by Deborah E. Dennard
The Essence Festival drew record-breaking crowds this year with more than 550,000 fans attending this 4th of July weekend event to see over 80 acts performing nightly, including some of the biggest names in the entertainment industry such as Charlie Wilson, Mary J. Blige, and Lionel Richie.
Vanessa K. Bush, editor-in-chief for Essence magazine, said, "It takes a Herculean act to put together a successful festival. We want to deliver the very best experience."
Mary J. Blige
Bush went on to say, "Essence has always been a platform for empowering black women. We want to make sure black women have a voice. Allow us to shine in all of our hues."
Therefore, the festival is not only music. The annual 4-day event features entertainment, empowerment, and cultural experiences during the day and the world's best performers each night. More than 150 speakers, including Iyanla Vanzant, Robin Roberts, Alicia Keys, Bishop T. D. Jakes, Rev. Al Sharpton, and Steve Harvey participated as part of the Festival's free daytime experience.
This year many made the pilgrimage from all across the country to see the event's top headliner, Prince. According to Essence communications, this was the biggest crowd the event has ever seen, beating out last year's enormous crowd of which Beyoncé headlined.
On a holiday where most people in the country were wearing red, white, and blue, in New Orleans, 75,000 or more people, many dressed in purple garb, were celebrating the 4th of July at the Mercedes Benz Superdome which was illuminated with purple lights for his royal highness who did not disappoint his fans.
Prince began his set around 11:00 p.m. with "Let's Go Crazy" on a dark stage, using only an organ and the sound of his voice to captivate the sold out crowd. "Dearly beloved, we have gathered here today to get through this thing called life." When the lights came on, there was Prince, dressed in white pants, white wedges, a long taupe vest, a shirt with his own picture on the front with his famous shades and his afro from the seventies. The fifty-six entertainer from Minneapolis looked ageless.
Prince went on to wow the crowd, proving to everyone that he still had it. He promised the crowd he would do 14 hits and began his journey down memory lane. Prince gave the audience many of his hits: "Take Me With U," "Hot Thing," "Controversy" "Kiss," "Sign o' the Times," "Sometimes It Snows in April," "When Doves Cry," "1999," "Raspberry Beret," and "Little Red Corvette." He even threw in some he had written for others like Vanity 6's "Nasty Girl" and Morris Day and the Time's "Cool" and "Jungle Love." The crowds stayed on their feet the entire time, singing the words with him, dancing in glee.
Bishop Lester Love
Prince obviously enjoyed the reaction of the crowd; many times, he stopped and held the mike, signaling for audience participation. Prince, now a devout Jehovah's Witness, did not sing any of his more risqué hits, but the crowd didn't seem to mind. Once he had performed the 14 songs he promised when he began, he playfully asked for requests. He, then, continued to woo his fans with a medley with songs like "Partyman," "Act of God," Sheila E's "Glamorous Life," Chaka Khan's "Ain't Nobody Love Me Better," Michael Jackson's "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough," and Janet Jackson's "What Have You Done for Me Lately." He had two encore performances, the last one, "Purple Rain." Prince had left the stage earlier without singing it, and the crowd began to chant, "Purple Rain, Purple Rain, Purple Rain!" He came back out, sang the song. It was a beautiful moment; everybody in the dome was singing along with him. At one point, he asked the audience to turn on the cell phones. Bursts of light filled the room as people held up lit phones, rocking to his beat. "Can I play my guitar?" He asked before he began playing the famous solo and explosions of purple confetti rained all around him as he played. Prince continued to thrill the crowd with his falsettos and energetic guitar playing. He ended the show around 1:00 a.m. by releasing a huge bouquet of purple and black and white balloons in the air and leaving the stage with satisfied fans shaking their heads in awe.
The Essence Festival definitely had started this year's event off right. Earlier Friday night, Janelle Monae and Nile Rodgers had given shows on the main stage. Prince made cameo appearances during both performances. Meanwhile, in the Superlounges were singers like Leela James, SWV, Naughty by Nature, Greta Prince, Estelle, and Stephanie Mills.
Stephanie Mills sang to a jam-packed room, ticking off hits such as "Secret Lady," "Putting a Rush on Me," "I Feel Good All Over," "Something in the Way You Make Me Feel," and "Feel the Fire." The room was so crowded that many could not see her; thank God for the monitors in the room. She ended her session with "Home," her famous song from the Broadway play, The Wiz. Stephanie Mills could definitely hold her own on the main stage. It is hard to understand how Jonelle Monae ranks the main stage, while Stephanie Mills ranks a crowded Superlounge that barely contains 300 people. That decision is very puzzling. Similar scheduling happened last year when Jonelle Monae and Solange were on the main stage, but singers like Tamia and Faith Evans were in the Superlounges. The age groups that can afford to attend the Essence Festival are not fans of Jonelle Monae, but rather fans of Stephanie Mills, Tamia, and Faith Evans.
Saturday was even more jam-packed. During the day at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center were free events that included forums like "Our Cities, Our Solutions," featuring Mayors Kasim Reed, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Aja Brown, and Mitchell Landrieu. Rev. Al Sharpton also moderated a forum called "Election 2014" with Congresswoman Maxine Waters, Roland Martin, Dr. Steve Perry, John Bryant, and Karen Carter Peterson serving as panelist. Other events included Steve Harvey, Wendy Raquel Robinson, and Iyanla Vanzant.
Back at the Superdome Saturday night, in the superlounges were acts like Kourtney Heart, Doug E. Fresh, Daley, Marsha Ambrosius, Liv Warfield, 112, Michelle Williams, and Tevin Campbell.
Tevin Campbell, who has been out of the spotlight for a while, was received extremely well. This child star (he started his career at age 11) performed his classic hits to a packed crowd--so crowded that many could not get into the lounge. The now 37 year old crooner took them back to hits like "Round and Round," "I'm Ready," "Tell Me What You Want Me to Do," "Break It Down," and even gave his fans a taste of his new music, "Addicted to Your Love."
There were so many shows to see each night at the Essence Festival that it was sometimes hard to choose. During the same time these superlounge shows played, stars like Tank, Ledisi, The Roots, Jill Scott, and Mary J. Blige performed on the Main Stage.
Jill Scott, a favorite from last year, did not let her fans down. She told the audience that she had been sick, warning them that she may not be at her best. Then, she proceeded to sing favorites like "Golden," "The Way," "A Long Walk" "He Loves Me" and many others. Not only did she sound great, but she looked great as well, wearing a retro outfit, 70s sparkly bell bottom trousers and black top.
Before taking the stage, Mary J. Blige expressed her respect for Essence backstage. "Essence has helped black women cause it gives us a platform to be beautiful. Cause we don't always get that...we are not light enough, not thin enough."
This "Think Like A Man" soundtrack producer, then, gave a fantastic end to an already outstanding night when she took the stage around midnight. Dressed in an all-white short outfit, Mary sang fan favorites like "The One," "Real Love," "Reminisce," "You Bring Me Joy," "Loving You," "Be Happy," and "Take Me As I Am," and "Just Fine" She sang and danced with her famous hip hop moves to a partying audience who acknowledged that she is, indeed, the queen of hip hop. As all queens do, Mary made a point to make at least one wardrobe change. She came back out in a hip dark short ensemble with matching hat and stiletto boots before continuing her set with Rose Royce's "I'm Goin' Down." This song proved to be like one big sing-along because everyone in the audience was loudly singing the chorus. She finished the set with "No More Drama," and "Family Affair."
The final day to the Essence Festival always ends with a gospel celebration of some sort. This is some of the best church service one can get.
This year, gospel singer Yolanda Adams was also being honored for her contributions to gospel music. There were tributes to Yolanda by The Walls Group, Kim Burrell, Kierra Sheard, James Fortune, Sheri Jones-Moffett, Jonathan McReynolds, and Erica Campbell. All of the singers did a great job and helped to usher in the Holy Spirit as the convention center room became a sanctuary. Kierra Sheard did a soul wrenching rendition of one of Yolanda's classic hits, "The Battle Is Not Yours," as she rolled on the floor during the performance. One of the major standouts for many in the crowd was Jonathan McReynolds who sang as he played the guitar. After doing a beautiful version of Adams' "Open My Heart," McReynolds introduced many to his music with his single, "No Gray."
Pastor Donnie McClurkin
The show was hosted by Pastor Donnie McClurkin and Cheryl Wills. Donnie continued to tease the crowd, claiming Yolanda as his future wife. The spirit was very high in the room. People sang in the aisles, waved their hands in praise, and testified to their neighbors. The celebration ended with a powerful finale with Yolanda on stage singing with all of the people who had sang tributes to her.
Although the experience was a very good one, it was also a very long one. This was truly what it means to be in church all day. The program began at 9:00 a.m. and wasn’t over until 5: 45 p.m., only giving people who were attending the Sunday night concerts a little over an hour to get food and get to the next show. There are plenty of vendors, so one can always stop on the street as this reporter did, and purchase a hot fish sandwich and soda.
The final night to this weekend of fun ended with singers like George Tandy, Jr., Sevyn Streeter, Raheem DeVaughn, Jagged Edge in the Superlounges. The main stage was reserved for Tamar Braxton, Erykah Badu, Charlie Wilson, and Lionel Richie.
All of the performers did their thing. Erykah Badu, who is known for being eccentric, was introduced by her friend and comedian, Dave Chappelle, before performing in a black and white jumpsuit and sneakers, adorned with a gigantic hat over a head clad with a colorful scarf. She also had two feathers sticking in her face. However, regardless of her weird dress, she gave the audience what they wanted singing hits like "20 Feet Tall," "Love of my Life," "On and On," "I Choose You," "Didn't You Know," and "Next Lifetime."
The performance was reminiscent of her personality, sprinkled with curse words, free style rap, and plenty of jokes. After singing her second song, she told a shocked audience "Good Night." It took a minute before the audience adapted to her brand of humor, recognizing she was only teasing. Erykah sang many more songs before she finished her set and left the stage before coming back for one last encore performance with an old favorite, "Bag Lady."
Next, it was time for Uncle Charlie to take the stage. He took to the stage around 9:15, coming on stage as he did last year with his classic Gap Band hit, "Party Train." Although this performance was pretty much the same as last year, Charlie Wilson kept the crowd on their feet. He took them back to his Gap Band days, singing songs like "Outstanding," "Early in the Morning," "You Dropped the Bomb on Me," and "Burn Rubber." He brought them to the present with hits like "You Are," "There Goes My Baby," "Life of the Party," and "Charlie, Last Name Wilson." Charlie even sang a couple of gospel songs during his set. Nearly two hours long, Charlie Wilson put on a nonstop, energetic show.
Perhaps for a certain Commodore, too energetic. Although Lionel Richie is the bigger crossover star, he discovered performing after Charlie Wilson is a big no-no. Lionel began his show around 11:30 p.m. He began with a couple of his less popular Commodore hits before singing, "Easy." Perhaps it was a bit too easy because people began leaving in hoards. Lionel was also plagued with being the last show of festival. People are normally already thinking about getting back to the hotel room, catching some z's before heading home. Therefore, the last performer must bring it! Despite the mass exodus, Lionel really was good. He sang ballads like "Stuck on You," "Lady," and "Just to Be Close to You." He thrilled the waning audience with dance songs like "You Are," "Dancing on the Ceiling," and "Running with the Night." It's just too bad most of the audience had done just that, ran with the night.
Lionel performs to big crowds all of the time, but most of the time, it is not predominantly black. This is a reminder to any crossover artist who may be considering performing for Essence; it is best to design your show for whom you are performing, black people. The tragic mistake Lionel made was starting his set by singing an unfamiliar ballad after a smoking hot Charlie Wilson had just left the stage. Had Lionel began with a song like "Brick House" and "You Are," he would have probably captured the attention of the audience. Then again, maybe not.
If you are a lover of black music and culture, the Essence Festival should definitely be put on your schedule for summer vacation. However, you may want to come a day early or stay a day later, if you purchase tickets for all three nights of concerts, so you can tour New Orleans because you will be too busy to do so if you attend all of the concerts. If not, there is plenty to do during the weekend of the festival, even if you do not go to concerts every night.
People attending the festival need to make hotel reservations early (around January) to secure a room. Once there, they also need to be prepared to do a lot of walking, so it is smart to pack a pair of sneakers or some Born or Clark’s Shoes. Parking fees range from $20-$30 dollars per park; therefore, most just walk it out.
The Essence Festival continues to outdo itself every year. Mark the 4th of July weekend on your calendar for next year. The acts have not yet been selected, but it is sure to be a blast.
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