Musings on Image and Substance: A Weekend at Essence Fest

I wrote this post for another blog after I left the Essence fest, in the hot July sun in New Orleans, LA. It was originally meant for another blog, but I decided to let it sit for a while… and I feel my thoughts are just as vibrant.


Hope you enjoy the musings.





Why we gotta be fresh?

Honestly. Where does it come from? Why is it such an ardent part of Black society? What exactly does it mean if we win ‘Freshest Kicks’ awards, or get a perfect Instagram picture? Are we subconsciously striving to be Mansa Musa in a lifelong rat race, designed with comically large weights holding a whole culture down?



Exhibit A.


I pondered these questions while I was in New Orleans for the Essence Fest in early July. It was as much of a clash of African American pageantry and New Orleans debauchery as you can expect. The dogs were barking, and the cat was set out for capture throughout the city, both figuratively and literally. 


I traveled with colleagues whom engaged in particular activities in a Decatur St. back alley that would only be allowed on European cable. But honestly, I went for the culture, a change of scenery, and to see friends I hadn’t seen for years. So, my attire wasn’t at its optimum levels, but in my defense,


1: it was humid as Costa Rica in the rainy season,


2: it went from torrential downpour to bright blue sky in three hour intervals,


3: because damnit, I’ll wear what I like.


As expected, there was a White Party, as is customary for all massive Black American conventions, of which I should have known about. I stood in the sea of white polyester sundresses with my friends to keep them company, but being dressed in khaki shorts, running shoes, and an alumnus shirt wouldn’t exactly be club material. Of course, paying $80 to get in a party with Kevin Hart and hundreds of blacks dressed with particular shades of light beige didn’t quite appeal to me. I saw Hart get out of the Explorer, he’s short. What else do I need to see?



Although legend has it Chocolate Drop made an appearance. so…


During one of the Superdome concerts, I found one of my classmates who happened to be in the area. The conversation went henceforth:


‘Hey, I didn’t know you were here!’


‘Yeah man, what are you here for?’


‘The Essence Fest!’


‘…not dressed like that, you aren’t…’


…my man, what? The Superdome is only open to Essence Fest members, and you take the opportunity to bash my outfit? My shoes are comfortable, I have ankle tendinosis. Can I live?



 Also, you want your Cole Haans in this? That was on Bourbon Street. I plan ahead.


But the exchange got me thinking and observing. All the blacks in the audience enjoyed artists from Robert Glasper, Dru Hill, and Mary J Blige while dressed to the nines. Through the performances, I saw women and men in competing stillettos, and I began to reflect on Black American’s addiction to image.


I graduated from two undergraduate institutions, a historically black college (HBCU) which proclaimed sartorial excellence as a critical point of its official school mission, and a predominately white institution (PWI) where such worries were considered altogether marginal. In my HBCU, we were berated for wearing hats inside any building, and in my PWI, I taught college seniors how to correctly fasten bowties. The differences were a bit more than jarring.



 This was more commonplace than expected.


Most HBCU graduates I speak to had along the same experience, but many also vilify that aspect of their institution. One’s status seemed largely based upon how you present yourself. What was he wearing? What organization does she belong to? What is his ‘brand’, really? A real problem manifested itself over time: the spotlight eventually shined upon the people who became famous because of their image, and most had little of substance to report to the outside world.



Or worse…


What would you expect? Why worry about the power of such a position, when you’ve only been bred to obtain it with your aura, and not to use it for good? In a school where our traditionalists focus on social justice, it seemed as if the school lived two lives: one focusing on substantive yet archaic social ills, and another focused on modern, edgy, personal presentation without an effective foundation.


My PWI had its own issues. It continued to laud its nine-figure endowment, complete edifices costing hundreds of millions of dollars each semester, and effectively publicizes the accolades one would expect from such a top institution. On a smaller, more personal scale, however, I saw real issues. Many of these people didn’t have a brand, an image, or their own voice. Students had their own personality, their own story, and if you dig deep enough, something to contribute, but many people had trouble expressing it to the masses. The students came as they were into an established system, were astonished by its massive scale and reach, and were thrown out into the world with a degree and a well-sculpted mission, before they had a real chance to learn how to develop their message.


But let’s get the record straight. I’m not saying all HBCU alumni are only worried about image, and all PWI alumni aren’t worried enough. Neither am I saying that HBCUs and PWIs lie only on one side of this content-image fence. Lord knows the PWI vs. HBCU argument has been beat to DEATH in all of social media. What I do know, however, that our modern intellectual bastions seem to have a deficit among many.


In some places, the issue is no message to project about the massive ills and inequities in current events. At the least, the message is muddled by the flash of image over substance. Any soul who’s heard of Love and Hip-Hop Atlanta knows exactly what I mean.



Ask him about the Eurozone crisis, and you’ll probably get this face.



In other arenas, those who complete real work can become lost in the fold. Human beings become ghosts in our collective machines; these people are developed by particular socioeconomic structures which rely upon the need for self-sufficiency, instead of working to develop the system to work for them. A well rounded individual should learn the lessons from both spheres.


In short, don’t be worried about the wrong things, the wrong things.


Peace and love.



-All images are obtained from picture search.


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