And we are OFF to a running start! Friday kicked off the first full day of the 2017 Essence Fest, in its usual home of New Orleans, LA. For the third year in a row, we had the pleasure to cover one of the biggest music events in the world, which is affectionately known as the “party with a purpose”
There were close to a half million festival attendees piled in New Orleans this 4th of July weekend for the 2017 ESSENCE festival, which is still one of the country’s largest live events. The annual 3-day event, which took place June 30 – July 2, featured empowerment, entertainment, and cultural experiences during the day, and some of the best live performers music has to offer.
We left Baltimore en-route to the historic city of New Orleans on Friday, June 30th, geared and ready for the 2017 Essence Music Festival. By the time we arrived at the Louis Armstrong airport, it was already close to 5pm, so we were already pressed for time to get to the Superdome to collect our media credentials. If you’ve EVER been to any Essence Festival in the past, you already know how the traffic situation is getting from the airport to downtown N.O., it’s an absolute headache. Since we had a late flight to begin with and didn’t arrive into the city until later in the afternoon, we had already missed all of the day activities going on over at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center.
After fighting the legions of people on their way to the center of the Crescent City, getting to the hotel room, dropping our bags off and getting ready, I finally made it to the Superdome, and now it was time to pick up my credentials. Walking along Poydras St. you could see that New Orleans was ready for the show to start. There were hordes of people lining the streets making their way towards the Superdome. Although this slowed me down a bit, it allowed me to walk among the masses and overhear their conversations about “how this is their first time to the festival” or “they have been coming for the past 10 years and are excited to see “The Boss” Ms. Ross tear it down.
I was greeted at the press check-in area by friendly and polite EMF staff that handed me my credentials, gave me a festival itinerary and then let me be on my way. While walking down to the press area, I took an in-depth look at the full lineup of talent, and seeing the names Diana Ross, Xscape, Chance The Rapper, Master P, June’s Diary and Mary J. Blige, made it evident that this years’ festival would be an explosion of music ranging from all genres and time periods
Now it was around 7pm and time for the main event to start. Kicking off a show this year was something a little different. With Essence being a publication that wants readers to stay in touch with their blackness, it was a welcoming move to have a cultural experience open up the show. The 7-piece all-female a-capella group Afrika Mamas from South Africa were the first ones to hit the stage and took us to the motherland with their performance. The integration of a South African group was a smart move on behalf of the Essence Fest staff, as it was a way to create ties between the original fest, and their Durban EMF show.
The “Brown Skin” beauty, Ms. India.Arie kicked things right into gear and didn’t hold back. Armed with her trusty friend, the acoustic guitar, she would take people on an experience that was way beyond just music. Mixing her soul quivering lyrics with her brand of storytelling had us feeling like we were in the midst of an MTV Unplugged session. You could tell she was living in the moment and the music through every lyric and step that she took, while adorning her signature head wrap and a blue dress made out of denim material, that her mom made.
John Legend was main male act holding it down for the fellas. He kicked off his Essence set with “Used to Love U”, then going back-to-back with all of his hits. This was a different John Legend than I had seen in previous years. From times before he spent a lengthy amount of time in front of the piano and keeping it really low-key, but I guess he knew the audience that he plays for at Essence desired more than that, so he upped the ante. All throughout the show, he was moving and gliding across the stage, and just genuinely feeling the music while donning an all black tuxedo look, giving the true meaning to #blackboyjoy.
Granted a lot goes on down in the mainstage, you truly get your monies worth when you go to the Superdome. Upstairs on the third level, you’ll find 4 different superlounges, with 4 different types of sounds blasting from them. M.C. Lyte and Doug E. Fresh had the party rocking for the old school hip-hop heads. Yuna, Gallant, Ro James, and Kelly Price gave R&B a welcomed voice to the folks who came looking for some real singing.
The highlight of the night I must say was for festival first timer, the one and only Diana Ross. It’s still a shock to me that such a legend in music has not previously performed at a musical event that is geared to folks coming out of her generation. Not saying that EMF is totally aimed at the baby boomers, but they DO hold a predominant amount of weight in the percentage of festival goers. At a little before 11 PM, The Boss strutted out onstage in a green gown that was fit for R&B royalty, to the tune that was perfect for her entrance moment, “I’m Coming Out“, and the crowd jumped to their feet. For some people, you could tell that they had waited their whole entire LIFE to see her perform live.
Footage courtesy freshfittedz on Youtube
One gentleman who sat in the row behind me spent the entire concert clearing the area around him and using it as his personal performance space, singing every word that came out of Ms. Ross mouth, as well as knowing all of the old school routines that went along with them. During her hour and a half performance, she went through some of her most important hits (she couldn’t perform ALL of them because her catalog is way too extensive). All of the greats from her time with The Supremes through to her solo Motown classics transported people back to a time when music was simple, but embodied a lot of soul and meaning. From “Upside Down” to “Do You Know” and “Stop! In the Name of Love”, you just couldn’t help but to be pulled into her show.
The one part that was most noteworthy was when she began to sing DJ Khalid’s “All I Do Is Win”. From the moment I heard those lyrics utter across her mic, it took me by total surprise, because here we are at Essence Fest, with Diana Ross, who’s 73 years young in age, going to town on a DJ Khalid track. After numerous outfit changes (all of which were some sort of shimmery gown), she closed out her concert singing Gloria Gaynor’s disco hit “I Will Survive“. If we learned anything at the end of Friday night, it was that Ms. Ross is STILL holding down that title of diva with so much class.