Recap: Essence Festival Durban 2016

Essence Magazine stepped it up a notch this year by not only hosting their famous Essence Festival in New Orleans, but by branching out internationally and hosting a second festival in Durban, South Africa. For the first-time ever, Essence Festival Durban kicked off in KwaZulu-Natal's beautiful city of Durban from November 8 - 13, 2016. Since I am currently in Zambia, I hopped right on over (and by hopped I mean a 5-hour travel time) to Durban to check out the inaugural festival. 

Let me preface the rest of this post by saying the following:

  1. I have attended Essence Fest in New Orleans before.
  2. I did not attend Essence Festival Durban in its entirety. I only attended the weekend events.

With those points in mind, on a scale of 1-10, I give the first Essence Festival Durban a 6.5. Here's why:

1. The musical guests were great.

While lesser known acts were scheduled beginning at 1 pm, Ne-Yo started the main show around 9 pm and performed for about 30-45 minutes. He sang his biggest hits and the crowd couldn't get enough. Personally, I was excited to see my favorite South African and Nigerian performers, including AKA, Wiz Kid, Cassper Nyovest and Black Coffee. Each of their performances was amazing. I loved that local talent was sourced for the Saturday night concert. It was a great way to put a South African stamp on the Essence Festival.

 Concert stage

Concert stage

2. The convention center area reminded me of New Orleans.

There were several booths selling African merchandise, hair and diet products and much more. This was very similar to product offerings at the Convention Center in New Orleans. However, I could see this potentially being enhanced next year, as several of the booths were empty and I wasn't interested in buying many of the products.

 Pavilion area

Pavilion area

3. There was a chic, functional pavilion area.

There were several food trucks offering various types of South African foods, as well as tables, chairs and a lounge area for patrons to relax and refuel. Of note, there was also a great bar station to buy cocktails, soft drinks and water. This was probably one of the more well-thought out areas at the Convention Center. While we were there enjoying our cocktails, there was a parade of Zulu people, which was exciting to see them in their traditional clothing.

 Go DJ!

Go DJ!

Here's where it gets a little...less than stellar...

4. It was unorganized.

Before arriving at Essence Fest, there was no schedule available for events...at least not one I could find. While at the festival, someone told us that there was an Essence Festival Durban App containing all pertinent information, but it wasn't publicized at all. After we arrived at the Convention Center, it was very hard to tell where information sessions were taking place. And after getting to the designated area, sessions were running severely behind schedule. For example, we wanted to see Mama Tina (Beyonce's mom, duh) speak and her session was scheduled to start at 3:15 pm. We just happened upon her speaking on the main stage at 6:30 pm. That is a 3-hour delay! With such a tight schedule, it was very hard for patrons to plan accordingly.

 Mama Tina and new friends

Mama Tina and new friends

5. It could use a few more (and better) headliners.

While Steve Harvey, Ne-Yo, Yolanda Adams, Mary Mary and others were supposed to attract crowds, that's not enough to make Americans want to cross an ocean. We can see them (and the likes thereof) at Essence Festival in New Orleans, the BET Experience or a host of other events that we don't have to pay an arm and a leg to attend.  While I do realize that entertainers have hectic schedules and making the long trip to South Africa may be difficult, it would be worthwhile to show some love to their international audiences. (Hint Hint: Beyonce!)

 With a Zulu man

With a Zulu man

6. It didn't quite have that "Essence" feel...yet.

I can see why Essence wanted to expand the brand into South Africa, but the festival didn't have the same feel as its New Orleans counterpart. While it was the first year and there will naturally be a learning curve, I left a little underwhelmed by the organization and management of it all. However, I do believe that with a year or two more with practice, the festival will expand and be a major attraction to Durban like the festival is to New Orleans.

In case you're planning on attending next year, here are a few tips:

  1. Stay close to the downtown area. I've been to Durban twice and this most recent time, I stayed at Suncoast Towers, which was pretty central to most areas. The previous time I went I stayed in the Uhmlanga area, and while 15 minutes isn't far, it can get tiresome traveling to and from the Convention Center every day.
  2. Plan excursions outside of the festival. This is an opportunity to see more of Durban and perhaps even more of South Africa if your budget and vacation time can accommodate. Don't let the festival be the only thing you do while you're in South Africa.
  3. Wear comfortable shoes. This goes without saying, but I'm saying it anyway. I ended up standing for about 7 hours waiting for and watching the performances. Be prepared for delays. 
  4. Bring an umbrella. It rained off and on all weekend. November is rainy season in Durban, so bringing an umbrella is imperative.

With all of that being said, I would definitely attend again. I am cutting Essence some slack because it was the first year and they were working out the kinks. This was the first year of a three-year partnership, so starting out at 6.5 isn't bad. There's only up from here!

 Zulu Women

Zulu Women