We left Baltimore en-route to the historic city of New Orleans on Friday, July 3rd, geared and ready for the 2015 Essence Music Festival. Granted this was my first time covering the event as a media correspondent, this was certainly not my first time as a festival attendee. My first journey to EMF was back in 2010 on what was a last minute trip with a group of friends. After that initial visit, we were all wondering WHY we had never gone before? Was it the stigma that the Essence Fest was an event for “older” people, as we were all in our mid-late 20’s, and didn’t want to be caught partying with people our parents age? NOT at all, that’s not even what the EMF is even about, which is clearly evident in my attendance for the past 5 years (and counting)!
By the time we arrived at the Louis Armstrong airport, it was already 5pm, so we were 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 their girl Mary J. Blige do her thing again”.
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 Maze featuring Frankie Beverly, Missy Elliott, Floetry, Tweet, Omarion and Mystikal, made it evident that this years’ festival would be the year of “the comeback kid”. Not in the sense of someone falling from greatness and trying to regain their former statue, but comeback in terms of making A return.
Now it was around 7pm and time for the main event to start. Kicking off a show of this magnitude is a pretty big feat, but would call for someone who is so smooth that you wouldn’t even notice if they were nervous or not. Who better to get the ball rolling than the R&B crooner Kem. The love was very real for Singer, Songwriter, Instrumentalist, Record Producing, Motown Recording Artist Kem. There was a special light in everyone’s eyes. People seemed to be grateful to be caught up in his rapture. In many ways, Kem was bringing comfort to hearts. Many couples were gazing into each other’s eyes as they swayed back and forth to the many hits Kem was vocally killing. Hearing his complete back catalog made me sit and realize that there are many songs that Kem made that I had NO idea were his. Two songs that were highlights of the performance were apparent fan favorites “Love Calls” and “I Can’t Stop Loving You”, which brought fans on their feet and waving their arms in music bliss. The tone and the pace for the rest of the show was now set once his performance was complete, and you could tell that this was going to be the EMF night show that was dedicated to “grown folks music”.
Footage courtesy of Pisces Life on Youtube
The only female mainstage act of the night would soon take her place on stage. The “Brown Skin” beauty, Ms. India.Arie. Things kicked right into gear with her set when she opened with her song “Video”, which deemed appropriate since this was the song that initially introduced many to Arie’s music in the first place. 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 long pink dress. Before she left the stage, she dropped a gem on us in the form of a new song entitled “Ready For Love”.
Fan footage courtesy L.Raven on Youtube
While the stage was being reconfigured for the next act, Nephew Tommy kept the crowd in the main area of the dome entertained. A lot of people took this time to make their way to the upper levels of the stadium to visit one of four superlounge areas that had performers going simultaneously, so there was literally no time where music wasn’t being played . The theme for the superlounges was divided right down the middle this year, it was hip and hyped (with the likes of Doug E. Fresh, Slick Rick, Adrian Marcel and Nico & Vinz) vs. mellowed out (featuring Avery*Sunshine, Kelly Price, Goapele and Kindred the Family Soul)
Next up was undoubtedly the moment that many had been waiting for. Crowd favorite Charlie Wilson proved why he returns to ESSENCE Festival year after year, thanks to his high-octane performance. The 62-year old music veteran kept the audience on their feet for at least an hour as he made his way through his lengthy catalog of both solo material and songs from his time with The Gap Band, opening his show up with “Party Train”. There was something for both new and old fans alike as he powered through tracks like “Yearning for Your Love,” “Charlie, Last Name Wilson,” “If I Believe” and “Outstanding”. Showcasing his stamina, Wilson kept pace with his dancers, only leaving the stage for one of his many blazer changes. This was my first time actually getting to see a Charlie Wilson performance, and he lived up to every expectation that I had had. The live iterations of his music sounded phenomenal!
Closing out Friday’s show was the one and only Maze featuring Frankie Beverly. It’s been six long years since former fest staple had been on the EMF stage. It was 2009 when they had closed out the entire weekend, and then went into hiatus from the scene that had people wondering what had happened. In years prior to 2015, one of the main gripes that I constantly heard from those in attendance was “why isn’t Maze closing out the show any more? They ARE Essence Fest!”. All of those people got their wishes granted when Maze, along with their front man, Frankie Beverly had the positive vibes flowing in the dome, making everyone feel like family. The most notable moment to me was during their hit “Joy and Pain”, the entire floor section was up and doing the Electric Slide in unison. It was a moment to behold, to see that music can make our people can come together in unity amidst all of the craziness going on in the world.
Fan footage courtesy of Scorpiokid1122 on Youtube