Vanessa Bush, editor-in-chief of Essence magazine for the past year, joined the magazine’s staff in August 2000. She just missed the Essence Festival’s annual July 4 weekend of music and empowerment in 2000 but has since attended nearly every year.
This weekend, when the Essence Festival celebrates its 20th anniversary, Bush definitely will be at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and Ernest N. Morial Convention Center.
“It’s amazing how much the festival has grown,” she said from Essence magazine’s New York City office. “We always add fresh, interesting experiences to the festival, so there’s something new every year.”
Bush’s special Essence Festival memories include Prince rollerblading during his performance in 2004, the festival’s 10th anniversary year. The singer-guitarist, who appeared on the June 2014 issue of Essence magazine, returns this year as Friday’s main stage headliner.
“I’m a huge Prince fan,” Bush said. “So I’m curious to see what tricks he has in his bag for the festival.”
While Prince is a personal favorite, Bush anticipates great performances from Mary J. Blige, Charlie Wilson, Jill Scott, Erykah Badu, New Orleans native Ledisi and the festival’s dozens of other performers.
“They all recognize the magnitude of this moment, that it’s the 20th anniversary,” she said. “They’re all going to something really special.”
Bush also is enthusiastic about this year’s Essence Empowerment Experience speakers and panels at the convention center. Speakers include singer Alicia Keys, former New Orleans mayor and president of the National Urban League Marc H. Morial, actress Nia Long, the Rev. Al Sharpton and co-anchor of “Good Morning America,” Robin Roberts.
“We’ve been able to maintain the Empowerment Experience, which is all-day workshops and keynote speakers,” she said. “That’s still all free, which is remarkable for a festival that’s lasted this long.”
Topics addressed by the empowerment sessions are part of the collaboration between the Essence Festival and Essence magazine.
“The magazine is the genesis of it all,” Bush said. “Our editors work with the people who work on the festival to make sure that the empowerment topics are top-of-mind for our audience.”
Alabama native Bush became part of Essence magazine’s audience when she was child growing up in New Jersey.
“One of the things my mom and I did for fun was cut pictures out of magazines and create our own books and magazines,” she remembered. “I was drawn to the written word from a very early age.”
Following her mother’s English major example, Bush earned a Bachelor of Arts, cum laude, in English and American literature from Harvard University, and a Master of Science in magazine concentration from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
Bush worked at Glamour before she joined Essence. Starting at Essence in the beauty and fashion department, she eventually worked in nearly all of the magazine’s departments.
“It’s a unique publication,” she said. “It has a specific point of view, a specific mission, which is to empower black women. To be part of that every day for the past 14 years has been one of the best experiences I could ever have imagined in this industry.”