2017 marked the 23rd year of the Essence Music Festival that celebrates the best and brightest in entertainment and it did not disappoint. For those who have yet to experience the festival, it is a combination of free, themed seminars during the day and concerts in the evening held this year in the Mercedes Benz Superdome. Performances are a broken up between the main stage where opening acts and headliners perform and in super lounges around the main stage where mini-concerts are performed.
Seminars topics centered on social activism “Staying Woke”, entrepreneurship, and the black community and an all-star gospel salute honoring GRAMMY Award-winning artist Dr. Cissy Houston—featuring a variety of soul-stirring musical guests, including: GRAMMY Award-winning artist CeCe Winans, J.J. Hairston & Youthful Praise, and many more.
The immense air of empowered sisterhood was healing and, at times, overwhelming throughout the empowerment expo sessions. Sybrina Fulton (Trevon Martin’s mother) explained what it means to be “woke’ and how that manifests into action on a grassroots level. Then a panel of heavy hitters shared insight into their own versions of staying woke, maintaining a level of “wokeness” while fighting oppression as a woman of color and influence in patriarchal society, and self-care through the trauma of oppression. Panel members Angel Rye, April Ryan, Luvvie Ajayi, and April Reign set up aflame, and validated the issues of our hearts concerning our community and our power to make positive change in our community. The strength of a woman panel with Mary J. Blige and cast of “Girls Trip” touched on sisterhood and living outside of the bondage of insecurity and societal rules for womanhood.
And for the music lovers, paradise awaited ticket holders nightly with performances by Mary J. Blige, Monica, John Legend, Jill Scott, Jazmine Sullivan, India Arie, Diana Ross, Master P, Xscape, and Chance the Rapper on the main stage and Lalah Hathaway, Remy Ma, Yuna, PJ Morton, Jhene Aiko, Ro James, Doug E. Fresh and more in the super lounges.
Friday night concerts opened with India.Arie warming us with her rich contralto vocals. John Legend performed leading with “Used to Love U” transitioning into “Tonight.” The crowd sang along to every word and screamed as he ended with “Love Me. The night was closed out by the legendary original diva Diana Ross. This is Ross’s first performance at the Essence Fest and I’m sure it won’t be her last. Her show included various costume changes ranging from green sequin and fabulous to red sequin and fabulous. It’s Diana Ross, what did you expect? She sashayed across the stage killing us softly with It’s my house, Touch me in the Morning, Upside down and many more of her plethora of hits.
Saturday’s “Strength of A Woman” themed concerts, inspired by of Mary J. Blige’s upcoming album, was the basis for an all-female show with artists such as Chaka Khan, Jill Scott, Jazmine Sullivan, and Monica. Master show woman Mary J. Blige had everyone on their feet. Thigh high boots, leather hot pants, signature sunglasses, and abs blazing, the Mary J swagger was in effect as she sang Real Love, I Love You, Love No Limit, All Night Long, No More Drama and I’m Going Down and Good Love. In recent events of her estranged husband’s infidelities, she truly took us through her emotional journey and rounded the night out with I’m Fine which had even security dancing in the halls. We were all very happy to see their queen of Hip-Hop/Soul back!
Solange Knowles opened early on the main stage line up Sunday night, but she performed like a headliner with her performance art, poetic songs, and of course her fashion sense. Among the songs she performed were Cranes in the Sky and Don’t touch my hair. And while Solange was opening us up for the night, Xscape was shutting the Superlounge down…literally! The sea of fans waiting to see Xscape’s epic return to the stage was more than the building could handle and the fire marshal was forced to remove people. I see them in the Super dome in 2018, for real! Other performances by Master P, Silkk the Shocker, Mystikal, Mia X and Fiend, Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue, Solange and Ithwasa Lekhansela, a musician from Durban, South Africa. What can I say about Chance the Rapper except has such an elevated perspective for such a young mind and he is proof that the essence of our culture is not lost on the new generation. He closed the night out with Sunday Candy, Same Drugs, and, Blessing.
And in between entrepreneurial, social activism strategies and great music, I experienced strangers from every part of the country bonding over support of black vendors, hair care products, “slap yo mama” good food, and our genuine love of each other and our community. This is what black excellence looks like. This is what being un-apologetically black feels like. This was unconditional sisterhood at its core and every woman of color should experience the Essence Festival for themselves at least once. Well done Essence!