As our days in New Orleans progress, it’s easier and easier to see why the Essence Festival has chosen the city has its home for almost all of its 25 years. Aside from the beauty, history, and incredible food, there is an unparalleled warmth and hospitality among its people, who have made us feel welcome every step of the way. And true to the city’s storied legacy, there is also no shortage of magic in New Orleans; on Essence Fest weekend, it’s all about black girl magic.
On Friday, our day started with a room full of magical women as we attended the Women in Harmony brunch, presented by the National Urban League, HCA Healthcare and the National Museum of African American Music in the ballroom of the gorgeous NOPSI Hotel. Honoring Judge Monique G. Morial (sister of National Urban League president Marc Morial), Cheryl McKissack Daniel (President/CEO of McKissack & McKissack architecture), Rhonda Crichlow (Senior Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer of Charter Communications), “Hip Hop Sisters” MC Lyte and Lynn Richardson, and author, empowerment speaker and Essence editor-at-large Mikki Taylor, the event was an inspiring way to start our first official day of Essence Fest. (Oh, and there might’ve been a surprise mid-program serenade by Raheem DeVaughan, but I digress).
In addition to being a judge of the First City Court, Judge Morial, who was recently named the first female president of the Sugar Bowl Committee, is undoubtedly a member of one of New Orleans’ royal families. Her father, first African American mayor of New Orleans Ernest “Dutch” Morial (for whom the city’s Convention Center is named), was one of the first to integrate the Sugar Bowl in 1973; a heritage she doesn’t take lightly. Neither does she underestimate the power of community, graciously thanking her staff and telling the room, “I have drawn on the strength of other women who have both overcome adversity and commanded respect.”
Similarly, Rhonda Crichlow shouted out her crew of “sister girls,” while for Cheryl McKissack Daniels, who helms the nation’s oldest, most widely recognized black-owned construction firms (with the “Blacksonian,” the MLK monument, and the renovations of LaGuardia and JFK under their acclaimed belt), a legacy of empowerment fuels her fire. The fifth-generation builder’s slave ancestor was the first to learn the trade; the family business was founded in 1905 and keeps building with a spirit of community in mind.
“At McKissack and McKissack, we just want to make sure that our people, who look like us are a part of it,” said McKissack Daniels. “To be able to transfer that wealth to black and brown people every day brings me such joy.”
Creating black and brown wealth is also the mission of Hip Hop icon MC Lyte, who is well known for rocking a mic. But it was Lynn Richardson, her partner in the philanthropic foundation Hip Hop Sisters, who rocked the Women in Harmony brunch, regaling us with anecdotes about her childhood in Chicago, where she grew up knowing she “wasn’t rich, but never felt poor.” Imploring us to “begin to rewrite the story on wealth,” Richardson took us to church on the grim realities facing the black community if we don’t shift our focus from simply just making money, but keeping it, building wealth and creating jobs.
“More money doesn’t solve a money problem,” she quipped.
For longtime readers of Essence magazine, beauty and style expert Mikki Taylor is a legend, and her presence at the brunch was a serenely loving one, as she impressed upon us the value of sisterhood and service. It’s something she has done for decades, uplifting black womanhood and beauty at Essence. “It is a joy to just serve us,” she said.
But it wasn’t only the women who inspired; the room erupted into customary New Orleans jubilance with napkins waved in celebration as former NOLA mayor and current National Urban League president Marc Morial took the stage for the final address. Praising the women on his staff and his family, Morial paid special tribute to his mother, who was in attendance, and who he called a “superwoman.” Well before her husband and son became mayors, Mrs. Morial was instrumental in advancing the voting rights of women in Louisiana—all while mothering five children.
Encouraging us to recognize our power—politically, personally and spiritually—Morial explained the secret to his success: “Surround yourself with talented women...and listen to what they have to say.”
Of course, our day didn’t end there; after getting the lay of the land in the biggest black-owned marketplace in the world at the Morial Convention Center (much more on that to come), we made our way to the Louisiana Superdome to catch the evening’s concerts, which included Estelle and friends, a reunion of New Edition (now named RBRM) and the night’s headliner, the magnificent Missy Elliott.
But the most magical moment of this writer’s day occurred in the Essence VIP Lounge, where we rubbed shoulders with fellow media, local luminaries, and, of course, plenty of celebs. As I languished on a banquette, a lovely little powerhouse approached with open arms, greeting me warmly, and sitting down for a friendly chat.
Y’all, it was Cynthia “sing her face off” Erivo. If you know me, you know this is a very big deal. In fact, Erivo is one of a handful of people this jaded entertainment vet would freak out over (and thankfully she is as gracious as she is gorgeous, and handled my fawning like the pro she is). Apparently, The Root’s Social Media Editor Corey Townsend does know this about me (perhaps even more than I did), since as it turns out, he gifted me with that magical moment. (Love you, Corey. Mean it.)
Because like I said: New Orleans is magic, but it’s the people who make it magical.