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Essence Music Festival 

Alex Woodward on the annual celebration of R&B, funk, soul, art and empowerment

Essence Music Festival

7 p.m.-until, Friday-Sunday, July 1-3

Louisiana Superdome

Tickets $50 and up

click to enlarge Mary J. Blige headlines her 10th Essence Music Festival.
  • Mary J. Blige headlines her 10th Essence Music Festival.

Essence, nearing half a century as a premier African-American fashion and lifestyle magazine, will once again transform downtown New Orleans into a hotbed of R&B, hip-hop and funk over the Fourth of July weekend. The annual Essence Music Festival, held July 1-3 at the Louisiana Superdome and Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, features dozens of artists, as well as empowerment seminars and speeches, and is the largest U.S. festival celebrating African-American music and culture.

  Mary J. Blige, the queen of hip-hop soul, returns for her 10th year as an Essence headliner. Her soulful vocals topped '90s R&B charts, from 1992's What's the 411? hit "Real Love," to 1995's "I'll Be There for You/ You're All I Need to Get By," a Grammy-winning duet with Method Man. She recently has embraced rock 'n' roll, in collaborative performances with Steve Vai and Blink 182's Travis Barker, and covering Led Zeppelin classics "Whole Lotta Love" and "Stairway to Heaven" — all showcasing her otherworldly soul-pop sensibilities.

  Also returning to Essence is Kanye West, who is virtually a different performer since his 2008 appearance. West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which topped critics' lists of the best albums in 2010, is a visceral whirlwind of arena-pop production, operatic hip-hop and West's ever-present id-centric lyrics. Produced after his self-imposed exile and hiatus, Fantasy became one of 2010's pop cultural events. Following its release, however, the typically garish and bravado-baring West has remained fairly low-key, both on Twitter and in performance — though his already elaborate stage setups have only become more so.

  This year's Essence also includes R&B sensation Usher, singer and rapper Trey Songz, vocalist Jennifer Hudson and Jill Scott, the Philadelphia songstress, spoken-word artist and Roots collaborator. Scott's first album in four years, 2011's The Light of the Sun is an intimate, emotional front seat to her powerful soul and R&B.

  Essence is never without throwback legacy artists, and this year's guests include Morris Day & The Time (protege to Prince), Chaka Khan and hip-hop pioneers Doug E. Fresh and Naughty By Nature.

  A reunited New Edition brings back the all-star R&B lineup — which includes Bobby Brown and Johnny Gill, Brown's replacement following his 1985 departure, as well as Ricky Bell and Ronnie DeVoe (of Bell Biv DeVoe fame). This year marks the group's 30th anniversary.

  The boy band predecessors reached instant international acclaim with the saccharine dance jam "Candy Girl," followed by multiplatinum sales through the '90s. The group last performed as a sextet in 1996 with the album Home Again and is set to release another in 2012.

  New Edition's New Jack Swing contemporaries and Philadelphia heroes Boyz II Men also join the lineup. Since the departure of Michael McCary in 2003, the now-trio has recorded one album of original material (2006's The Remedy) and three covers albums. The group is better known for its early '90s hits "End of the Road," "I'll Make Love to You," and 1991 breakout debut single "Motownphilly." The trio's 2009 album Love is a covers collection of popular love songs by artists ranging from Sam Cooke to Journey.

  Essence also features a host of local performers, including Charmaine Neville, Irma Thomas and the Hot 8, Rebirth, Soul Rebels and To Be Continued brass bands. Making her Essence debut is up-and-coming R&B sensation Kourtney Heart, who at 17 dropped the massive radio smash "My Boy," featuring the late Magnolia Shorty, and the album Eye Dee Kay, released through a Jive Records subsidiary. Ever-present rapper Soulja Boy remixed the song, creating another instant radio success.

  The Superlounges present Alexander O'Neal and Cherrelle, Macy Gray, Mint Condition, Mavis Staples, and George Clinton & Parliament Funkadelic, who lends a hint of rock 'n' roll to the event.

  In addition to the music, the festival offers three days of empowerment seminars and speeches focused on "Transforming Your Life, Community and Soul." Comedian and radio host Steve Harvey and CNN anchor Soledad O'Brien are featured speakers, among dozens of other presenters ranging from comedians to authors and politicians. The seminars kick off with a blessing from both Essence president Michelle Ebanks and Mayor Mitch Landrieu.

  The Livestage schedule includes morning workouts, celebrity appearances and fashion shows, and there are fashion, beauty, and arts and crafts expos at the convention center.


Essence Music Festival highlights

Friday, July 1

Usher, Jennifer Hudson, Fantasia, Boys II Men, Irma Thomas, Macy Gray, Mavis Staples, Alexander O'Neal and Cherrelle

Saturday, July 2

Kanye West, Jill Scott, Chaka Khan, El Debarge, Eric Benet, Morris Day & the Time, Naughty by Nature

Sunday, July 3

Mary J. Blige, Trey Songz, New Edition, George Clinton & Parliament Funkadelic, MC Lyte, Kourtney Heart, Doug E. Fresh, Trin-i-Tee 5:7

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