At Sharewood Projects’ annual Spookapella show, more than half a dozen Tufts groups took the stage, but one arguably stood out the most: the all-female a cappella group the Ladies of Essence. Performing Estelle’s 2008 single “Come Over” and Stevie Wonder’s 1976 soul masterpiece “Isn’t She Lovely,” the Ladies of Essence’s mini-show ended with loud applause from the audience.
Essence’s popularity might be related to R&B music’s popularity in mainstream culture today. With artists such as Drake, Beyoncé and Frank Ocean topping the charts and having the biggest first-week album sales of 2016, it is safe to assume R&B music is making a comeback.
The Ladies of Essence have also made a comeback recently, after taking a minor break last year to focus on reevaluating their purpose and values. Jacqueline Chen, a sophomore who first auditioned for the group and then was invited back to audition again after their hiatus, recalls the conversations the Ladies of Essence had.
“After I got into the group we had a lot of conversations about the fact that black women were not seeing themselves as part of Essence anymore,” Chen said.
The group thought about the ways in which they could encourage black women to join. Sophomore Isis Van Putten, who serves as the current president, said that Essence focused on issues related to race and identity in their conversations.
“There was a lot of discussion about what we wanted our purpose to be, whether or not we wanted to go back to the original purpose or kind of rework it for having a safe space for girls who are people of color,” explained Van Putten.
While the group didn’t perform last fall, they were keen on getting back on course this past spring.
“We did not end up having a show [during] fall semester,” Chen said. “Spring semester, we really came back with the mindset of putting together a show where we got up and sang nine songs.”
Last semester’s show, “Herstory” explored empowerment, especially the empowerment of black women.
“We brought back alumni and talked about what Essence means to them and things that center around black women,” Chen said. “Essence is first and foremost a black-centered group for black women to feel comfortable singing their music.”
Music from the African diaspora played an important role in the formation of the group. The Ladies of Essence was founded in the early 1990s under the name Spice when a group of black women felt the music they enjoyed singing was absent in Tufts’ music scene. Spice became Essence in 1994 but was not a fully formed a cappella group, as it performed with bands. The Ladies of Essence decided to be all a cappella in 1999. Today, they concentrate on the music of the African diaspora, performing songs not only by African-American artists but by black musicians everywhere.
After their comeback, Essence has been gaining more attention than ever, especially since a lot of popular female artists explored blackness in their music in 2016, most notably Beyoncé and her sister Solange with their respective releases “Lemonade” and “A Seat at the Table.” Both sisters were lauded by music critics and topped the Billboard 200 chart. These releases could potentially influence Essence’s set list for their upcoming end of the term show.
“With all the amazing music coming out exploring blackness, mainstream attention is being brought to the music of the African Diaspora’s unique ability to unite and empower those struggling with systemic racial oppression,” said music director Chloe Nicole Sasson. “Through song, these artists proudly celebrate an identity that has been stigmatized in American culture since its inception.”
That said, per usual, The Ladies of Essence will continue to perform songs from other periods, geographies and genres.
“We are working on incorporating some of these pieces into our set list while also representing a range of genres within the diaspora, both new and old,” Sasson said.
“Black women have always been innovators when it comes to music, and I think the multifacetedness of black female artists is really beautiful. As a black woman, it makes me really proud,” said senior Kristiana Jordan. “We’re always growing and developing and innovating and it’s awesome. A lot of black women released really incredible albums this year that got a lot of attention.”
Among the albums released this year by black female artists, Jordan recommended the aforementioned “A Seat at the Table” as well as Noname’s “Telefone” and Nao’s “For All We Know.”
Essence does not solely sing R&B songs; their repertoire includes a blend of gospel, soul, hip-hop and other genres, according to Jordan.
“While we do perform a variety of genres, all of them are brought together by the fact that they fall under the category of music of the African diaspora,” Jordan said. “This encompasses all of the different musical genres created by people of African descent, globally.”
Esra Gurcay, a freshman, said that the Ladies of Essence get to perform such a broad range of music because many modern genres are influenced by sounds of the African diaspora.
“As a newbie to Essence, I’ve seen that the girls here can easily mix different genres within the African diaspora into their repertoire so that we can represent music from the diaspora as a whole,” Gurcay said. “Essence draws attention to black identity as much as it does to music, and that’s how so many different music genres including gospel and pop meet each other.”
Essence is preparing for its semester show next month while still performing regularly at other shows both at Tufts and in Boston. In fact, the group sings more than once a week.
“We probably perform in one to two small events a week, but it can fluctuate,” said Sasson. “Lately, we’ve performed at the Africana Festival, the After Orlando tribute show, Voices and Spookapella, in addition to Community Day and Parents’ Weekend.”
Auditioning for a cappella groups at Tufts is a rigorous and competitive process, and Essence is more than just an a cappella group. Because the group represents the African diaspora, and honors such a deep-rooted tradition, joining the group may require qualities other than singing skills.
“When we consider people to join the group, we take a lot of different criteria into account,” said Jordan. “The person has to be able to sing of course, but I definitely wouldn’t say that vocal talent is the end all, be all. We look for female-identifying folks who want to be in Essence, not just someone who wants to join an a cappella group. We look at passion, potential and personality, among many other things.”
This year, the group accepted four new members: Gurcay, Ashlee Simmons, Adaeze Dikko and Salwa Lautner.
“Lately, we’ve been incredibly lucky and have had some really amazing women auditioning, which makes our decision-making particularly difficult,” said Sasson.
The Ladies of Essence’s semester show will take place on December 3rd, and, judging from their past shows, they have plenty of surprises in store.
“We want to highlight the importance of self-love and taking care of yourself when times are tough, so we’re calling [our show] ‘Essential Love,” said Sasson in a follow-up email. “In Essence, I honestly feel that we all have each other’s backs, so we want to host a night where we can spread the good energy and love.”
In terms of actual content for the show, Essence is sure to deliver.
“You should expect a nice diverse set – some throwbacks with some new music – and to see a group of ladies who love the music we sing and love each other, and who want to share that love with you,” added Jordan.