One of my favorite festivals is the Essence Music Festival in New Orleans. This will be my third year attending so I feel like I am a veteran. With less than a week away, I wanted to give my tips for Essence to help you navigate successfully this year or for years to come.
Do plan for housing at the last minute but not too late
Essence is one of the few conventions in New Orleans that requires an up front in full deposit for ALL of your nights (non-refundable). Due to the policy of inflexibility, I suggest waiting until about two weeks before to book housing if you plan to stay in a hotel. You will be more likely to fulfill your plans and get the best rate. This is also a great time to use loyalty points or loyalty points with cash. I have noticed booking direct with the hotel is more cost effective than the Essence website. The first year I booked the hotel almost a year in advance and saw no benefit in prices than the second year when I waited until 2 weeks before. If you plan to use something like AirBnB, you might want to do that earlier. I recommend getting a hotel in CBD.
Do buy 3-day tickets early
The best value if you plan to attend concerts is to buy the 3-day pack. My other trick is knowing most of the artists I want to see will be in the superlounge, I get the highest and cheapest ticket I can find. Last year, I sat in my seat for maybe 1-2 acts. The rest of my time was walking the entire Superdome between the two lounges. The schedule is also pretty tight. This year, I got more sophisticated with a priority system knowing I can’t see everyone. I took off people that I either did not want to see or have seen already and don’t have to see twice. My first priority is seeing artists I have not seen before and always wanted to see.
Don’t plan to party hard and attend concerts
Your essence festival will be a wash if you choose to do too much. The first year, I didn’t have tickets to a show (though was blessed with a ticket to Beyonce at the last minute XOXO). I did the party track…and that is one of the last times I got home at 6AM (which caused me to sleep until 6PM.) The party hard plan worked because we did not have concerts to attend. Yet, when you have shows, sometimes the artist you want to see is scheduled early. There are no ins and outs for the concerts, so you are stuck if the other one you want to see is at 10PM. Last year, I had to see Goapele and she was one of the first acts. I don’t regret getting there early to see her. She was amazing. Yet, if I had been partying all day, I may have missed her. The one regret I had last year was not knowing about Solange’s party in time. This year, I am prepared and have already purchased tickets for both days. Will make sure I eat my wheaties!
Do attend the empowerment sessions
There is an entire free conference held in the New Orleans Convention Center with some pretty amazing sessions. Last year, I witnessed a panel with Issa Rae and was very excited. On Sunday, I was able to attend the gospel extravaganza with a tribute to Kim Burrell. The Spirit was definitely in the place that morning. The vendors in the convention center are also wonderful. They are selling ranges of items such as jewelry, clothes, art and food. Don’t forget to stop by the sponsor booths where you usually can get free items including free smoothies 🙂
Do dress comfortably
It is July in New Orleans. One or two things will be happening and sometimes both. It will be hot and humid (with some chances of rain). Prepare by having an umbrella and very comfortable shoes. No matter what you plan to do, you will walk a ton. Walking is usually faster than being in a car. There are some people that drive in town and park at the convention center but once you get downtown, you will be walking. Don’t focus so much on being cute that you end up hurting yourself. (I am pretty sure I was in the 15-20k step range daily.)
Do talk to strangers
Most people at Essence are there to have a good time. So, if you meet someone, don’t be afraid to be cordial. Yes, New Orleans is a city where you have to keep your eyes open, yet being overly cautious could have you missing out on a genuine connection that could last beyond your trip.
Despite food being sold in the Superdome and the Convention Center by vendors, I recommend at least a few good meals outside. For some of the more popular restaurants, reservations are required ahead of time. We were able to get in Commander’s Palace and Compere Lapin and loved it. There was another restaurant we booked at the last minute on open table and it worked well. Others book months in advance.
Do have a communication back up plan
Some years, I have had a terrible time getting cell phone coverage. It really threw off plans especially when in the Superdome or in the hotel. Have people’s hotels and room numbers as a backup just in case you have to leave a message the old fashioned way.
Do plan to network
Last year (and this year) I attended the Walker’s Legacy Brunch. For women entrepreneurs, it was a great place to come together for a couple of hours and mingle. There are also all types of side conferences happening at Essence such as business pitch competitions, hair product showcases, etc. Keep your ear to the ground in order to find jewels off the beaten path.
Essence has changed significantly over the years but what has remained constant is the amazing experience. Some people who went in the early years feel like it is too commercial now. I can’t compare as I am a newbie but it is still a great place to have the family reunion you never planned to have. I always run into people from all over and also make sure to make new friends.
It has been almost two years since I visited New York City. My schedule was so packed I had to document a schedule in Tripcase. I followed the schedule precisely. In addition, I learned that starring places of interest in Google maps came in handy. When I searched for directions, it would show the starred locations on the map, reminding me that I was near a point of interest. I needed all the help I could get navigating this small in size yet lengthy to navigate city. Despite the need to meticulously plan journeys, I was able to recharge on New York’s explosive cultural arts scene while having mini-reunions with friends in between.
Arriving, late Wednesday I wisely chose a hotel near LaGuardia Airport. Despite using points for the stay, Holiday Inn LaGuardia offered me a snack with water or a credit of 500 points. I was parched so went for the water. The hotel was aged but with the free shuttle from the airport and friendliness, I enjoyed my stay.
Thursday was quite a worldwind. I moved to the upper east side to the Courtyard on 92nd street. It was a bit far from the train and did not have a restaurant. My intention was to spend most of the time in Central Park and Harlem but I unexpectedly picked up a hair appointment a Devachun in Soho, so that took up a chunk of my day.
I have had a DevaCut by my stylist Gerri at Planet Curls in Houston. Ultimately, my hair came out about the same. The $50 surplus in the NYC price definitely covered the ambiance and service. I loved the shampoo bowl where I was practically lying down for my wash. My stylist April was very kind and accommodating. She even allowed me to order delivery (because of the slowness of the train from uptown, I made it just in time for my appointment…and hungry). Despite finding 2 eyelashes in my Pad Thai and it being barely average, I was happy to eat. Overall, I felt like I was treated like a queen, but the frugal in me will continue getting my Deva haircut in Houston.
I cannot go to NYC without going to Century 21, a discount designer department store. When I interned in NYC, I shopped there every day (my take home savings to prove it). Despite not needing anything, it is definitely a part of a ritual to go to the Cortland store. I attempted to squeeze it in before our show. Yet, reality sank in, I did not know the trains like I used to. I followed directions from Google maps. I recalled the directions saying take 2 stops. Yet, somehow, I was on my way to Brooklyn. What was planning to be a quick shopping trip turned into an hour accidental train ride. On the way back, the 4/5 decided to stop service. They finally notified us after having us sit for 10 minutes. I shifted plans to get back to times square as the show was at 7pm with no late seating.
The Houstonian in me got off at Penn Station with the intention of getting off at Times Square. I was able to swing through Macy’s to get a shopping fix (though downgraded from my Century21). I traveled all 7 floors and after seeing a juice bar and Louis Vuitton in Macy’s I quickly realized I was not in Kansas. I picked up two items. Thankfully, I had my Plenti card on me so received points for the purchase.
I walked what felt like an eternity to 45th street as cabs kept passing me (I do know how to hail a cab) and Uber was surging. I was able to see the Empire State Building ans Madison Square Garden on the way. The Memorial Day holiday weekend was all a buzz, yet New Yorkers were preparing to get out of town. I finally made it to my 5pm dinner reservation still full from my hairy Thai food. Unfortunately, all the food was family style.
I finally settled for eggplant parmigiana and begged my friend to take the remainder home. I was amazed at how fast my food came out. Yet, disappointed that it was very cold. So much that my cheese barely melted. Again, another meh meal. I was near the show which at this point was all that mattered.
I sat in my seat waiting in anxiety almost as high as a few weeks ago for Beyonce’s concert. I was able to glance quickly at the program. There was an insert program for the original production of Shuffle Along. As usual, I had not done any homework. I wanted to take advantage of seeing my favorite actress for the 3rd time before she went out on maternity leave. I was in for a treat.
The play within a play covered a production of Shuffle Along from 1921. The show was the first all black production to make it to Broadway. Unfortunately, the blaring truth was staring in our faces. Not much has changed in the last 100 years. I was pleased to observe the increased diversity (Hamilton, Eclipsed, The Color Purple, Misty Copeland etc. ) throughout the arts but it feels like the industry is moving in snail’s pace for sustainable changes to occur. In addition, how many productions are run by people of color on the business side of the house. Like Hollywood, New York is still a very closed network. Shuffle Along was a great reminder that it was pretty much the same in the early 1900s.
The performance was phenomenal. Audra McDonald was clearly showing and glowing. She moved in those tap shoes as if she had wings. I kept thinking, will my joints allow me a few shuffles in my taps. It was very hard to keep still. Savion Glover choreographed with perfection. I learned so much about the writers of the show. The entire time I kept thinking, why have I never heard of this show before!
Shuffle Along was the first Broadway show written and performed by an African-American cast. The show was written by Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles with the score by Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle. The show ran for 484 performances . Greats such as Florence Mills, Josephine Baker and Paul Roberson performed in the show prior to their fame.
We were able to spare some time to hang out for autographs at the stage door. As I waited, I noticed the other shows on the street: Les Mis, Eclipsed and The Color Purple. All shows overcoming obstacles, yet surprising mostly with an African-American woman lead. For a split second, I could taste progress.
We were able to get a few autographs. While I waited, I received a push notification from Uber that it would give 50% off 2 rides for the weekend. Perfect timing. As we walked to the Uber giving up the chance to see Audra, a woman told me she snuck out the front doors. I was relieved to miss her but also feeling bad that she must be exhausted with her pregnancy. We were very lucky to see her.
On the way back to the hotel, I saw a whole foods. I asked the driver to stop. It was 10:30 pm and I was shocked it was still open. It closed at 11pm. Again, I was parched but more so in need of alkaline water. I spent $2.99 on a bottle of Evamor out of desperation. I walked back to the hotel but upon arrival realized it was one of the least favorite hotels of my stay. I definitely, was not happy with their service.
The next hotel made up for it. The Renaissance Midtown was in the middle of everything. It was new, modern and great service. I would definitely stay there again. I was able to get to the train very quickly. A beautiful and hot day was spent at Ellis Island and the statue of liberty. It took about an hour to get through security. Yet, it was all worth it. Despite missing my pedestal tour that I reserved because they stopped allowing people up at 3:30pm, it was fun to be a tourist. I also had a strong sense of paranoia as the statue is threatened daily. The Department of Homeland security has a building there.
I decided to visit Ellis Island first. I was not prepared for the emotion that overcame me. I began thinking about people that came over to this country searching for hope . With the conviction that they have a chance to build their American dream. For many years, I thought being of African descent that we had no connection to Ellis Island. That was until I found my Jamaican grandfather’s name in the records. Yet, while visiting the national park store, there was no reflection of my heritage. There was merchandise reflecting those of European descent. I took a moment to reflect and thank God for giving my grandfather the opportunity to leave Jamaica, come to America at 19 and build a family legacy that lives on.
On the way back, I walked to Century 21. I had to push back dinner reservations but went against whatever forces that were trying to get me away from my store. As usual, it was a madhouse. I gave up trying to get sunglasses. I was able to pick up a few things but I was definitely rushed. I was also able to get a glance of Oculus from the outside. What a beautiful structure.
The next mode of transportation was the bus. I took the bus to the dinner reservation which was about 20 minutes behind due to traffic. I rarely take the bus in NyC but it was a bit less crowded than the train. I didn’t learn until later that the MTA now has wifi. I missed several messages while underground on the subway.
Dinner was back in Soho and quite delightful. Who would think my best meal in NYC would be at a vegan restaurant. Blossom on Carmine was great. The ambiance was calm and being near the open window directly reminded me of dining on patios in Europe. Very peaceful. I was also grateful they let us eat after being 30 minutes late.
We had dessert at Dominique Ansel’s kitchen. I loved their new soft serve sweet and savory cone. Yet, people around me gave it mixed reviews. I heard it taste like cold cheese. A passer by said the desserts were terrible. I had the swirl. It was worth every calorie. A complete oasis experience. In addition, I felt their service was excellent. The location was also close to the 1, making the train ride home very easy after a long day of walking.
Saturday, I was excited to use my Marriott voucher for breakfast at Rockin Roscoe, a restaurant in the hotel. I was surprised to learn their oven stopped working. I settled for the lox and bagel and yogurt with granola. It was pretty good. I actually didn’t need much as the next meal event was only in a couple of hours.
We ate Rosa Mexicano directly across from our show at Lincoln Center. I recognized the flying men on the wall. I think I ate there before in Atlanta. Despite the beautiful guacamole preparation at the table, I was very disappointed in the food. I try not to eat Mexican food outside of Mexico, California or Texas. It was borderline school cafeteria food. Not good. Yet, very convenient to the show (there seems to be a trend here).
We left the restaurant at 1:45 for a 2pm show. We had plenty of time to spare. I was so excited to see Misty Copeland. She brought so much flavor to La Fille mal gardee. I realized halfway into act one that it had been a while since I attended a traditional ballet. The soothing music coupled with a carb filled lunch was the recipe for a nap. Despite several nods, the show was great. I even had a chance to stop by another Century 21 on 66th….but was in and out very quickly. Their selection wasn’t anything compared to Cortland.
I finished the weekend in Brooklyn at a benefit for For Life, Inc. I really wanted to get to Brooklyn earlier as the Dance Africa festival was there but I ran out of time. The benefit was great as it was the first annual fundraiser to help children in Jamaica and Cabo Verde.The food at the restaurant, Amarachi was very well seasoned and good (finally).
New York will always be my hub of international creativity. The energy is recharging. Despite being disappointed in most of my meals (Houston spoils me), the access to high quality art outweighed my disappointment. I’m finally back in fat city ready to get my grub on yet happy to be recharged on the energy and culture of wonderful New York.