the U.S.S. Kitty Hawk in 1969-74 as a medic, and he and his wife came to the festival “to see old friends, friends I haven’t seen in awhile.” They wandered off down the riverfront, disappearing into the bright and colorful crowd of revelers.
Earlier in the day, a series of panel discussions at the Ernest M. Morial Convention Center showed off Essence’s more sober side.
A discussion hosted by journalist Soledad O’Brien featured fellow journalist Roland Martin, 9th Ward resident Patrina Peters and Judy Reese Morse, a deputy mayor in Mitch Landrieu’s administration and a point person in Landrieu’s NOLA For Life murder-reduction strategy.
The forum was called, “Why Our Children Should Come Home.” Peters, who lost her son to violence in May 2010, offered an emotional plea to stop the gun violence that has cut down so many African-American men and youths — and gave an answer to the rhetorical question in the panel’s title.
Her voice quavered as she told the rapt audience, “Too many mothers lay awake at night wondering if our sons will come home. Our kids are supposed to come home!”
After her son was murdered, Peters said, “I didn’t want to live … but to continuously see the young black men dying on our streets, and to know how it felt to receive that phone call — I had to take all that bitter negativity and turn it into a positive. I had to try, I had to help try to save someone else’s child,” Peters said.
Martin, a veteran journalist and activist in Democratic Party circles, gave the crowd some tough-love talk. One man stared straight ahead and nodded grimly at the panel as he held his infant daughter close to his chest.
“There is a spirit of anger and bitterness that is running through the veins of many of these young men,” Martin said. “We have to confront the destruction of black families.
“If there is ‘black love’ in this house, in this house, in this house, it will overcome the black anger in that one house. Black people say, ‘It takes a village.’ We have to be that village.”
The next panel delved further into the thorny matter of “Saving Our Sons.” That panel featured educator Dr. Steve Perry, actor Ameer Baraka, Sony Pictures executive DeVon Franklin, rap mogul Master P and Mayor Landrieu.
That panel was also moderated by O’Brien and throughout it, images of young, slain African American men, among them Trayvon Martin, were displayed on the screens behind the speakers. Martin was the young black man killed by neighborhood-watch volunteer George Zimmerman in Florida, who is now on trial for murder.
Master P and Ameer Baraka both escaped from Central City’s Calliope housing project and found great success in the entertainment industry. Master P told the crowd that he took to heart words uttered to him by an elder in the project who told him he’d be a star one day.
He learned to dodge the temptations and troubles of the projects, he said.
Landrieu asked the crowd to bear with him as he contemplated, publicly, the unique culture of New Orleans and how it has come to be so closely identified with violence. “I think about culture,” he said, “and these behavioral patterns over time that have produced either food, music or murder.”
Outside the convention center, Essence had set up a display of artifacts from the civil-rights era and other tokens and items highlighting African-American struggle and black contributions to American politics and culture. Isaac Edward, 90, a retired longshoreman who now lives in Houma, was taking it in.
“It was very powerful,” he said of the panel discussions. “Young people, they really need to get along with each other. When I was coming up, it was like this: One day, we’d have a fight — and the next day, we was friends again. There was no killing, not like this.”
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