Essence Festival has responded to mounting outrage after obtaining a court order to block a Black-owned business from hosting its own event while the renowned annual celebration of Black culture was kicking off in New Orleans.
Social media timelines were replete with criticism after the news broke on Friday that a New Orleans-based Black-owned bookstore was being prevented from holding a literary block party with Black authors because of a temporary restraining order. Essence Fest also sent a cease and desist letter to author Tamika Newhouse, who organized the block party.
The temporary restraining order and cease and desist letter claim block party organizers didn’t go through the proper licensing procedure to be included as a vendor during the annual Essence Fest celebration. But block party organizers have said the event was not a part of Essence Fest and it was being held on private property.
“It is deeply ironic that Essence, which claims to celebrate and uplift the Black community, would choose to target a business like Baldwin & Co., which aligns with the values of community service and empowerment,” Baldwin & Co. owner DJ Johnson said in a statement. “Such actions are not only unjust but also tarnish the reputation of Essence and raise questions about its commitment to supporting the Black community as a whole.”
Essence Fest responded on Saturday by defending itself after people including former U.S. Senate candidate in Louisiana Gary Chambers spoke out. In a video he posted to social media, Chambers denounced the temporary restraining order and demanded Essence “rectify” the situation with Baldwin & Co.
Judging from Essence Fest’s response on Twitter to Chambers, it’s doubtful that will happen.
“The event organizers misled artists into believing that they were participating in an Essence Festival event. Shockingly, the event charged each author a $650 fee to participate under the guise of working with Essence,” Essence Fest said in a statement it tweeted in response to Chambers’ video. “Essence does NOT charge authors to participate in their programming. The event organizers intended to charge the public for their event while Essence programming is free of charge and open to the community.”
The statement added: “Essence repeatedly asked the event organizers to stop their misleading activity and to refund monies to all who had been taken advantage of in the name of Essence.”
An attorney for Essence Fest expressed a similar sentiment.
“Essence was very disappointed to learn that an event organizer was exploiting Essence Festival patrons and authors. The promoter falsely advertised that their event was in partnership with Essence when it was not,” James Williams said Saturday in a statement to Nola.com. “Essence repeatedly asked the event organizers to stop their misleading activity and to refund monies to all who had been taken advantage of in the name of Essence … We hope the event organizers will do the right thing and refund the money they obtained from the public under these false pretenses.”
The New Orleans City Council, which approved an ordinance for the block party to happen, on Friday condemned the court order blocking the literary event and questioned Essence Fest’s motives.
“It is completely inappropriate for any large-scale event visiting the city of New Orleans to negatively impact our local businesses with something akin to a non-compete clause,” New Orleans City Council President JP Morrell said in a statement. “It’s especially concerning that the canceled event was organized by a Black-owned business and would have showcased Black female authors on a weekend that is supposed to be dedicated to Black culture.”
Morrell added: “It was never the intent of the council for any ordinance, much less the Clean Zone Ordinance, to impact private businesses hosting private events that happened to coincide with the timing of Essence Fest. We are looking into how this occurred and how to prevent it from ever happening again.”
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