The 2014 Essence Festival: 20 Years of Entertainment & Empowerment

Prince courtesy NPG Records

Prince courtesy NPG Records

The 2014 Essence Festival, presented by Coca-Cola, came to a close in the wee hours of the morning on Monday, July 7, after three jam-packed days of music, empowerment seminars, celebrity sightings, shopping and of course, some of the most delicious eats on the planet.  Hundreds of thousands of festival-goers converged upon New Orleans to fête 20 years of the Essence Festival, which annually brings together the best in live performance, self-improvement, and community uplift.  And with the Crescent City as the festival’s official host, one would be hard-pressed to find a better way to celebrate the 4th of July weekend!

This year’s festival was ushered in by the Festival Family Day on Thursday, July 3, featuring appearances by Mary Mary’s Erica Campbell, Cupid, Full Force, and Water Seed.  That evening, Jazmine Sullivan, Jesse Boykins III, K. Michelle, Trey Songz, and hip-hop icon Nas got the party started for attendees who wanted to get a jump on their July 4th weekend.  Bright and early Friday morning, festival-goers and the public were invited to the Morial Convention Center for the Essence Expo, which offered everything from vendors’ booths, to sponsors’ presentations, to the #YesWeCode tech village hosted by Van Jones, and so much more.

Rhonda Nicole_Recording Academy_Where is the Love Panel

Rhonda Nicole at Recording Academy’s “Where is the Love” Panel.

It is impossible to attend every seminar, day party, and live performance the Essence Festival has to offer, but SoulTrain.com certainly tried!  Here is a run down of some of the weekend’s highlights.

Day 1: Friday, July 4

Kicking off this year’s main stage performances was none other than Prince, who headlined Friday night’s concert at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome which was illuminated in glorious purple light all weekend.  The evening began with the Electric Lady herself, Janelle Monae, who captivated the crowd with her high-energy spectacle.  Monae warmed up the audience and the stage, and set the scene for the legendary Nile Rodgers and Chic, who wowed with hits like “Dance, Dance, Dance,” “I Want Your Love,” “Le Freak,” and “Good Times.”  Kathy Sledge of the iconic group Sister Sledge joined Rodgers and co. on stage to perform the classic “We Are Family,” and the Purple One made a brief appearance during the band’s performance of David Bowie’s 1983 hit “Let’s Dance” (both of which Rodgers wrote and produced).  Rodgers ran through dozens of hits he had written and produced for other artists as well as a few made popular by Chic, causing several of the folks sitting near me to muse, “I didn’t know he did that song!”  It was a musical history lesson for sure, and a moment Rodgers pointed to as one of the most poignant in his life, sharing with the audience that he had been diagnosed with cancer three years prior and had not been expected to live.  In the spirit of savoring the moment, before beginning their set Rodgers took a few minutes to snap photos of the audience.

Prince, Ida, & Shelby J courtesy NPG Records

Prince, Ida, & Shelby J courtesy NPG Records

Prince and 3rdEyeGirl (Ida Nielsen, Donna Grantis, and Hannah Ford), joined by keyboardist Cassandra O’Neal and vocalists Shelby J., Elisa Fiorillo-Dease, and LiV Warfield, took the stage and, for the next two hours, treated Essence Festival attendees and concert ticket-holders to the most popular jams from his repertoire.  The NPG Hornz also featured heavily during Prince’s set, as did model/dancer Damaris Lewis and a somewhat gratuitous ensemble of dancers.  For two hours, Prince and the NPG ran through beloved grooves such as “Let’s Go Crazy,” “Take Me With U,” “Raspberry Beret,” and “1999.”  New Orleans’ own Trombone Shorty and British soul siren Lianne LaHavas joined Prince on stage for “Sometimes it Snows in April,” and, true to form, Prince threw a few lesser-known joints into the mix (the new 3rdEyeGirl track “Funk n Roll,” 20Ten’s “Act of God”).  It goes without saying that the vast majority of the audience was on pins and needles waiting to hear “Purple Rain” (it is, after all, the 30th anniversary of the film and soundtrack of the same name), and when the opening bars finally emerged from the stage the audience went ballistic.  Prince ended the song by releasing purple balloons into the Dome, then returned to the stage to officially close out the night with another die-hard fan favorite, “Days of Wild.”

One of the most exciting elements of the Essence Festival is not just the AAA main stage acts, but also the emerging, independent, and often eclectic artists who grace the Superlounges.  Friday night’s Ford Superlounge acts included the phenomenal trio, KING, whose gorgeous melodies and effortless harmonies are the stuff of dreams.  Alice Smith, who is always simply magnificent, also rocked the Ford stage, mesmerizing with Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” and The Pretenders’ “Don’t Get Me Wrong,” as well as crowd-pleasers from her 2006 debut For Lovers, Dreamers and Me and her ground-breaking 2013 follow-up, SHE.  Other Superlounge performances that night included Leela James and Stephanie Mills in the Coca-Cola Superlounge; Naughty by Nature in the Verizon Superlounge; and Estelle in the Essence Superlounge.

Day 2: Saturday, July 5

In keeping with the theme of “partying with a purpose,” one of the Essence Festival’s signature events is the McDonald’s 365 Black Awards.  In previous years, this celebration of excellence and achievement in the African American community was a private, invitation-only affair.  Over the past couple years, however, the event has been opened to the public, with the intimate sit-down brunch replaced by a full production taped before a live audience to air on BET on August 10 at 10PM EST, and Centric on Aug. 17 at 11PM EST.  Hosted by former 106 & Park host and current E! News anchor and co-star of Think Like a Man, Too, Terrence J., and star of OWN TV’s hit series, Tyler Perry’s The Haves and the Have Nots, Tika Sumpter, the awards opened with none other than Ledisi, who brought the morning crowd to its feet with her song, “Bravo.”  Presenters included Warrington Hudlin, Tom Joyner, and CNN’s Soledad O’Brien, with honorees ranging from Will Packer (Arts & Entertainment), Rev. Al Sharpton (Humanitarian), and Kevin Liles (Business Entrepreneurship).  Kem, Kim Burrell, Leela James, Mali Music, and Jazmine Sullivan kept the energy going with inspired and inspiring performances, and the queen of self-empowerment, Iyanla Vanzant, graciously accepted the Inspirational award.  Be sure to catch the 365 Black Awards broadcast to see all the honorees and performances!

On the heels of celebrating the work and accomplishments of some of our best and brightest, #TeamSoulTrain headed over to Tomas Bistro for what would prove to be an exciting panel discussion, “Where is the Love: The Future of R&B.”  Hosted by the Washington, DC chapter of the Recording Academy, the chat was led by NABFEME (National Association of Black Female Executives in Media & Entertainment) president, Johnnie Walker, who was joined by R&B heavyweights Raheem DeVaughn and Tank; Motown VP of Creative Relations and Marketing, Myisha Brooks; and Beats Music Head of Hip-Hop and R&B Programming, Carl Chery.  While not an official Essence Festival event, the panel was a perfect tie-in and an excellent opportunity for aspiring singers, songwriters, and producers, artist managers, music bloggers and journalists, and industry insiders to talk openly about the current state of R&B.  It was a lively and interactive conversation, with points made and questions raised about everything from how positive, uplifting R&B music often being pushed underground in favor of “ratchet” music, to how the Recording Academy itself can help preserve and promote R&B on a national level through the Grammys.

That night at the Superdome, Tank and Ledisi kicked off the evening and made way for The Roots, who were joined on stage by Common, Nas, and Naughty by Nature.  Our favorite Philly chanteuse, Jill Scott, got the audience amped up just right to close the night out with the one and only Mary J. Blige.  MJB took the crowd all the way through her body of work, and if Facebook statuses and tweets were any indication, she brought the house down before she even made it to her more recent material.  Doug E. Fresh rocked the Coca-Cola Superlounge, while Daley and Marsha Ambrosius brought the soul to the Ford stage.  Our favorite new R&B diva and NPG backing vocalist, LiV Warfield, shut it down on the Verizon stage, and Tevin Campbell proved that he still had the goods on the Essence stage, followed by former Destiny’s Child member, gospel super star, and actress Michelle Williams.

Day 3: Sunday, July 6

Sunday at the Essence Festival is always reserved for praise, worship, and empowerment, and this year was no different.  Dr. Juanita Bynum, Donnie McClurkin, and Bishop Lester Love and the City of Love led the morning’s devotion, and Michelle Williams, Kim Burrell, Kierra Sheard, and Erica Campbell were among the musical guests who paid tribute to gospel megastar, Yolanda Adams.

Erykah Badu courtesy Michael Rowe

Erykah Badu courtesy Michael Rowe

Tamar opened the main stage with a searing performance, followed by the always intriguing Erykah Badu.  Comedian Dave Chappelle made a surprise guest appearance as well, sending the audience into a bit of a tizzy.  Our beloved “Uncle” Charlie Wilson lit up the night with a performance for the ages, burning through Gap Band hits as well as his own vast selection of solo jams as sequined-clad dancers spun around him and a feverish pace.  Bringing the evening—and the festival—to a close was Lionel Richie, who reminded us all that he is one of the premier composers of love songs of our time.  Richie moved about the stage with grace and grit, slid behind the keys to bring the room to a hush, then jumped right back up again to keep the party moving.  It was a non-stop celebration of classic soul and R&B all night long (no pun intended).

Amel Larrieux and Robert Glasper took over the Coca-Cola Superlounge, while Sevyn Streeter and Raheem DeVaughn held it down on the Ford stage.  Day 26 and Jagged Edge kept it smooth and sexy in the Verizon Superlounge, and New Orleans native August Alsina and BET Music Matters alumna Elle Varner wrapped up the Essence stage.

It was an electrifying, enlightening, and exhausting weekend, but the 2014 Essence Festival is definitely one for the books.  For those who have never attended, start making your plans for the 2015 festival now; hotel rooms in New Orleans are at a premium during festival weekend, so if you even think you may want to party with us next year you should go ahead and reserve your space sooner than later!

For more about the 20th anniversary of the Essence Festival, visit http://www.essence.com/festival.

—Rhonda Nicole

Rhonda Nicole is an independent singer/songwriter, lovin and livin in Oakland, CA. Download her EP Nuda Veritas on CDBaby and iTunes, keep up with her new music at soundcloud.com/rhonda-nicole, and follow her on Facebook and on Twitter @wildhoneyrock.

2 Comments

  1. Stephen McMillian says:

    Great write-up Rhonda! I felt like I was there!

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