When you've hosted a wildly successful lifestyle event for more than two decades, regularly drawing half a million people to see to the likes of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Misty Copeland, Prince, Kanye West, and Beyoncé, what's your next move?
For Essence magazine, whose annual Essence Festival in New Orleans just marked its 22nd year in July, it was time to head to Africa.
The brand had been planning to bring the festival to Africa since 2014, to mark the 20th anniversary of the festival. "It was also the 20th anniversary of the end of apartheid, so we felt a spiritual alignment,” said Essence president Michelle Ebanks. After two years of planning, the pieces finally all came together this past weekend in Durban, South Africa.
Durban is often overlooked by visitors to South Africa more interested in Cape Town's beauty, Johannesburg's energy, and Kruger National Park's wildlife. But its alluring seaside setting and vibrant mix of Zulu, Indian, and European cultures makes the city particularly dynamic. It also happens to be New Orleans' sister city — and a sister festival seemed inevitable.
"New Orleans has a very strong cultural economy, and Durban is also deeply cultural, and so we connected as communities that had so much in common," added Ebanks. They brought African artists to New Orleans for the U.S. festival, and now Americans descended on Durban in droves.
"We're trying to bring some New Orleans to Africa and take some of Africa back to New Orleans,” said keynote speaker Steve Harvey in his keynote address.
Besides Harvey, the international lineup of speaker included singers Estelle and Kelly Price, attorney and Real Housewife Phaedra Parks, and fitness guru Shaun T along with local thought leaders like Durban mayor Zandile Gumede, media personality Thabo "Tbo Touch" Molefe, businessman Lebo Gunguluza, and DJ Sbu Leope, all there to give talks on empowerment and success. Many people who associate Harvey with his standup acts and TV shows (and a certain Miss Universe gaffe) might not realize that the comedian actually moonlights an inspiring motivational speaker as well.
"I came to South Africa to show you how you can be anything you want to be," he declared on the Empowerment Stage, in a rousing talk that often resembled a preacher's sermon. "Faith don't make it easy, faith makes it possible."
The festival included areas devoted to themes of empowerment, music, literature, beauty, wellness, food, and more—all of it with a distinct African flavor. Authors like Zimbabwe's NoViolet Bulawayo and South African Shubnum Khan held forth in the Articulate Africa section; there was a fashion show with Cameroon's Rodrig Couture, Nigeria's Hunt Couture, and local label Rafkhat Creations at the Beauty & Style pavilion; and Durban's iconic dish bunny chow fed the crowds at the Essence Eats food court. Massive troupes of colorfully dressed Zulu dancers paraded through the venue at random intervals, and their cheerful singing and chanting drifted into the conference rooms and punctuated ongoing talks with an unexpected energy.
But the main draws were the back-to-back concerts at Durban's Moses Mabidha stadium. The first night was an all-star international lineup headlined by Ne-Yo alongside Nigerian dancehall singer Burna Boy and South African DJ Black Coffee, among others; the next evening was a gospel show featuring Yolanda Adams, Mary Mary, and a cameo by South African president Jacob Zuma there to honor Joseph Shabala, founder of the Grammy-winning South African group Ladysmith Black Mambaza.
"I've performed at the Essence Festival in the States a couple times, it's always a beautiful event, it's always about the essence of us as a people — love, peace, and harmony," Ne-Yo said after his performance. "You take this amazing show and you bring it to an amazing place like South Africa and amazing things are bound to happen."
For Durbanites, it was a rare opportunity to see see some global A-listers on their home turf. "It's such a great pleasure because we get to see all these international acts that we are not used to in Durban," said Diva Cadach, a local Durban DJ who was dancing up a storm with his friends in the Golden Circle. "Can we just have Beyoncé now please?"
Who knows — maybe Cadach's dreams will come true with #EssenceFestDBN 2017.