Music Festival Tunes Into Social Transformation
MICHEL MARTIN, host: And now, when you think about partying in New Orleans, you probably think Mardi Gras or the New Orleans Jazz Festival. But today we're going to tell you about another bash that's become nearly as big in the Big Easy - the Essence Music Festival. It's now in its 17th year. The festival takes place this weekend and it features some of America's biggest entertainers and newsmakers from recording artist Usher to CNN news anchor Soledad O'Brien and Anderson Cooper.
Some 400,000 people are expected to attend this year. And to learn more about the festival, we've called upon Essence magazine's general manager Joy Collins. She's also in charge of the event. Thank you so much for joining us. I don't even know how you have time to talk to us. But thank you.
JOY COLLINS: Thank you for having me. I'd make time any day.
MARTIN: Well, thank you so much.
Do you remember how the festival came about? I know that you've been in charge for the last four years, but I feel as though it's like gumbo, it's always existed. But it had to have started somewhere.
COLLINS: Yes. It actually started when Essence magazine was celebrating its 25th birthday. So it began, really, as a celebration. And, really, to give back. A part of the music festival has always been empowerment. And so Susan Taylor, who was our editor-in-chief at the time, actually said that we can't have a party in New Orleans without having a purpose behind it.
So every year when we come down, we not only put on the best concerts with the best entertainers and star power across the world, but we also put on free programming in our Essence empowerment experience, which is where we talk about those issues that matter most to African-Americans. And we're going to bring the best of speakers. Steve Harvey will be there, Iyanla Vanzant and Al Sharpton.
We're going to have those some of those biggest names around talking about those social issues, whether it's education, whether it's community giveback that, really, we need to know as we go back to our communities and we figure out how can we bring back what we've learned here at the Essence Music Festival to transform our community?
MARTIN: And you also have an experience for 50 women. Actually, there are two things I wanted to talk to you about. The fact - 'cause this really does have a real economic impact on New Orleans. Can you talk a little bit about that? I mean, you really do involve the city in this.
COLLINS: It absolutely does. I mean, in fact...
MARTIN: How does that work?
COLLINS: It takes thousands upon thousands of people to mount this festival. Many of whom we actually employ and source through the local community of New Orleans. And I also have to say that our partners, the city of New Orleans, the state of Louisiana, the Superdome, the convention center are venues that host our activities. They open their arms and they welcome us to come into the city year after year. We'll have been in the city of New Orleans now, 16 of the 17 years.
MARTIN: Sixteen of the 17 years. The one year that it was not in New Orleans was...
COLLINS: Was 2006. That was actually after Hurricane Katrina. It just was too soon to host the festival in the city as they were still rebuilding. But, really, 2007, thereafter, we came right back again. And, really, we think of New Orleans as home.
MARTIN: You're also having an experience for, what, 50 women from New Orleans who are undergoing some sort of a program, an experience there. They're having a VIP experience at the festival with music legend Chaka Khan. Would you tell us a little bit more about what that's about? What they're doing?
COLLINS: We're finding 50 women in a local community of New Orleans and we're mentoring them all weekend long and all year long. And we're giving them a VIP experience to the Essence Music Festival. We're bringing them out, actually, to hear Chaka Khan, give us that gift of her voice at the Superdome on Saturday night. And then we're having small, intimate conversations with them, where we're going to train them on jobs - how to prepare for jobs, how to get jobs, how to find jobs.
And then on how to equip their families, whether it's education, whether it's food. We're going to help them to solve those issues that are most relevant to these 50 women. And then we're going to stay with them throughout the year and really provide them with this enrichment. And we're going to bring them back next year for the 2012 festival and sit them down and ask them, how has this partnership between Essence and the Chaka Khan Foundation made a difference in your life?
MARTIN: Are there any artists who just make you crazy? You just think, I just can't - you wouldn't tell me if they do, but come on.
COLLINS: Oh my goodness. They all make me crazy.
MARTIN: Come on, tell me. Which is the one that you just - oh.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
COLLINS: We really have some great eye candy this year. I tell you, we really do. But I have to say, I am really excited about New Edition's 30th anniversary celebration. I think they have some great surprises that they're going to show us. Of course they're going - they have an amazing catalogue. They're going to do all of those songs that made them who they are.
But they also have given such a tremendous gift to the celebration of R&B that we are celebrating this year. And I think that they're going to take us on a journey of the past 30 years. And I'm just crazy to see that journey and to see from these guys who have really been trailblazers in their genre.
MARTIN: Joy Collins is the general manager of Essence magazine. She's the organizer of the 2011 Essence Music Festival. It is one of the largest music and culture festivals in the world. It starts today and runs through the weekend in New Orleans. Joy Collins, thanks so much for joining us.
COLLINS: Thank you so much for having me.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COOL IT NOW")
NEW EDITION: (Singing) But my friends keep telling me to cool it now. You got to cool it now. Oh, watch out. You're gonna lose control. Cool it now. You've got to slow it down. Slow it down. You're gonna fall in love. Every day I walk her home from school and she tells me how she really feels. And there's no doubt in my mind that this girl is one of a kind. 'Cause all I...
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.