(The Recording Academy was on hand at the 2012 Essence Music Festival to provide live social coverage. Beginning tomorrow, GRAMMY.com will feature exclusive GRAMMYs On The Road video interview reports with artists from this year's festival.)
I didn't know what to expect when it came to covering my first Essence Music Festival.
I'd heard how incredible it is to have so many talented artists under one roof. I'd heard how surreal it is to walk into the Mercedes-Benz Superdome for the first time and experience how huge it is. I'd heard how massive the crowd would be, with hundreds of thousands of music lovers assembling for three nights and four days to sing, shout and praise along with the best soul/R&B artists the industry has to offer.
With all of the above in mind, still nothing properly prepared me for what I experienced July 5–8 in New Orleans at the 2012 Essence Music Festival.
An offshoot of the vastly popular urban women's lifestyle magazine Essence, the festival has been held in New Orleans every year since 1995, with the exception of 2006 when it was held in Houston in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. To say it has a following would be a gross understatement as it draws an estimated 100,000 attendees. For maximum musical impact, the spacious superdome is compartmentalized into different sections, with a main stage featuring headliners, and four smaller stages, or Superlounges, that showcase up-and-coming artists and veteran acts alike.
This year's performers had me especially excited, with the musical return of GRAMMY winner D'Angelo highlighting a stellar lineup that included GRAMMY winners Mary J. Blige, Aretha Franklin, Anthony Hamilton, Chaka Khan, and Mary Mary, and GRAMMY nominees Ledisi and Charlie Wilson.
Friday night kicked off with the iconic Pointer Sisters, who ran through a collection of their hits, including their GRAMMY-winning tracks "Jump (For My Love)" and "Automatic."
Keyshia Cole followed on the main stage, singing a mix of catalog and new songs. Her set was highlighted by the debut of her new single "Enough Of No Love," and concluded with her GRAMMY-nominated up-tempo track "Let It Go," which borrows from the Notorious B.I.G.'s "Juicy."
The Superlounges were active simultaneously with the main stage, with several acts on each of the smaller stages sometimes overlapping, making it difficult for attendees to decide who they really wanted to see perform. One of the Superlounges featured a standing-room-only crowd gathering to see the legendary Stephanie Mills, who moved effortlessly through her vast catalog of hits. At one point when fans on one side of the stage were struggling to catch a glimpse of her, Mills playfully sang an entire verse to them, eliciting wild cheers.
Back on the main stage later that evening was the much-anticipated return of D'Angelo after a 12-year hiatus. The crowd sang along to some of their favorites while also showing support for his covers (including Roberta Flack's "Feel Like Makin' Love") and sneak peeks at new music.
Wilson closed the night with a set that lasted nearly two hours and featured the singer dancing energetically and engaging the crowd while performing a mix of his solo hits and those with from his time with the Gap Band, including "Outstanding." The crowd couldn't get enough.
Blige was the headliner on Saturday and although her set didn't start until after midnight, the crowd stayed and sang along with each note. At one point during her version of the Rose Royce classic "I'm Going Down," she simply pointed the microphone to the crowd as they filled in the lyrics. To hear 100,000 people singing in harmony was a surreal experience.
The final night of the music-filled weekend was reserved for soul supremacy, with multiple GRAMMY winners Franklin and Khan co-headlining the main stage. During her performance, Franklin was awarded Essence's Power Award in commemoration her life and career. The Queen of Soul turned in a classic-filled set including "Chain Of Fools," "Natural Woman" and "Something He Can Feel." Meanwhile, Khan, along with R&B divas Faith Evans, Keke Wyatt, Syleena Johnson, Nicci Gilbert, and Monifah, paid homage to the legendary singers who passed away over the last year, including Whitney Houston and Donna Summer.
The festival also included three days of empowerment sessions, workshops and vendor booths held at the nearby Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, which were provided free to the public, giving everyone in town a taste of Essence. It was incredible inaugural trip for me. Next year, not only will I have my own stories to tell others attending for the first time, I'll also be better prepared for everything that takes place.
(A journalist for the past 20 years, New York native Will Dawson serves as the GRAMMY.com Gospel Community Blogger. Now a resident of Los Angeles, Dawson hopes this new life chapter will open up even more opportunities to explore and cover what he loves most: music. You can follow him on Twitter and at www.dawsonink.com.)