Liberia: Essence Magazine vs. The Modern-Day Lynching of Richelieu Dennis

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A POINT OF CORRECTION: Contrary to what has been reported, Richelieu Dennis says he has not resigned as CEO because he never was the CEO of Essence Communications.  In fact, he has been leading the search for a new CEO. “One correction is that the press has wrongly reported that I stepped down as CEO of Essence Communications. I was never the CEO of Essence Communications. The CEO stepped down in March, and we started a CEO search immediately, but that was interrupted by Covid, so I helped to lead the team during the search.”

Monrovia – Every time I drive by the Paynesville Park basketball court, I often get flashbacks to the good old days when childhood pals Rich, Teah and I would show up to play ball. That’s Richelieu Dennis and James Teah Tarpeh II to you. 

We spent most days after school when we were not playing pickup basketball or sitting down in Rich’s family home basement on AB Tolbert Road chatting about our young lives and what we would be when we get big, as we say in Liberia. 

Those days, when fathers, mothers, or uncles and aunts travel to America, they were fond of bringing back the magazines that spoke to black American families. Back then, three main options spoke to us, and for us,  it was either Jet, Ebony, and  Essence.

Yes! Essence! 

These were the magazines most homes had on tables in the living room when guests came to visit.

So, in January 2018, only two years ago, when I heard that Rich had acquired Essence from Time Inc, I was ecstatic. One of us had made it.

The history of Essence is the history of every black man, woman, and child. Since it started in 1968, Essence’s multiplatform content brand encompassing beauty, fashion, lifestyle, entertainment, and culture showcased the best of Black America – and by some small extension, blacks all over the world, until Rich took over, Africa started to featured on covers, not just one almost regularly from models to designers to art you name it 

Time Inc. had acquired a minority stake in Essence Communications in 2000 and bought the entire business in 2005.

When Essence was at its peak, it reached an audience of more than 16 million unique users across platforms, including its print magazine, digital, video, and social platforms; it reached global audiences but not as much or as intentional as it has since Richelieu’s acquisition. Essence Communications had TV specials, including the Black Women in Hollywood Awards; and live events, including the annual Essence Festival, which attracts more than 450,000 attendees annually.

A Long Way from Home

How did Rich get here? Certainly not on a silver platter, I’m a witness.

After fleeing the Liberian civil war and being kicked out of The Gambia by the dictator, Yahya Jammeh, I arrived in America in November 1994.

A few months later, I met Teah for coffee at a coffee shop in the Grand Central Station.

Before that coffee meeting, I had no idea what Rich had been up to all these years. I later gathered from Teah that Rich and his best friend and college mate, Nyema Tubman, had recently taken over the reins at Sundial Fragrances & Flavors in Long Island, NY. Sundial was quickly growing into a leading manufacturer of incense oils and soaps. 

One of the stores they supplied was Nicholas Hosiery at 18th Street and Broad in downtown Manhattan. Sundial looked promising, and I was proud to see my childhood friend doing well. It would help him lookout for an old friend like me. Rich put in a word for me, and I got to work making $250 a week. It was a lot of money for me then, especially coming straight out of Africa. And it was fun, at first. 

I remember Rich saying: “This is not permanent, just to get you on your feet.” 

I got it. I save up enough from that job to go on to college – and the rest is history.  I became an award-winning journalist, and Rich,  well, became rich.

Although it was far from my own field of work, I am glad I had a peek into the business. The company has grown since those days, and now oversees three brands—SheaMoisture, Nubian Heritage, and Madam C.J. Walker Beauty Culture. It had an estimated value of $700 million in September 2015, when Bain Capital acquired a minority stake. 

I remember as if it was yesterday, seeing Rich and Nyema pull up at the store and helping them take out the packets of incense and oils from the back of the pickup van. That was long before brands like Shea Moisture, Nubian Heritage, and Madame C.J Walker became some of the most recognizable brands in hair care, skin, and beauty for black and brown people, you see at Walmart, Target or pharmacies and airports around the world.

Dennis: ‘I Never Resigned’

So, it was a bit surprising to learn last week that Rich was stepping down as CEO of Essence Communications, days after a group called Black Female Anonymous published an essay accusing executives at Essence magazine of facilitating an “extremely unhealthy work culture.”

The essay claims that Essence has “been hijacked by cultural and corporate greed and an unhinged abuse of power”; and that staff was “systematically suppressed by pay inequity, sexual harassment, corporate bullying, intimidation, colorism, and classism.”

I also found it sad that the anonymous collective called for the removal of Dennis and Essence Ventures board member and former Essence Communications CEO Michelle Ebanks, COO Joy Collins Profet, and Chief Content Officer Moana Luu.

For nearly two decades Essence, our childhood magazine had lost its blackness, and two years ago, Rich restored the magazine to a fully black-owned publication. Simply put, he put his money where his mouth was, which he rarely opens up in public about, where it mattered most.

Contrary to what has been reported, Rich says he has not resigned as CEO because he never was the CEO of Essence Communications.  In fact, he has been leading the search for a new CEO. “One correction is that the press has wrongly reported that I stepped down as CEO of Essence Communications. I was never the CEO of Essence Communications. The CEO stepped down in March, and we started a CEO search immediately, but that was interrupted by Covid, so I helped to lead the team during the search.”

I’m still trying to decipher the details of what is unfolding, but on the surface, I can say that the Richlieu Dennis I know does not belong in the same conversation with “abuse of power” or “sexual harassment”. 

For 50-years, Essence has stood out and embraced female African-American audiences. That was lost in 2000 when Time Inc took over. 

For nearly two decades Essence, our childhood magazine had lost its blackness, and two years ago, Rich restored the magazine to a fully black-owned publication. Simply put, he put his money where his mouth was, which he rarely opens up in public about, where it mattered most.

Commitment to Black Causes


Rich’s commitment to community was yet again exhibited at the 2018 Essence Festival, where Rich announced a $100 million fund for women entrepreneurs of color under the banner of the New Voices Fund, a fund he negotiated as part of his deal with Unilever.  Last year, nearly 100 years after Madam C.J. Walker built a 34-room mansion in New York, Rich purchased the building with plans to turn the legendary beauty pioneer’s estate into an incubator for black women in business. 

Rich was named by Oprah Winfrey Network to its “SuperSoul 100” list and has been named “Most Creative People in Business” by Fast Company, and in 2017, former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf conferred upon him the distinction of Knight Commander and admitted Dennis into the Most Venerable Order of the Knighthood of the Pioneers.

On the continent, philanthropic efforts include women facing cultural oppression through education, entrepreneurship, economic growth, and inclusion in Liberia and Ghana.  Through Shea Moisture and his family’s Sofi Tucker Foundation, Rich philanthropic efforts in Africa have included initiatives such as Community Commerce, which empowers the community that the products serve, women,  the Girls Entrepreneurship, and Technology (GET).  

The GET Program is an initiative established by Shea Moisture and in partnership with SMART Liberia. The GET program provides young women between the ages of 18 and 35 a rare and real opportunity to start their businesses by giving them access to valuable resources, including business development training and financial investments. In its inaugural year in 2016, the program selected 50 young women in Liberia to participate, several of whom have gone on to start and manage their very own successful businesses.

Another philanthropic initiative established by the company is the Sofi Tucker Foundation, Named after the woman who inspired the SheaMoisture brand, his maternal grandmother.

The organization has awarded other non-profits with grants up to $25,000 to continue philanthropy work. One organization that has benefitted from these efforts is Todee Mission School in Liberia, which provides quality educational resources to children from first grade to ninth grade from 140 villages in rural Liberia.

The death of George Floyd has open the eyes of the world to a lot of injustices in America and the world, similarly, the Me Too Movement has done a lot to open the eyes to the injustices and abuse against women in America and the world. A movement we all applaud I would bet, Rich also supports. Sadly it seems that in the process, we may be picking on the few good people like Richelieu Dennis, who are merely trying to do right by his people and for his race.

Besides the Larger documented philanthropic efforts, Rich has also quietly given back to many causes in his homeland, including assisting families in need of life-saving surgeries and travels.

The Real Issue in Play

What I’m still trying to fathom is where all these charges were during the days when Time Inc owned the magazine? How long has this toxic and poisonous culture been going on?

The last fifty years? The previous two decades? Or during the previous two years?

The death of George Floyd has open the eyes of the world to a lot of injustices in America and the world, similarly, the Me Too Movement has done a lot to open the eyes to the injustices and abuse against women in America and the world. A movement we all applaud I would bet, Rich also supports. Sadly it seems that in the process, we may be picking on the few good people like Richelieu Dennis, who are merely trying to do right by his people and for his race.  Should women speak out against ill-treatment? Absolutely, might we be mindful of who we really should be targeting our grievances? That’s the issue, in my opinion.

Rich has come a long way and has done a lot to give back to the black community globally.   He does not deserve to be tainted by this in any shape, size, or form. He came to the aid of Essence when media across the world are feeling the pinch when minority ownership in media is far too few to count. Thus, those working and putting their money toward maintaining and ensuring that strong media brands like Essence survive the test of time should be applauded, especially in misdirected aggression and not on public display for a modern-day lynching.

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