In commemoration of the 50th anniversary of hip-hop, the 2023 Essence Festival curated an exceptional lineup featuring artists such as Tems, Janelle Monáe, and Megan Thee Stallion. These artists represent a strategic move driven by Essence’s new leadership; Caroline Wanga, who took over as CEO at Essence in 2020, has focused on engaging the festival’s burgeoning young audience, recognizing the importance of catering to their evolving tastes and preferences.
However, this year’s festival garnered some push back against some risque performances. India Arie took to Instagram to share her thoughts on Meg’s “hottie bootcamp” and Monáe exposing her breasts onstage, stating:
“The issue is what is context. Humanity does everything…But does everything belong in a stage. No. Is everything for kids? No. Is everything for everybody? No. So when we as a culture make something like this mainstream — it shows a lack of discretion and discernment. To those in the comments who laugh at anyone who wants these things for our culture you certainly have that right. Just as many folks have the right to want our music mainstream international export — our music — to show us in a respectful light. I’d like to go on the record saying: this won’t age well and that’s my issue. I love Janelle and Meg the way I love us all — and I don’t like this moment.”
Arie’s comments add to the ongoing discourse that continuously overpolice Black women’s bodies. Recently, we’ve seen it in the form of rude comments about Tracee Ellis Ross’ latest Instagram posts, as well as unfair remarks about what Keke Palmer wore to an Usher concert. Incited by Palmer’s husband quote tweeting a video that showed Palmer dancing with Usher, the conversations surrounding the incident have put her under a microscope. Now, people aren’t just criticizing her for what she wore, justifying their reasoning with her now being a mother, but also for her dancing with the R&B artist.
We’re often told what is deemed appropriate and how we should show up in the world in a way that’s acceptable for other people. Hours after her comments went viral, Arie tried to “clarify,” writing on Instagram that this wasn’t an issues with her “sisters” and that she has done the work of “supporting the wellness of Black women” and that “context matters.” The singer has created women’s empowerment anthems like “Video” and “I Am Not My Hair.” But it’s ironic to see Arie weaponize respectability and slut-shame, when her music preaches about how Black women should be accepted for who we are. Despite their Afrocentric themes, these songs may inadvertently perpetuate judgment and criticism toward women who choose to express their sexuality or embrace their physical appearance in different ways.
Even within the desire for Black-centric spaces we find ourselves subjected to criticism. Where can Black individuals find safe havens to exist authentically without judgment from our own community?
Where can Black women openly express themselves?
Throughout its 27-year history, Essence Fest has predominantly appealed to an older demographic, often earning the reputation of being a festival for the “aunties.” Nevertheless, as the festival has expanded and evolved each year, it has successfully attracted a younger audience.
The festival itself has always been about community. Within that, there should be space for women like Meg and Monáe to openly express themselves without having to be beat over the head with conservative ideals that force them to be and look a certain way.
As a woman hailing from the South who has spent her college years in New Orleans and worked the Essence Festival, the discontent expressed seems more like an issue of being an outsider rather than an inherent flaw in the festival itself. Those who have spent considerable time in New Orleans, beyond just the festival weekend, would understand the inseparable connection between Essence Festival and the city itself. Natives born in New Orleans aren’t unfamiliar with the risqué — the city’s signature sound is bounce music, after all.
The generational gap deepens as the older generations refuse to make space for the present and future generations to come. The mainstream media polices Black women’s bodies enough. As a community, we should firstly acknowledge when we are not the primary audience for something. Secondly, we should be fostering inclusivity and understanding that different perspectives and evolving tastes contribute to a dynamic Black cultural landscape. If Black women are the true conductors of the Black community and beyond, we should be holding space for all of them.