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Usher and Janet Jackson headline 30th Essence Festival of Culture

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The best of Black culture’s policymakers, thought leaders, creatives, spiritual gurus, business movers and shakers, health experts and, of course, musical talent are poised to converge in New Orleans over the Fourth of July weekend as part of the Essence Festival of Culture.

The festival kicks off Thursday and runs through Sunday. This year, it celebrates 30 years of entertainment, networking and thought-provoking conversations to inspire solutions for issues facing urban communities. The underlying premise remains the same: purposeful partying.

Vice President Kamala Harris is scheduled to hold a conversation with Essence CEO Caroline Wanga during the Global Black Economic Forum on Saturday at the festival. The visit comes amid calls by some for the replacement of President Joe Biden on the Democratic presidential ticket following his debate with former President Donald Trump. Those types of in-depth dialogues, covering a wide-range of topics, can be expected throughout the event.

“This experience was built to celebrate 25 years of Essence magazine, Black womanhood,” said Hakeem Holmes, vice president for the Essence Festival of Culture. “Black women built this festival, Black women poured into this festival. They had a good time at this festival, made relationships and networked — all at this festival — and then they brought what they learned home with them.”

Since its beginning, the festival has morphed into a multi-generational event that seeks to touch the entire Black family, by offering “a little bit of everything for everyone,” Holmes said.

Much of that transition, Holmes said, is thanks to the city that’s hosted the event every year except one. In 2006, Houston hosted the festival, while New Orleans dealt with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Lisa Alexis, director of Mayor Latoya Cantrell’s Office of Cultural Economy, said 30 years of Essence has had a $327 million impact on the city.

“It started as a party with a purpose, but over the years they’ve expounded on that,” Alexis said. “We now have the Black Global Economic Forum, the film festival, a wellness area, a marketplace. Our businesses have the opportunity through this partnership to be a part of the vendor market, and we’re able to share and support one another as our cultural entrepreneurs look to grow.”

That kind of paying it forward is what helps keep the festival relevant, Holmes said.

“Relevancy is driven by our relationship to this community,” said Holmes, a New Orleans native. “We are constantly listening. … We have what folks want to see throughout this event. We have people who are coming to have conversations about things they can actionably take as next steps when they return home. And, we have the parties, too!”

Holmes said keeping long-term fans engaged in the festival is always a challenge.

“It’s like expecting something new while maintaining the familiar,” he said. “I think it’s like going to church every Sunday. You’re gonna get a different sermon by the same person, but for whatever reason, every Sunday you’re touched differently. That is the essence of the festival. It’s a community gathering. It’s a homecoming. It’s a reunion. And I think that is what attracts and keeps people engaged.”

Holmes said the festival will be available in person and virtually (via essence.com ). “We’re giving folks everything they want in a consolidated amount of time during the day and then at night, they can go and have a good time,” he said.

That good time includes a Friday night concert inside the Superdome featuring Bryan “Birdman” Williams and Friends as they, too, celebrate 30 years of Cash Money Records and its Millionaires. Juvenile, Busta Rhymes, T-Pain, The Roots and Mannie Fresh are scheduled to perform. R&B singers Jacquees and Ari Lennox and country artist Mickey Guyton also will take the stage.

Usher headlines Saturday and celebrates the 20th anniversary of his “Confessions” album, which includes hits like “Yeah,” “Burn,” “Caught Up” and “Bad Girl.” “Confessions” has sold more than 10 million units in the U.S. Others scheduled to perform include Charlie Wilson, Ayra Starr, Big Boi, Donell Jones, Lloyd, Method Man, Sheila E. and TGT — a trio featuring Tyrese, Ginuwine and Tank.

Janet Jackson is the headliner Sunday, the final night. Victoria Monét, Keke Palmer, Teedra Moses, Tank and the Bangas, Dawn Richard, SWV, Jagged Edge, Bilal and Anthony Hamilton will also perform. The four-day event will close with the return of the all-white party and a special tribute to Frankie Beverly & Maze, curated by Grammy award-winning producer and songwriter, Bryan-Michael Cox. Beverly has said that he is stepping away from performing live, and the group has been on a farewell tour.

For the festival’s first 15 years, Frankie Beverly & Maze closed the event with a massive performance, watched by thousands singing along to the group’s hits, including “Before I Let Go,” “Joy and Pain” and “Happy Feelin’s.” In 2010, a new event producer ended the tradition to the disappointment of many festgoers despite the talent tapped to close, including Beyoncé, Mary J. Blige and Lionel Richie.

“This is our big send-off to Frankie & Maze,” Holmes said. “It will be a mix of him singing and others singing to him. This will be a true, here-are-your-flowers moment.”

This year, Holmes said, organizers seek to celebrate milestones.

“To have both Usher and Janet on the same bill. Such pioneers in their genre. What we’re ultimately seeing in this 30th year is a passing of the torch in culture and musically. Having Victoria Monét on the same night as Janet. That’s what you’ll see on the night-by-night. Chronology of acts that are reminiscent, that speak to multi-generations and give the people who they want to see,” he said.

By CHEVEL JOHNSON RODRIGUE
Associated Press

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