- Associated Press - Saturday, May 16, 2015

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Essence Festival organizers are reminding fans that they’re not just coming to New Orleans to party.

In response to the civil unrest following police shootings around the country, the 2015 festival has announced a slate of programming and a “Peace, Prayer & Purpose Rally” to bring conversations resulting from that unrest to life.

“This is a community issue that impacts our audience deeply,” Essence President Michelle Ebanks said in an interview with The Associated Press. “Communities across the country are rallying for justice as Black Americans face systemic inequalities and troubling disparities with respect to police brutality, employment, education, earning power, health and upward socio-economic mobility.

“In an effort to shed light on the issues, address the pain, explore solutions and advance the movement in these critical times, Essence is unveiling a series of powerful keynotes and in-depth conversations that will culminate” in the rally.

The festival, scheduled July 2-5, holds free daytime workshops and seminars in the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center that focus on improving black lives and nightly, ticketed concerts inside the Superdome.

“The Essence Festival was designed, from the beginning to be a party but it’s also an opportunity to reflect on and recommit ourselves to the issues at hand,” Ebanks said. “We’re just very excited that we’ll have another celebratory and important gathering of our community. We’re reminded by what’s happening in Baltimore, New York and Ferguson, Missouri, that community building is necessary.”

The peace rally, scheduled Saturday, July 4, is an expansion of past years rallies with mothers who have lost loved ones.

“This is not a departure from what we’ve been doing. We’re just putting it all together in one place to focus on what’s working in our communities and what’s not. This rally is just to emphasize the need to have peace in our communities,” Ebanks said.

The purpose of Essence’s annual 4th of July “party with a purpose” has always been to come together and talk about solutions to problems within the black community, she added. “This year,” she said, “is also an opportunity to bring to life the February issue of Essence.”

That issue, for the first time, did not feature a person on the cover. Instead, in black and white bold lettering it read “Black Lives Matter.” Ebanks said the issue included the voices of activist Angela Davis and artists Common and John Legend, who are rallying around what “we must do now.”

“At the festival, we want to draw the connection between the issue and our formal gathering in New Orleans,” she said.

The festival’s day programming also will include a day of service in New Orleans in recognition of the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Karina. Organizers are in the process of finalizing what projects will occur and where, she said.

In addition, there will be discussions on relationships, health and finances, a star-studded Gospel tribute to singer Kim Burrell as well as the return of the “Yes We Code” hackathon, career connection opportunities and pitch city, where fledgling entrepreneurs will have a chance to pitch their business plans.

“This is our opportunity to address what we must do now to continue our forward march for the next generation,” Ebanks said. “This is completely aligned with where we’ve been and where we’re going.”


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