After 22 years at Essence Magazine, Cori Murray is feeling the freedom that’s led by her intuition. Filling days with school drop-off, play dates and in-house step competitions, Murray is now on the other side of the 24/7 lifestyle required to cover entertainment for one of Black America’s most beloved magazine titles.
A constant face at the Essence Music Festival now titled Essence Festival of Culture, Murray won’t be on stage interviewing the top talent or discussing the largest trends on her award-winning podcast; instead, she’s living the life of a hippie, reading, journaling and catching the sun on any given New York or Brooklyn street.
Her Agenda: When was the last time you realized your impact on journalism?
Cori Murray: When I resigned from Essence; I’ve been there a long time so I’ve seen lots of people resign. When they resign we always do the internal goodbyes; before the pandemic, we would gather together in the conference room. There would be speeches and that would be the end of it. When I resigned I was expecting just that. I had the goodbye zoom; I cried and when it ended, I was like “that’s it.” A couple of days later, I didn’t realize that the team would be doing a social media tribute; I was so touched but then to see the responses and the comments. Instagram, you know, can be good or bad and my partner said “don’t get into the comments right now. Give yourself the weekend to breathe and go in on Monday.” I knew that I’d get emotional seeing it on my personal posts but to see it on Essence and I think it had gotten over 60,000 views. When he said “you don’t realize the impact that you’ve had on these women,” but for me, I was just doing my job. I woke up every day and just did my job.
Her Agenda: What was the motivation behind that “every day” work ethic for over 20 years?
Cori Murray: Shout out to Susan McHenry who was my first editor when I started working at Essence. She told me “you’re a worker bee, you’re like me, we’re working bees.” And at the time I didn’t know how to take it because I wanted to be a star. But then after a few years in, I found her to be so right. I am about the work and I didn’t need a lot of the spotlight, I just wanted to get the job done. Fast forward to seeing how much of an impact I made, it was very very touching to be recognized for being the worker bee that I am. I’m a strong believer in the adage of “what’s for you is for you,” and I was very grateful that being at Essence was for me.
Her Agenda: Being the worker bee that you are, how have you been able to separate work from personal?
Cori Murray: I had to put separations in place when I became a mother, prior to that work was my life. Some of my closest friends I’d met through my work but when I had my daughter, I clearly had to put in boundaries, especially when she became older and communicated more. Let’s say, I’d be up late one night working and she’d say “mom, you’re not gonna put me to sleep?” There were a number of years when all I covered was entertainment and covering entertainment means that you have to be in the streets. You’re at parties and concerts and dinners which means that you can be out every single night. There was a moment when I didn’t like not putting her to bed more than two nights in a row and it really crushed me when I had to do that. I remember one night, I was at some event and I just said, ‘I gotta go, I can’t do this anymore.’ I started passing on invitations and letting other editors go in my place.
Fast forward to these last couple of years, yes I am a worker bee but I was also getting way more responsibility. Especially stepping into a leadership role where I was working 24/7. I had to start really asking myself, what is more important, this brand or my family or my friends. I started to realize that I wanted something more for my life.
Her Agenda: Tell us more about your daughter. She is clearly a bookworm who loves storytelling too.
Cori Murray: She loves me and she’s proud of me but she definitely tries me sometimes by wanting to do what I do or give me much respect for what I do. I think that’s her way of grounding me. One thing that I love is that she’s much more critical of things and she expresses it. I’m so proud of her; recently she was in an afterschool program called BookUp. At first, Jillian didn’t seem excited about it because they were just exchanging books but come to find out she was writing poetry and published a little book which now I have on my shelf of books of writers that I know personally. I was like “Jillian, you’re a published author at the age of 12!” and she’s just like “yeah, I know.” She even joined the journalism club; even though she says it’s boring she’s still doing it. And I realized she’s a voracious reader. She has definitely been affected by my storytelling career but she will never give me credit for it.
Her Agenda: Speaking of reading and storytelling, how do you Cori Murray with access to everything and everyone decide what book you’re gonna read next or even what story to tell?
Cori Murray: For the last 18 months of Essence and even a few years before that I had to feed the algorithm. As much as there are stories that you are very passionate about and want to tell, there are the stories that need to be told and then there are stories that need to feed the algorithm to keep the lights on. [I don’t have those restrictions now.]
I went to a writers retreat that Mara Brock Akil’s production company hosted and her office is so aesthetically pleasing. I literally wanted to move in. One thing that she has outside her personal office is a bookshelf that’s color-coded so in sorting my own bookshelf, I realized all of the books that I had not read. I’m purposely reading fiction, nonfiction, a memoir, and then something fun. I’m really reading for myself and I think I’ll do that for the summer.
Her Agenda: You’re talking about reading but when was the last time you actually wrote something? What is your writing process?
Cori Murray: The last story that I wrote was about a trip that I took to Mexico. Essentially it was a hotel review because it was a press trip and I tend to insert myself in it because it just felt like the right thing to do. My last day at Essence was April 29th and this trip happened May 4th, literally 5 days later and it was everything that I needed. I felt compelled to insert that part into my piece. I’ve also been writing development packages for two projects that I’m working on independently; it’s like writing a deck and the third thing that I’m doing is journaling. As I was deciding to leave Essence and really making the decision to quit, I needed guidance. I picked up this journal [titled] Keep Moving. The writer originally wrote it because she was going through a divorce, you could use these principles for whatever life changes you’re going through. 22 years at one company and leaving is like a divorce.
I usually write in the afternoon and mid-morning. Mara Brock Akil says she tries to write four uninterrupted hours per day. I’m not there yet but one thing that I’m trying to do is find a space to do that because at home I’m distracted.
Her Agenda: You seem so free now, to do what you want when you want, and how you want. What does that freedom feel like?
Cori Murray: When I was in LA I met up with a few friends. We had lunch and I ended up getting lost and I rushed in, [one of my friends] said “I love this new Cori Lady of Leisure,” and I said I love that I’m going to lean into that. Something that I’ve been telling myself is that I want to be a hippie this summer. I've put in the work for 22 years and all the places that I’ve worked before Essence. We’re not even going to talk about Mcdonald's in high school. I really want to lean into the things that I really want to do.
Freedom to me is going to a cafe and sitting outside. If I want some rosé, I can and it’s 1:15 and I’m by myself or taking a walk or going to a shop. My partner and I are currently having a battle between us on who can walk the most in a day. He walks with a friend at night and he’ll come in and say “I did 4.2.” So I’m like “I got yo 4.2. Look, I did 4.8!” And one thing that my mentor told me recently is to let my intuition guide me. Letting my intuition move me has been freeing.
[Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The photo credit for the featured headshot is Karl Furguson Jr.]