Essence Music Festival kicks off in New Orleans, 400,000 attendees expected


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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.”

With a main stage and four smaller themed stages dubbed “superlounges,” the festival is able to harness a wide range of performers. Among those performing at the Superdome over the next three days will be top 40 draws such as Kanye West, Mary J. Blige, Usher, Jill Scott, Jennifer Hudson, Fantasia and Trey Songz; veterans like Mavis Staples, Chaka Khan and El DeBarge; and throwbacks such as New Edition, finally reuniting with Bobby Brown. Naughty By Nature, MC Lyte and Doug E. Fresh, will also headline the ‘old school’ superlounge. RELATED: Essence headliner Jill Scott debuts at No. 1 and discusses how she ‘stopped believing in love’


Scott, who performs Saturday, said the festival has improved to keep up with the growth.

“They’ve put in a lot of time and energy in making the festival better, and better, and better every year. You have to give them credit for that, that’s due,” she told Pop & Hiss. “They put artists that we want to see. We want to see Chaka Khan, we want to see the artists that we grew up with performing and we want to see new artists as well.”

Mayor Mitch Landrieu said he expects 400,000 visitors coming to the festival from either the convention center or the Superdome, where the concerts take place.


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-- Gerrick D. Kennedy, reporting from New Orleans

Photo: Kanye West performs on the main stage at the Essence Festival in the Superdome in New Orleans, July 2, 2005. Credit: Alex Brandon / Associated Press