ESSENCE: Highlights from music’s best festival

Vincent Anthony
18 Min Read


Six years ago, I ventured to New Orleans for my first visit to the city, my first Janet Jackson concert, and my first Essence Music Festival experience. Make no mistake of it – I was there for Janet (as well as Monica and Chrisette Michele). However, after my first, one-night-only Essence experience I vowed that one day I would return for an entire weekend. And, for the last 6 years I waited for the right moment… and there were many times I was tempted, but for one reason or another, I did not return until this year.

The stars seemed to align: I wasn’t working this summer, my favorite diva was headlining alongside Kendrick Lamar and Maxwell, and it had been 3 years since my last visit to New Orleans, one of my favorite cities (I went in 2013; not for Essence). I wanted to see Mariah’s Vegas show again this summer, but I didn’t really want to go to Vegas again – this seemed like the perfect compromise. Plus, I found an affordable flight from my local airport (Islip) instead of NYC, so I decided to go and take my mother along with me.

Friday, July 1st

We arrived to New Orleans at 11:20am and I saw a tweet from one of my other favorite artists, Michelle Williams, that she’d be performing at the Convention Center in 20 minutes. I was in an Uber, nearly arriving at our AirBNB. When we arrived, we quickly freshened up and hopped in another Uber to the convention center in hopes of catching Michelle. Unfortunately we missed her performance, but were able to catch her moderating a panel later that afternoon, as well as another panel moderated by Melissa Harris Perry. Both were wonderful experiences. Aside from that, we wandered the convention center and checked out all the booths and what not they had available. I bought the Walmart exclusive version of Maxwell’s new album, and got a wristband for his meet and greet the next day. A success? I thought so.

Next, we had dinner and then headed to the Superdome to catch the first performer we wanted to see: Faith Evans. Faith came out and did a set of the hits you’d expect, like “Soon As I Get Home” and “Love Like This” – It was barely 7pm and we were already lit. Faith killed it and brought out Keke Wyatt to slay some ad-libs on “Love Like This.” So far, damn good. Next, we rushed over to the Ford Superlounge to catch the end of Tweet’s set, and then rushed back to the MainStage to learn that Tyrese wasn’t coming to perform his 7:30 set. As a consolation prize, we got to see Avery Wilson. Not only is he bae, but the boy can sing and play his guitar too – so, he definitely gained a new fan (side note: I walked past him on the street on Saturday but of course he was in the middle of a conversation and I didn’t want to be rude).

After the disappointing absence of Tyrese, we went to see The Internet for a bit in the Ford Superlounge (I wasn’t too impressed, tbh), then headed to see Daley in the Coca-Cola Hip-Hop Superlounge (even though… he isn’t hip-hop, but whatever); I had never heard any of his music, but he came highly recommended by my friend Shannon. He was awesome, and did a killer Prince tribute too.

Then, we rushed back to the MainStage to see Babyface. To be honest, the start of his set was a bit of a snooze, until he broke into a medley of hits he wrote for other artists. Then it got a little awkward when he started doing a string of New Edition songs… when New Edition was the next artist on the schedule for the MainStage. I was a bit lost, but Babyface killed it. Though, it came off a little arrogant, like “yeah I wrote these songs.” He ended his set with a Forest Gump-esque run through the floor of the Superdome, singing “End of the Road.” He unbuttoned his shirt and hopped off the stage and BOLTED through the crowd like someone was chasing him. It was hilarious, albeit a bit odd. But, do you, Kenny, do you…

When Babyface was done with his nightly workout, we continued ours by rushing over to the Walmart “For the Love of R&B” Superlounge where we caught the end of Estelle’s set. Luckily, we caught her for the two songs I wanted to see the most: “Conqueror” and “American Boy” as well as another old favorite “Thank You” and a new favorite “Something Good.” I’ve always been a casual fan of Estelle’s, but this was Part 1 of me becoming a now-big-fan of hers. More on that to come.

When Estelle was done, we went back to the MainStage to watch New Edition. Admittedly, I only knew a few of their songs, but they put on a great show. The one song I knew 100% was “Poison” and I was expectedly turnt up for that performance. The men of New Edition could still sing, move, and make the crowd go wild. Undoubtedly, it was full of women who loved them in their teenage years – my mother included! Following New Edition, was headliner Maxwell. Just as he did when I saw him on Valentine’s Day, he put on a fantastic performance filled with great vocals, energy and that classic grown and sexy vibe you’d expect. Maxwell did not disappoint, and we went home exhausted!

Saturday, July 2nd

Now, originally, I didn’t plan to show up to the Superdome until 8:00 for Common, but after a long day in the heat and Estelle’s prompt slayage the night before, I wanted to skip over by 6:45 to catch her for a second time. She slayed the MainStage, and then we headed over to see her one last time. This time, she was hosting a performance in the Essence Global Stage Superlounge, featuring up and coming artist Lady LeShurr. A young female rapper from the UK, LeShurr put on a great performance and definitely has skills. I plan to look into her music further when I get the chance. However, this set was extra special for me because… while we were waiting for LeShurr to take the stage, Estelle was trying to hype up the (small) crowd and I yelled out, “come down here with us!” Estelle, misunderstanding me, thought I wanted to come up on the stage with her… so she told me to! And, well, when a diva tells you to get on stage you can’t say so – so I went! I was super embarrassed, because I am not much of a dancer, but luckily a girl standing next to me came along for moral support. Estelle taught us some dance moves, pulled two more girls up on stage, and we had fun. We even took a selfie on Estelle’s iPhone (that I am still waiting for her to upload!). Before we walked off stage, Estelle gave me a hug and a kiss on the cheek and my day was MADE. Estelle has left a permanent mark on my heart; she was so down to earth, sweet, and is, of course, super-talented.

Unfortunately, we had to leave Estelle’s event a bit early – to catch Common. I was so excited when he was announced as an additional performer for Essence because I am a big fan, but have never seen him live. I had tickets to see him in 2011 – in Paris – but I missed the show. You see, the venue it was supposed to be in burned down and I, because I don’t speak French nor follow French news, was unaware that it had been rescheduled for a different venue on a different day. The problem was, I found out after it had already happened – when I arrived to the burned down theater, very confused… it turned out the show happened a few days prior, on the same night that I was at a Trey Songz concert. So yeah; 5 years later, I was hype to finally be seeing Common. As expected, his set was great (though, unfortunately short) and he squeezed in a number of classics, like “Come Close,” “The Light,” “I Used to Love Her” and Oscar winning “Glory.” I was happy to have gotten a taste of what a Common show is like, but I’m gonna need him to go on tour soon so I can get the full experience. Preferably, in a venue not prone to fires…

After Common’s set finished, we walked around to the Superlounges to catch a bit of Doug E. Fresh and Lalah Hathaway’s performances. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to catch either in full. Though, it was cool to see Doug E. Fresh do live beat boxing, and get a sampling of Ms. Hathaway’s amazing vocals. We worked our way back to the MainStage to see Uncle Charlie do his thing before, the highlight of my weekend – Ms. Carey. Uncle Charlie had the crowd expectedly hype as he slid through his Gap Band classics and otherwise. While I don’t really know many of his songs either, its impossible not to enjoy his performance.

Finally, after being a half hour late, Mariah took the stage at 11:30. She started off with “Shake It Off” followed by “It’s Like That,” a welcomed change from the Vegas setlist. She brought out special guest Jermaine Dupri for “It’s Like That,” and again for the “Honey” So So Def Remix, for which she also brought Da Brat to the stage. Mimi had the crowd up and turnt more than they probably expected her to. Then, she slayed the vocals in a series of moments via “Don’t Forget About Us” (the climax!!!) “My All” (ALL OF IT!!!) and “Vision of Love” (the END! LAWD!). There were numerous people around me yasssing up a storm for MC’s vocals, clearly impressed. Certainly, Mariah cemented her status as a vocal force in front of the Superdome crowd of around 60,000. I live streamed the whole show, so be sure to check out the videos on our Facebook page.

Sunday, July 3rd

Bittersweet, Sunday marked our last day in New Orleans and the last day of the Essence Festival. We started at the Convention Center again to see Keke Wyatt, a surprise from Chrisette Michele, Yolanda Adams and Ledisi performing to honor the Clark Sisters. We even ran into a surprise performance by Mario on the CenterStage.  Then, we got dinner before heading to the Superdome for the Prince Tribute. It featured Prince’s band the New Power Generation and performances from Luke James, Larry Graham, Marsha Ambrosias, Ashling Cole, and Doug E. Fresh. It ended with a New Orleans themed Second Line down the floor of the Superdome. It was a well-orchestrated tribute, for sure.

Following the Prince Tribute was Andra Day. With her old school mic, classic beauty, and soulful vocals, Andra proved just why she is one of music’s most praised new acts through her immense talent that shined on the MainStage. By the time Andra finished, there wasn’t much time between her set and Ciara’s, so we grabbed some cake and rushed back to see Ciara in all her back-bending glory. She started by trying to push some of her newer music I didn’t know, but then quickly jumped into slaying hits like “Promise,” “Like a Boy,” and “Goodies.” She delivered on the dance front, and respectably did not mime; opting instead for live vocals despite how shaky she might’ve sounded. Regardless, Ciara put on an excellent show and is certainly an energetic entertainer.

Next up was Kendrick Lamar, fresh off the heels of an Earth-shattering performance with Beyoncé at the BET Awards, hip-hop’s Top Dawg did not disappoint. He came out with the intensity you’d expect, barreling through a set of some of his hottest tracks; from “Backseat Freestyle,” “Swimming Pools,” “Hood Politics,” to “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe,” the energy remained high all the way to the fitting closer, “Alright.” At a festival celebrating Black music, “Alright” made for the perfect moment.

Bouncing to perhaps the opposite side of the hip-hop spectrum, the Festival closed with Puff Daddy and the Family’s Bad Boy 20th anniversary set. As expected, Diddy, Puffy, whatever he wants to be called today, turned the Festival into a party by doing what he does best – being the hype man. His special guests were indeed the highlights – 112 ran through their string of hits, as well as Faith Evans returning to the stage. French Montana represented the new Bad Boy, meanwhile, the highlight of the set for sure, was Ma$e performing his mid-90s hits and, of course, the homages to Biggie. The emotional end to Essence Festival came with the Family’s performance of “I’ll Be Missing You,” the 1997 classic and Bad Boy’s biggest hit. And, indeed, I’ll be missing the Essence Festival… until next year; hopefully!

I have been to a few music festivals, and I’ve heard about plenty more, but there is no festival out there that is as organized and well-done as Essence. It is in the perfect location – both its city and its venue. The Superdome allows for there to be five stages running simultaneously without the sound ever mixing or disrupting the other stages. As well, you get your own seat for the MainStage and don’t have to fight anyone in any insane crowd or line. The SuperLounges do require you to stand, but the Festival has such a chill, mature atmosphere that you’ll never feel overwhelmed. I got a taste of it in 2010, but after a full weekend’s experience, I am hooked. Provided the lineup is as great as it was this year, I’ll be back next year for sure. No other festival compares.

Again, please check our Facebook page for more videos from the Festival, being uploaded throughout the day!

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Vincent is the founder of the magazine and has had a strong passion for popular music since, well, 1997! If it's not obvious, his favorite artists include Destiny's Child, Mariah Carey, Janet Jackson, Michael Jackson, P!nk, and many more. Vincent lives in New York, where he is a high school English teacher, and currently he is pursuing a Master's in Journalism at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY.