The 2020 Essence Festival of Culture, a cornerstone of New Orleans’ summertime tourism economy and arguably the pre-eminent predominantly African-American social and entertainment event in the country, has been canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic, organizers announced Wednesday.
The multi-faceted, multi-day event, which was originally scheduled for its traditional July 4th weekend, was previously postponed until an unspecified date this fall because of the crisis.
Now it is canceled entirely.
The cancellation comes a day after Mayor LaToya Cantrell recommended all large festivals in New Orleans be put on hold for the rest of the year.
The 2020 roster for Essence’s three nights of concerts in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome included Janet Jackson, who has previously performed at the event, and Bruno Mars, who would have made his Essence debut.
Janelle Monae, Patti LaBelle, Ari Lennox, Raphael Saadiq and Estelle were also on the bill.
A statement posted to the festival’s social media accounts Wednesday morning read in part, “New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell bravely recommended yesterday that no large events take place in New Orleans in 2020, and Essence fully supports that decision.
“After continued monitoring of the evolving developments in the COVID-19 global pandemic and remaining in close contact and collaboration with our partners in the City of New Orleans and State of Louisiana, we are confirming today that we will no longer move forward with the 2020 ESSENCE Festival of Culture live experience – and look forward to returning to New Orleans in 2021.”
Tickets purchased through Ticketmaster will be refunded automatically. Tickets for the 2020 event will not be valid for the 2021 Essence.
The 26th edition of the Essence Fest was set to include two extra days of activities to commemorate the 50th anniversary year of Essence magazine, along with the annual evening concert series in the Superdome.
The festival’s free daytime panels, celebrity appearances, political and empowerment discussions and product presentations fill the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. In 2019, the festival added “Essence After Dark,” a series of performances at venues around town.
“Music is an important part of our culture,” Michelle Ebanks, CEO of Essence Communications Inc., said in November, but the Essence Fest is about “music, fashion, beauty, entrepreneurship, health and wellness, civic engagement, spirituality. This is what makes it such a large festival. It’s a family reunion.”
What was originally called the Essence Music Festival — it’s now the Essence Festival of Culture — was intended to be a one-off celebration of Essence Magazine’s 25th anniversary in 1995. The success of that first year convinced Essence co-founder Ed Lewis that the festival should be an annual event.
Attendance for Essence’s paid and free events numbers in the hundreds of thousands, with an annual economic impact estimated in hundreds of millions of dollars.
In November, Essence officials joined Cantrell and Gov. John Bel Edwards at City Hall to announce another five-year contract extension to keep the festival in New Orleans at least through 2024.
The 2019 Essence Fest, the 25th overall, was the last under the previous five-year contract extension.
Essence has featured the likes of Beyoncé, Prince, Janet Jackson, Kanye West, Mary J. Blige, Charlie Wilson, Frankie Beverly & Maze, Alicia Keys, Chris Rock, Kevin Hart, Queen Latifah, LL Cool J, Smokey Robinson, Chance the Rapper, Kendrick Lamar, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott and dozens more. In recent years, the Essence team has worked with performers to curate one-of-a-kind, multi-artist performances.
Former first lady Michelle Obama, a rare non-musical headliner, was interviewed by Gayle King on the main Superdome stage during the 2019 festival.
Other cities have made overtures to steal Essence away, but it has remained in New Orleans every July 4th weekend except in 2006. The festival moved to Houston that year because the Superdome was still undergoing renovations after Hurricane Katrina.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, 2020 will be the first year in a quarter-century without an Essence Fest.