Filed Under:  Arts & Culture, Entertainment, Local, Music, News

Essence 2016

28th June 2016   ·   0 Comments

By Geraldine Wyckoff
Contributing Writer

The Essence Festival, the “party with a purpose,” celebrates its 22nd edition this year from Friday, July 1, to Sunday, July 3, at its nighttime extravaganza at the Superdome plus its free daytime empowerment events at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center.

First presented in 1994 to mark the 25th anniversary of Essence magazine with its focus on African-American women, the festival took off in a remarkable, and perhaps to organizers, a tremendously unexpected way. It was immediately understood that this could not be, would not be, a one-shot deal. The festival’s appeal went beyond the music as it became recognized as a great gathering of people from across the nation to share their culture. Essence Festival continues to be a destination for annual reunions between family members who might live in distant cities, old friends and high school and college classmates.

The locale of both the Dome and the Convention Center, both in easy walking distance to New Orleans’ downtown hotels and the action in the French Quarter, makes getting around and hanging out incredibly easy. Remember, that’s not really the norm in the rest of the country where highways dotted with malls and chain restaurants dominate the landscape and way of life.

Considering the origins of Essence Festival, it’s rather odd, but okay, that there is a heavy male presence on the first night on the main stage at the Dome. Of the five acts, it features only one woman, vocalist/composer Faith Evans. She’s nestled among both new and old-school musicians including superstar Maxwell and the ultra-hip, always syncopated and wonderfully choreographed group New Edition. Great harmonies prevail in this ensemble first formed back in 1978 and that once boasted the now notorious Bobby Brown as a member. He departed the group in 1985 but it overcame the loss and got back on top all over again.

“Everything Must Change” was a song impressively sung by the incredible interpreter Nina Simone and many others. Essence Festival is no exception to that rule. On the stage where the voice of Luther Vandross rang out to a rapt audience of devotees, today’s chart-toppers like the multiple Grammy-winning Kendrick Lamar, a hip-hop artist of vision, now stand. For the second year, he’ll be the explosive closing act on Sunday’s line-up. Wait for it. Bam.

Early Essence Festivals regularly featured artists like rhythm and blues vocalist Patti Labelle and presented legends including Stevie Wonder (with a full orchestra complete with New Orleans musicians such as saxophonist Kidd Jordan) and gospel/soulman Al Green. Today many new talents and multiple-Grammy winners who’ve emerged in the last two decades now, rightfully, take center stage. Others can be enjoyed and/or discovered at their shows in the Dome’s superlounges.

The superlounges, four areas providing a club-like atmosphere – dance floor, bar and food – on the Dome’s upstairs lounge tier, remain a unique and positive aspect of the Essence Fest’s nighttime concert experience. Unless one is all for sitting in a seat in the massive arena the entire night, the superlounges offer the opportunity to shake that thing, mingle with other people and just relax and have a good time in an intimate setting. It’s at the superlounges that folks will find many local people enthusiastically supporting New Orleans acts like vocalist/percussionist Cyril Neville of the Neville Brothers fame, who is making his first appearance at the festival. The New Breed Brass Band, led by snare drummer Jenard Andrews, the son of trumpeter James Andrews and the nephew of Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews – who wowed at last year’s event — hopes to make as much of an impression on the Essence crowd as the Rebirth Brass Band did at its many performances there in years past. The Preservation Hall Brass Band is on Saturday’s superlounge schedule. That listing might seem unlikely until one considers the group’s many collaborations in recent years with a host of eccentric/non-traditional jazz artists. The move has upped its international profile and increased interest in the band’s appeal to more varied and younger audiences.

Essence Festival seems to have its go-to artists like Charlie Wilson, who has powered the event every year since 2009. The amiable and energized singer fully engages the eager crowd especially when he pulls out his hit, the crowd-erupting “Party Train.” Up in the superlounge area, keyboardist Robert Glasper, whose group produced the chart-topping, revolutionary albums Black Radio and Black Radio 2, returns for the third year. He’s on the bill with his band Experience, a forward-moving ensemble that includes the unique saxophonist and vocoderist Casey Benjamin.

Beyond proven superstars like Mariah Carey and Maxwell, this edition of Essence Festival is full of opportunities to hear a live performance, perhaps for the first time, by artists like The Internet and relive special shows by Digable Planets.

This year’s Essence Festival is about digging artists we know and love and discovering those acts perhaps recognized only by their name or really not at all. The best way to do that is among a reunion of friends going around and around and up and down at the New Orleans Superdome once again. It’s now a Fourth of July weekend tradition in New Orleans and a fireworks of music and joy.

For the complete music schedule as well as a listing of the daytime events being presented at the Convention Center go to

This article originally published in the June 27, 2016 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

Readers Comments (0)

You must be logged in to post a comment.