Now that all the coverage of the performances and style at this year’s Essence Fest has mellowed out, it’s time to talk about the elephant in the room: the concept that the festival facilitators have a “new audience” in mind. Namely, younger Black women.
Earlier this summer, my friend Loren and I made a road trip to New Orleans to attend in person for the first time. It was an exhilarating experience. Ms. Lauryn Hill and Missy Elliott killed it on stage, there was decadent Creole and Jamaican food everywhere I turned, and vibes were immaculate.
Although I’m only 24 years old, and therefore younger than the festival’s largest age demographic, Essence’s new leadership made it clear during panels and in advertising that they’re looking to expand their global audience through new branding as Essence Ventures over the next several years.
The 2020 launch of Girls United, a section of the magazine for Gen Z readers, piqued my interest as Essence began exploring new ways to maintain its relevance in a hyper-digital world. The median age for readers of the print magazine is 47, which is generally reflective of the age range of women who attend the festival. I knew that it’s a space dominated by an older demographic than myself, where squads of aunties enjoy concerts and a little carefree debauchery at after-parties on Bourbon Street, often with their sorors.
On the first night of Essence Fest, young crowds were invited to Girls United’s first-ever festival “kickback” in a separate building of the convention center. The event promised to be an “auntie-free zone” with an abundance of Instagram-worthy photo-ops, live music from local artist 504 Icy Girl, and a casual appearance from Jabari Banks, who plays Will Smith on Peacock’s “Bel-Air.” “The Kickback is new territory for Gen Z’ers to act up without the pressures of the aunties this year at Essence Fest,” Essence reporter Kenyatta Victoria wrote in the event’s description.
What Victoria meant to convey, I believe, was that this event and this space were created for those looking to, perhaps, partake in behavior that is associated with Gen Z: a little more body liberation, for example. But yeah, the phrase “pressures of the aunties” is pretty loaded.
Many older attendees of the festival were vocal about Essence catering to younger crowds with exclusive events and even having Megan Thee Stallion as a headliner. In a private Facebook group with more than 15,000 members, they voiced their opinions about feeling ostracized at a celebration that has historically centered their age demographic.
The Facebook group proved a great resource for me, as veteran Essence Fest attendees gave tips on how to make the most of the experience and what to pack. But the conversations often took a turn during and after the celebrations, with disputes between older and younger attendees on matters such as Meg the Stallion bringing fans on stage for a “twerk-a-thon,” and some commenters accusing others of complaining about “everything” all festival long. And the debates about the GU kickback proved to be one of the hottest topics in the group.
To play devil’s advocate here: Meg the Stallion is for everyone. And sometimes when we talk about “age,” we’re really talking about more of a mental space than a physical reality. But this tension raised an important question: Is an “auntie-free” zone — at certain events or social settings — ageist, or is it just plain necessary? The conversation has made its way to message boards and TikTok posts alike.
“As an older woman , it felt disrespectful and off-putting as I have been to Essence since 1999 and have stayed out until the sun came up,” said a commenter who asked that her real name not be used, in reference to Essence calling the kickback an “auntie-free zone.” “It sounded like Essence didn’t want my money at that event. It’s hard to feel welcome at an event that says it’s not for you.”
Janet Young, a 61-year-old member of the private Facebook group, commented: “I don’t get it! I understand that you have to keep up with the trends. I faithfully attended Essence Festival 12 straight times until this year. It seems like they’re trying to satisfy the wrong demographic.”
Well, “the wrong demographic” is just as loaded a term. Not every artist has a multigenerational fan base, but the festival does. To me, the biggest signifier of good music is its ability to transcend time and entice a whole new generation. I’m a big fan of some newer artists, but my favorite singer of all time is Stevie Wonder. Rather than Essence catering to a certain age cohort with its lineup, I think its focus continues to be on getting headliners who resonate with a majority-Black crowd.
From the festival’s facilitators, at least, there appeared be a strong desire to retain older attendees while garnering younger ones. At the GU kickback, I asked Essence Ventures CEO Caroline Wanga what she’s excited to see from the next generations when she thinks about the future of Essence. “We’ve now established that the Black woman is the CEO of home, culture and community, and I’m now ready to see them flex their power for good,” she told me. The “community” part of that is key — and a reason why we should all be partying together.
Young Black women are undeniably powerful trendsetters, so it’s no wonder the Essence brand wants to expand its spaces to include this age group more. But older Black millennials and Gen Xers also want to continue to feel protected and seen by one of the few companies that’s centered them for decades. With the final print issues of Jet and Ebony magazines released in 2014 and 2019 respectively, and the sister magazines being sold by Johnson Publishing in 2016, Essence is one of the last remaining print publications and brands that focuses on Black culture, fashion and lifestyle exclusively.
Look, brands and their events have to evolve in some ways, or else they become stale and stagnant. For example, Essence recently partnered with Afropunk, a music festival that God-is Rivera, Essence Ventures’ chief content officer, described to me as “alternative.” This collab indicates the future of Black music and culture consumption. It expresses what many younger fans believe ― that Black musical expression is vast and sometimes intersectional.
Rivera, the brand’s first-ever CCO, told me that progression and inclusivity are at the forefront of her and Wanga’s goals. They are not simply focused on attracting younger crowds. Rivera wants to make Essence Ventures a brand that feels welcoming to anyone on the margins of society, including queer communities, people with disabilities and others with multiply marginalized identities.
At the end of the day, I believe in the validity of spaces catered to certain demographics. If you’re a young person, you can choose to drop into an “auntie-free zone” or not. The reality is, “aunties” are a trope, not an age group. Many younger people perceive aunties to be judgmental, stuck in an old-school mentality about sexual expression, or simply closed-minded. I have been in multigenerational spaces filled with tense conversations about topics like how a young Black woman should “appropriately” show up in the corporate world. For these reasons and others, an auntie-free zone sometimes feels like a safer and more accepting place to explore nontraditional thinking.
Yeah, those types of aunties exist. But then there are also aunties — Black women well past their 30s — who twerk like champions, are sexually liberated in every way and truly believe that gender is a spectrum. These women wear what they want, lift up other women of all ages and discard respectability politics.
In the same way, Gen Z women are not a monolith. We can move between zones depending on how we feel that day. In past experiences of socializing with older Black women, I’ve had a great time bonding over music, relationships and everything else.
So let’s let “auntie-free zones” exist for those who need them. As long as we’re all outside, with the option of being with each other, gathering at a festival that celebrates Black women feels like a win.