Essence Music Festival: Acts new and old keep the Superdome shaking; attendance tops 422,000

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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.

While the main stage always plays host to a range of marquee acts that traverse R&B, hip-hop and soul (this year Blige, Kanye West, Jennifer Hudson, Trey Songz, Usher and Jill Scott led the bill), like any niche festival, there was plenty of room reserved for the artists who have long fallen by the wayside of today’s contemporary focus. For example, Essence is perhaps the only festival where R&B’s original boy-band New Edition could completely reunite -- Bobby Brown included -- and be big news. Their set, which heavily leaned on classics and solo material from some of the members, was an easy crowd pleaser, especially for the throngs of women who lusted after the group as teenagers. That sense of nostalgia rang true for Naughty By Nature, who assembled and made their first appearance at Essence to tout new material, which they squeezed in between the throwback hits that the crowd came to hear.

Essence housed a majority of these yesteryear acts in the themed superlounges, which were even more focused, featuring acts that drew from the funk soul of Minneapolis, neo-soul, R&B and old school. On these stages artists including Kelly Price and Eric Benet, who both have consistently released music over the years to strong followings, played alongside fresher acts such as Miguel, Timothy Bloom and Hal Linton, and where Mavis Staples brought her gospel-rooted Americana.

The superlounge is where George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic and Morris Day & the Time packed crowds of middle-aged groovers ready to let loose like it was the ’80s all over again, as did MC Lyte and Doug E. Fresh, neither of whom has had a hit, much less a new album, in years.

But this was a festival where none of that mattered, because, as Blige said, the crowd was composed of fans who continue to support the performers’ music regardless of current profile, benefiting both the artists on stage and the city. A majority of the headliners had current projects in stores and their appearance at Essence should boost their sales.

New Orleans was the real winner, though. Festival officials estimated that Essence contributed $170 million to the local economy; the more than 422,000 attendees who circulated through the Superdome and the free events at the convention center, said officials, accounted for 90% of the booked hotels through the weekend.


An appreciative Kanye West toasts New Orleans crowd

Fantasia, Jennifer Hudson and Usher take on the main stage

Jill Scott debuts at No. 1 and discusses how she ‘stopped believing in love’

-- Gerrick D. Kennedy in New Orleans