- Associated Press - Thursday, June 30, 2016

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Music has always been at the heart of the annual Essence Festival, now in its 22nd year, and this year will be no different.

Fans will get to hear from first-timers Mariah Carey, Puff Daddy and Jeremih as well as from festival veterans Charlie Wilson, Maxwell, New Edition, Tyrese and Lalah Hathaway - all of whom are scheduled to perform inside the Superdome from Friday through Sunday.

“We’ve wanted her to perform at the festival for years,” said Essence Communications Inc. President Michelle Ebanks of Carey. “She is such an extraordinary talent.”

And in continuing with its theme to “party with a purpose,” organizers have prepared an empowerment experience inside the city’s convention center that includes insight into current events, trending concepts in beauty and fashion as well as opportunities for entrepreneurs to get help in growing their own businesses.

Ebanks said launching the free “Money & Power” Expo Entrepreneurship Village is a “natural fit for us.”

“We’ve found that a number of people were attending the festival to business network,” Ebanks said. “There were organic networking forums popping up at the festivals in previous years and we found that people are really hungry for this kind of opportunity.”

That’s exactly why Alejandra Y. Castillo, national director of the Minority Business Development Agency, said they’ve returned this year to partner with Essence. Last year, she said the MBDA did a two-day workshop during the festival to “test the waters.”

“We absolutely saw a hunger for more,” she said. “We also noticed there were more organizations doing similar things around the festival and thought, ‘Why not bring them all together under the same tent?’”

Castillo noted that African-American women are one of the fastest growing groups of entrepreneurs in the country, starting businesses at rates six times faster than the national level. “During these three magical days, there will be a lot of robust workshops on technical assistance, grant opportunities and on how to help this market leap, run and grow their businesses,” she said.

The entrepreneur expo will be part of the festival’s empowerment sessions that also include demonstrations, author signings, celebrity meet-and-greets and a celebration of gospel talent.

In addition, Essence will host a “Day of Service” on Thursday that will see 500 volunteers help clean and paint the Cohen College Prep school in New Orleans’ central city. British singer-songwriter Estelle is scheduled to speak about mentorship and education.

Ebanks said they also plan Sunday to remember Prince, the icon who died April 21. Prince performed twice at the festival but also was instrumental in some of the festival’s programming.

“Our editors are releasing a tribute book to him that will be available during the festival and we’ll also do a tribute to him on stage,” she said.

Performances are scheduled for Prince’s band, the New Power Generation, as well as Larry Graham, Marsha Ambrosius, Kelly Price, D-Nice and Doug E. Fresh. New Orleans’ natives Luke James, the Stooges Brass Band and the Roots of Music also will take the stage and participate in a special second line in Prince’s honor, Ebanks said.

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