The 2015 Essence Festival Presented by Coca-Cola wrapped late Sunday night as the mighty Kendrick Lamar rocked the main stage at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. But before that epic moment came to pass, the weekend had been filled with wall-to-wall music, empowerment, celebrity sightings, and of course, all of the atmosphere, attitude, and aromas for which New Orleans is known and loved. It is impossible to recap—let alone recall—all of the memorable moments that took place during this year’s festivals; with the exciting line up of artists performing each night on the main stage and in the Superlounges—not to mention the daytime performances in the expo; three full days of seminars to enrich mind, body, and soul; day parties; and vendors offering everything from fine art (Frank Frazier, LeRoy Campbell) to fine fashions (the Wilbourn Sisters were back once again with their fabulous wrap dresses), along with the fantastic Essence Festival book store featuring titles from emerging and established black writers, the festival was nothing short of a sensory overload in the best possible way. Nevertheless, SoulTrain.com narrowed down the weekend to the top 10 absolute most memorable moments (in no particular order)—the essence of Essence, if you will. Check ‘em out!
Essence Festival’s Inaugural Day of Service
On the morning of Thursday, July 2, the festival opened with its inaugural day of service. During the Friday morning press conference, Essence Communications president Michelle Ebanks noted that “Essence has been community-centric by its very design,” and that was definitely the case when Essence invited festival goers to participate in giving back to the New Orleans community. Partnering with NOLA for Life and nine-year festival sponsor, Walmart, attendees helped ready Frederick Douglass High School in the city’s 9th ward, which will be the new site for the KIPP Renaissance High School.
The McDonald’s 365 Black Awards
In its second year as an official Essence Festival event, the 12th installation of the McDonald’s 365 Black Awards continued in its tradition of recognizing the movers and shakers in our communities with a star-studded spectacular that featured performances by Sevyn Streeter, Andra Day, and former Glee co-star, Amber Riley. This year’s honorees included gospel dynamo Marvin Sapp, former New Orleans mayor and current president of the National Urban League, Marc Morial, journalist Jeff Johnson, and Golden Globe-winning and Academy Award-nominated filmmaker, Ava DuVernay. The show was hosted by Terrence J and Keke Palmer, and will air in August on BET.
Deepak Chopra Makes His Essence Festival Debut
Doctor, author, and spiritual thought leader has been at the forefront of the holistic health movement since the 1980s, and has become one of the most trusted and renowned teachers and practitioners around the world. During his keynote conversation moderated by Soledad O’Brien on Saturday, Chopra offered a world of wisdom and thought-provoking insights, as well as his thoughts on the three questions the black community should be asking right now.
The Return of Maze Featuring Frankie Beverly
Crawling through New Orleans on Friday evening, I kept noticing all these festival goers decked out in white from head to toe. In my bright orange Monif C. jumper, I had clearly missed the memo! After all, it was Frankie Beverly night! The venerable R&B collective, Maze featuring Frankie Beverly, made their much-anticipated return to the Essence Festival main stage after a six-year absence. Charlie Wilson ripped the stage just before them, making for a night of classic R&B that kept the entire audience dancing and singing until the final note.
When Missy Elliot joined “Firework” singer Katy Perry onstage during Perry’s Superbowl XLIX half-time performance, fans of the Grammy Award-winning producer, hip-hop artist, and style icon clamored for more. And more is exactly what Missy hit us with—along with the obligatory “hee hee,” of course—when she decimated the Superdome stage on the 4th of July. Running through hits like “Work It” and “Lick Shots,” Missy and her crew of backup dancers infused every second of their time on stage with nonstop energy.
Eric Roberson Brings Biggie to Life
Eric Roberson is a consummate performer and gentleman, as R&B diva Kelly Price, who hosted the Walmart For the Love of R&B Superlounge, so eloquently noted as she introduced Erro to the crowd. True to form, Roberson kicked off his set with the sexy, sensual “Picture Perfect,” even snagging a fan’s camera phone and serenading it while capturing selfies and photos of the crowd before returning it to her. That was nice. But the moment that truly set his show off was when he launched into a hilarious, jazzy, Broadway musical-esque send up of the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Big Poppa.” No one was prepared. With a lush piano intro that sounded almost like the opening bars of Donny Hathaway’s “A Song for You,” the audience had no clue what we were about to witness. It was glorious and epic and funny as hell, but most of all, it sounded incredible! Jokey though it was, Roberson’s take on the Biggie classic was executed with perfection.
Lianne La Havas Wins the Most Diverse Audience Award
British songbird of sultry soul, the impossibly brilliant Lianne La Havas, briefly graced the stage with Prince at last year’s Essence Festival for a gorgeous rendering of his song, “Sometimes It Snows In April.” As I sang along and shed some tears, others around me whispered, “Who is that? I don’t know who she is.” Le sigh. This year, La Havas returned to Essence to dominate the stage for a most triumphant debut in the Ford Hot Right Now Superlounge. As the crowd gathered to answer the burning question, “Is Your Love Big Enough?,” I noticed that it had to be the most culturally diverse audience I’d seen all weekend. It’s no secret that the Essence Festival attracts a mostly African American audience, but it’s also a fact that folks from other communities buy tickets for certain performances. Lianne definitely attracted not only the bohemian naturalista crew (of which I am proudly a member), but also the hipsters and local college kids. Oh, and she absolutely killed her set! Naturally.
Tweet’s True Confessions
During her set in the Verizon Now Playing Superlounge, R&B’s Southern hummingbird, Tweet, thrilled her fans with a performance that felt almost like a gospel revival. And in a sense, it truly was a revival of sorts for the phenomenal singer who has been out of the limelight for the past few years. Tweet shared that, thanks to a series of career-related setbacks and hardships, she had at one point taken to smoking several packs of cigarettes a day. This, of course, is one of the worst things a singer could do, and when her doctor informed her that her lung function had severely decreased, Tweet said she knew she had to quit so she could keep going. She offered this testimony—and the fact that she was “still here”—to an adoring crowd that couldn’t have been happier to see and hear her again. Unfortunately, Tweet’s set was
cut short and she had to rush off stage a bit, but not before she whipped out her debut hit, “Oops (Oh My).”
Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick Take Us Back to Elementary School
Well, not all of us, perhaps. Maybe I speak for myself. Anyway, The Original Human Beatbox and Slick Rick tha Ruler rocked the Coca-Cola The Art of Hip-Hop Superlounge together, before Doug E. took over for a solo set of his own. Kool Moe Dee and New Orleans native Mystikal also brought the noise
to the Art of Hip-Hop stage, as did former Bad Boy artist-turned-preacher-turned-artist-again, MASE.
Kendrick Lamar Shuts it Down
What a way to close out the 21st Annual Essence Festival! Kendrick Lamar, arguably the reigning king of hip-hop, shook the Superdome to its core with his performance Sunday night. As the camera panned the audience during K.Dot’s show, I caught glimpses of something I’d never experienced before, at least not in quite that way: Utterly exuberant young black men, heads pointed upward, faces glowing with both perspiration and undeniable joy, yelling along with Kendrick, “I LOVE MYSELF!” As a gleaming example of what the intersections of hope, resilience, rebellion, and resistance look like through the lens of black masculinity and black excellence, Kendrick Lamar’s Essence Festival performance was definitely one for the history books.
Rhonda Nicole is the Managing Editor for SoulTrain.com, a soul singer/songwriter, music journalist, blogger, and curator of the BohemeRockstar Music Blog (IG @BohemeRockstar), splitting her time between the Bay Area and LA. Download her EP ‘Nuda Veritas’ on CDBaby and iTunes, keep up with her new music at soundcloud.com/rhonda-nicole, follow her on Facebook and on Twitter @wildhoneyrock, and dig her musical musings at rhondanicole.com.