Perennial Essence favorites Mary J. Blige (who closed out the festival last year), Charlie Wilson and Fantasia have also been tapped to headline the annual three-day festival, which is billed as one of the largest gatherings of black artists in the country. The festival is set for July 6 to 8 at the Louisiana Superdome.
Halfway through Mary J. Blige’s closing set at the Essence Music Festival on Sunday night the singer dived into an emotional address to the audience that aptly summed up what the nation’s largest R&B and hip-hop festival, at it’s core, stands for.
“Thank you for supporting me when no one else did … for having faith in me … for buying my records when nobody cared,” she said as her eyes seemed to brim with tears.
Blige has logged performances at more than half of the festival’s 17 incarnations, but Sunday’s slot marked the first time she closed. It was a moment she reveled in, and a testament to the fact that, despite enjoying a boost of mainstream pop crossover success in the latter bit of her storied 20-year career, only a festival as focused as Essence could be the place that embraced her narrative -- especially when it was long enveloped in pain and self-loathing.
Sunday’s attendance at the Superdome was easily the highest of the weekend, but it was Blige’s outpouring of emotion to the audience, and not festival numbers, that wholly characterized the success of the festival.
Walking into the Superdome for night one of the three-day Essence Music Festival on Friday night it was impossible to overlook the massiveness of the arena, but it’s this very vastness of the New Orleans staple that manages to be beneficial and detrimental to both performers and festival-goers.
Despite the sweltering heat, doors to the Dome had only opened about 45 minutes before the first act was scheduled to start, much to the chagrin of those in line fanning themselves.
Boyz II Men, who had the misfortune of going on first at 6:45, played to a largely empty house. Though their syrupy harmonies echoed throughout the halls as more fans filed in, it was tough watching the group close with the new jack groove of “Motownphilly” without many faces in the crowd to appreciate it.
The emptiness made it easy to spot Fantasia, who after kicking off her shoes mid-way through her frenetic set, decided to ditch the stage altogether to walk through the crowd. She had the room to do it, as she strutted through the football-length of floor seats that still had scores of bodies missing from them.
Nightly tickets ranged from affordable ($50) to steep ($1,000) with plenty of price points available. Unlike a lot of music festivals, Essence doesn't offer all-in weekend passes with varying price points. There is an all-access VIP package that includes all three nights of the festival and a bunch of other fancy fixings at an eye-popping $2,999 a pop, without accommodations. So it could very well be the empty seats belong to folks who didn't care for that evening's lineup and have saved their money for headliners Kanye West or Mary J. Blige.
When Kanye West took to the stage Saturday night in New Orleans for his headlining set at the Essence Music Festival, he had zero intention of answering the very questions his fans were probably wondering: When exactly would he release his hugely anticipated joint disc with Jay-Z, “Watch the Throne,” and would he preview any material from the project?
Despite the rumors online circulating about the project, the latest (and apparently untrue) being that it could be released digitally as early as Monday, West didn’t squeeze in anything from the disc, or even mention it during his sprawling showcase of his back catalog.
West’s Essence set was similar to his offering at Coachella, and many of the themes remained the same: His chorus of phoenix ballerinas glided across the stage, a large ancient backdrop with Greek mythology hung behind him. There was even that Messiah-like entrance, replete wtih fog and arriving mid-arena via a crane.
The sounds of bounce music and hip-hop pouring out of every club on Bourbon Street in New Orleans on Thursday evening wasn’t necessarily an unfamiliar sight.
Neither were the tourists clutching frozen alcohol concoctions as they gawked at invitations handed to them by the sparsely clad erotic dancers that dotted the famous strip.
It was, rather, a group of fully clothed women who, in the form of a flash mob, offered a surprise that brought passersby to a halt.
Wearing shirts emblazoned with the logo from empowerment initiative My Black is Beautiful, the dancers (in)formally kicked off the Essence Music Festival, which begins Friday night.
The annual gathering, now in its 17th year, started in 1995 as a one-off celebration for Essence magazine’s 25th anniversary.
But over the years it's become a pilgrimage of sorts for R&B and hip-hop fans, drawing many thousands of music fans to New Orleans. Still recovering from last year's BP oil spill and the devastation of Hurricane Katrina six years ago, the city is in perpetual need of the economic boost.
"We feel so at home in this city and this state," Michelle Ebanks, president of Essence Communications Inc., said during a press conference inside the city's convention center, which will serve as host of three days of free empowerment panels and workshops. “It would not be the same anywhere else other than New Orleans. This is where we can be present in the lives, and touch, real people. We can feel at home with our cultural traditions.”