In a world brimming with unforgettable experiences, the 2023 Essence Festival has once again left me in awe of its unparalleled impact. Stepping into the enchanting world of the festival, set in the vibrant city of New Orleans, I knew I was in for something extraordinary. The celebration of black excellence has been a radiant cultural beacon for twenty-nine years, drawing half a million guests annually and earning its rightful place as one of America’s grandest music festivals. The captivating collaboration of music and culture truly made the festival experience like no other.
I would have started with the food – French Street and Bourbon Street served finger-licking cuisine that made me feel like royalty – but it’s by the way. Let’s get into the festival. Every year, the Essence Festival takes place over four days. On the first day, the Mayor of New Orleans, LaToya Cantrell, hosted a hip-hop welcome party that exuded pure elegance. It was a dazzling display of glitz, glamour, and classiness that was off the charts. And guess what? Even politicians played roles like characters from a real-life “Scandal” episode, adding to the excitement.
The following day was particularly special as we were graced with the presence of Oprah Winfrey, the Chief-of-Chiefs. I was thrilled and eagerly listened to her every word as she shared her words of wisdom, particularly when she spoke about “The Color Purple” in her calming voice. Her speech brought tears of joy to everyone, regardless of their fame or status. There are levels to this celebrity thing, you know?
But that was just the beginning of my adventure at Essence. I explored the author pavilion, indulged in the famous Coke Studio, and even had the honour of gracing a fake “prop” cover of Essence magazine. Yeah, I’m practically a celeb now. I actually met Richard Lawson, Beyoncé’s stepdad! It was a pinch-me moment that had me floating on cloud nine. The Essence Festival was an enchanting whirlwind of pure magic, filled with timeless impressions. Attending the African festival was an unforgettable experience. The soulful music and the camaraderie shared with other African attendees made it even more special, and I will always cherish the memories from that day.
I also experienced a momentous occasion – the birth of Africa Day! This special day was celebrated in a grand manner, with Essence recognising the outstanding contributions of Nollywood, the thriving film industry in Africa. The inaugural event brought together the crème de la crème of Nollywood, and Ghana Day ensued the next day, adding its own spice to the festivities. It was giving a combination of Naija jollof rice spiced with Ghanaian waakye.
I was fortunate enough to witness Toyosi Etim-Effiong, the founder of That Good Media and the driving force behind “Nigeria Day at Essence,” in action. She brought together a diverse group of individuals, from respected veterans to up-and-coming stars, and took us on a journey through the origins of Nollywood, providing a captivating exposé of its growth and influence. The presentation on “Partnership Opportunities in the African Creative Industry,” which was given alongside Akintunde Marinho, added even more insight to the discussion. During her panel, I learned something new: the term “Nollywood” was coined by a New York Times writer named Norimitsu Onishi, who observed film production in Lagos, Nigeria, in 2002.
Throughout the day, the African creative industry was discussed in captivating panels that covered crucial topics. Prominent figures such as Daniel Etim Effong, Osas Ighodaro, and British-Nigerian actress Gina Yashere delivered keynote addresses and participated in discussions, shedding light on both the challenges and triumphs within the industry. The audience was thrilled to watch the full screening of “The House Of Secrets,” a recently released film, and the excitement in the room reached a fever pitch. Nigerian stars like Eso Dike, Blessing Obasi, and Kenneth Okolie, whose film “Breaking Bounds” was also shown at the festival, were in attendance as well.
Amidst the stylish and colourful crowd, I couldn’t help but be captivated by the guest of honour who truly stole the spotlight: Richard Mofe-Damijo (RMD), the newly-drafted Oscar member and CAA-signed star. Rocking customised “Warri” airforce sneakers and an avant-garde green ensemble, RMD’s presence commanded a standing ovation and a thunderous chorus of “daddy yo” chants from his esteemed peers, as he explained how he stayed relevant throughout his career.
The African creative industry was the focus of several captivating panels, covering crucial topics for its growth and future. The keynote address, titled “Accelerating the Growth of the African Creative Industry through Cultural Exchange,” paved the way for insightful discussions and strategic planning. Industry veterans and A-listers including Stella Damasus, Deyemi Okanlawon, Stan Nze, Shawn Faqua, Yolanda Okereke, Mofe Duncan, Seun Ajayi, Timini Egbuson, Ayoola Ayolola, Omowunmi Dada, and renowned film distributor Ijeoma Onah, were present to share their experiences. As they shared their journeys, we were transported back in time, reliving their impressive careers and gaining a deeper appreciation for their impact within the industry. The industry is now poised to standardise how to export its content to the rest of the world.
One of the standout moments at the event was when Deniece Laurent-Mantey, a Special Advisor at the US Department of State, expressed her strong support for African creatives on a global scale. She emphasised the American Government’s commitment to recognising and preserving Africa’s diverse culture and heritage. Her words resonated with me, as they demonstrated a desire to uphold the resilience and creativity of the continent and ensure that its significant contributions throughout history are represented.
At the end of the day, Barkue Tubman-Zawolo, Ama Larbi, and Toyosi gave moving closing remarks that left us feeling inspired and grateful for the amazing experiences shared during Nigeria Day at Essence. The anticipation for an even bigger Nigeria Day next year has us eagerly looking forward to what’s to come.
The creative economy is one of the world’s fastest-growing sectors. It’s truly incredible to witness firsthand how this sector contributes to the rapid expansion of the global creative economy, offering employment opportunities and generating income for millions. Africa’s creative industry, including the thriving film sector, has seen astronomical growth, underscoring its substantial economic potential. The Nollywood film industry has experienced remarkable success, reaching annual revenue of $22M, according to Zippia. These figures highlight the significant revenue potential for African filmmakers, actors, and artists in digital entertainment. Speaking of numbers that don’t lie, last year’s edition alone grossed $48.6 million in taxes, $189M in GDP, and an economic impact of $327M to New Orleans, creating 3,605 jobs and producing over $120M in labour income. So much to emulate.
Looking back on my time at the Essence Festival, I feel grateful for being able to take part in such a wonderful celebration of culture and excellence. The festival is not only entertaining, but it also has a profound impact on the global creative landscape. Nigeria Day at Essence showcases the vibrancy, resilience, and endless potential of Nollywood. It’s a celebration of talent, a platform for important discussions, and an opportunity for up-and-coming filmmakers to shine. I would also like to give a big shout-out to the Ghanaian contingent who showed up for Ghana Day, including Juliet Ibrahim, Chris Attoh, and the rest of the African film industries who are telling our stories. Also, Hello, Cameroon & SA.
Let’s bask in Nigeria Day’s glory at Essence and acknowledge the historical milestones of Nigerian cinema. From the first feature film, “Palaver,” made in 1926, to Herbert Macaulay’s establishment of the first cinema in Nigeria in 1903, the journey of Nigerian cinema is filled with fascinating moments. The Essence Festival 2023 has yet again surpassed expectations by showcasing African cinema. We are excited to see what the future holds for Nollywood and the African creative industry.