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ESSENCE Festival Music Spotlight

From the mainstage to the superlounge, here are a few can’t-miss artists at ESSENCE.

“Party with a purpose.”

That’s what New Orleans’ annual ESSENCE Festival invites its attendees to do each year over the Fourth of July holiday weekend, when one of the country’s largest celebrations of African American music and culture takes over the Superdome.

Centered around R&B, hip-hop, jazz, gospel and world music artists showcased on the festival’s mainstage plus smaller “Superlounge” stages over the course of three days, the event shines a light on themes like empowerment, faith and inspiration through both its music lineup and its daytime programming.

ESSENCE Festival is as committed to presenting great shows as it is to sparking important discussions about the state and direction of black culture, making it one of the most unique festivals in the country.

The festival, which runs June 29 – July 2, made its debut back in 1995 as a celebration of ESSENCE magazine’s 25th anniversary. It was the brainchild of ESSENCE co-founder and George Wein of Festival Productions; between them, they booked a unique lineup of major music stars like Aretha Franklin, B.B. King, Luther Vandross, and Mary J. Blige, and equally heavy-hitting speakers like Dr. Cornel West and The Rev. Jesse Jackson.

The response that year was so positive, organizers decided to bring it back as an annual event.

It wasn’t long before ESSENCE Festival became one of New Orleans’ premiere destinations for music fans. ESSENCE is as committed to presenting great shows as it is to sparking important discussions about the state and direction of black culture, making it one of the most unique festivals in the country.

It’s also hosted some of the most memorable New Orleans performances in recent history, from Prince (whose presence inspired a purple light-bathed Dome), to Kanye West, to a Destiny’s Child-era Beyonce.

Keep reading for some of this year’s ESSENCE highlights, then check out the festival’s website for complete ESSENCE info.

ESSENCE Festival Acts + Speakers

Marquee acts on the Mainstage 

Motown icon Diana Ross headlines the first night of ESSENCE on Friday, June 30, and if her recent performances are any indication fans can expect to hear classics culled from a wide range of her 50-year-long career, which began with The Supremes and has earned accolades including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

On Friday, ESSENCE also welcomes 10-time Grammy Awards winner John Legend, who returns to Louisiana following a visit to Baton Rouge this spring, when he met with local leaders to press for an overhaul of the state’s criminal justice system as part of his campaign against mass incarceration.

Other performers on the Mainstage the first night of the fest include India.Arie, Junior, Rhonda Ross and the South African seven-piece vocal harmony group Afrika Mamas.

An even more women-centric lineup takes the Mainstage on Saturday, July 1. Touring in support of her new album, Strength of a Woman, Mary J. Blige brings music from her latest soul-soaked collection of fearlessly personal tales of courage, grit and redemption. Other performers that night include music legend Chaka Khan, who’s set to debut a new album this year, plus Jill Scott, Monica, Jazmine Sullivan and Ari Lennox.

Given ESSENCE’s focus on social change and empowerment, public education activist Chance the Rapper, who recently launched the New Chance Arts and Literacy Fund in an effort to support arts education in underserved Chicago schools, is an apt closing night choice.

Local sounds

Last year, most of the New Orleans natives appearing at ESSENCE performed on the Superlounge stages. This year, the sounds of the Crescent City get some love on the Mainstage on the festival’s closing night.

Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue take a break from promoting Parking Lot Symphony on the road to come home to the Dome on Sunday, July 2. Mia X, a central member of the city’s bounce scene since she was a teen in the mid-’80s, also performs on the mainstage that night, along with local ’90s rap stars-turned-superstars Mystikal and Master P. Solange, who’s called New Orleans home for the past few years, performs as well.

Daytime programming

Before the music gets underway, ESSENCE kicks off Thursday, June 29, with a day of service. Beginning at 10 a.m., festival attendees can volunteer to help beautify a senior center. Later that afternoon, service-minded fest-goers can join Master P and Team HOPE NOLA at Xavier University for the festival’s first celebrity basketball game, the proceeds from which support a scholarship fund for New Orleans youth. Participants include Master P, Trombone Shorty, Doug E. Fresh, Trey Songz, Romeo Miller, Ray J, Mystikal and more celebs.

The festival’s Empowerment stages return during three days of ESSENCE, giving audience members a chance to hear from leading voices in the worlds of entertainment, politics and the church, including Mary J. Blige on Friday; “Selma” director Ava DuVernay, civil rights activist Rev. Al Sharpton and writer, editor, educator Dr. Michael Eric Dyson on Saturday, plus designer Tina Knowles Lawson and more throughout the weekend.

For complete festival information, including the latest updated schedules, visit the ESSENCE Festival website.

Jennifer Odell is a freelance music writer. Her work appears regularly in DownBeat, Jazz Times, Offbeat and the Gambit, among other publications, and she leads the New Orleans chapter of the Jazz Journalists Association. In her spare time, she enjoys second lining to the Hot 8 or TBC, costuming, and eating all of the crawfish.

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