- The Washington Times - Friday, July 3, 2009


The celebration of black music and culture at the Essence Music Festival in New Orleans will provide comfort to artists and fans alike after a tough week following Michael Jackson’s death.

Singer Lionel Richie, festival headliner and longtime friend of the pop superstar, says performing at Essence will give him and others a chance to regroup.

“We’ll celebrate his life and come together as a family down there,” Mr. Richie says. “It’s New Orleans. The spirit of what the music business is all about is there. It really is to me one of those places that’s like visiting my foundation.”

The festival, which began in 1995 to celebrate the birthday of Essence Magazine, begins Friday and runs through Sunday. It will include a tribute to Mr. Jackson as well as performances by Beyonce, John Legend, Ne-Yo, Anita Baker and others.

Mr. Richie, 60, collaborated with Mr. Jackson in 1985 and wrote what became one of the fastest-selling singles ever - “We Are the World” - a song produced to raise money for victims of the Ethiopian famine.

“I wanted him to be able to enjoy his life and his success, and he was never really able to do that,” Mr. Richie says. “He just couldn’t get there. For me, that was the tough part.”

Mr. Richie says his performance Sunday will consist of favorites, including “Zoom” and “Brick House,” but he’ll also sprinkle in a selection or two from his new CD, “Just Go.”

“I know this audience,” he says. “This is my audience. … They want to hear as much old as I can play.”

Essence also will include a host of New Orleans acts, such as Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, trumpeter Irvin Mayfield and the brass band Big Sam’s Funky Nation.

New Orleans jazz singer Thais Clark is making her Essence debut Friday with two performances - one a salute to New Orleans blues singer Marva Wright, who is recovering from a stroke she suffered last month, and another with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.

“I love Essence,” Miss Clark says. “It brings a certain energy to the city, the people, and enthusiasm. I’m so excited to be a part of it this year.”

Besides music, Essence has plenty to celebrate with the election of the country’s first black president and the festival’s 15th anniversary, says Michelle Ebanks, president of Essence Communications Inc.

As in years past, seminars addressing challenges in the black community, such as underachieving schools and single-parent households, will be held during the day at the Morial Convention Center. Concerts are slated for evenings at the Louisiana Superdome.

Friday, actor and comedian Steve Harvey will talk about marriage, and actor-comedian-turned-activist Bill Cosby will discuss education the following day. Other speakers include Marvelyn Brown, a 24-year-old native of Tennessee who was diagnosed with HIV at 19; former magazine editor Monique Greenwood; and Soledad O’Brien, the CNN anchor who reported on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

This year is shaping up to be a record crowdwise despite the slumping economy and loss of two major sponsors, Miss Ebanks says. Essence is on track to break last year’s record attendance of 270,000, she says.

Hotel occupancy is expected to be 80 percent to 90 percent and could increase “if we have a lot of last-minute decision-makers,” says Mary Beth Romig, spokeswoman for the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau.

On the Net: Essence Music Fest, www.essencemusicfestival.com

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