Exactly 25 years ago, Essence Magazine kicked off its inaugural Essence Festival in New Orleans. It was originally meant to be a one-time event to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Essence Magazine. Of course, it didn’t stop there. For the last quarter-century, Essence has consistently hosted its premier live music and cultural experience for African Americans in the same city during the Fourth of July weekend.
This past weekend, Essence Festival celebrated its 25th anniversary, which attracted more than a half a million attendees between July 4-7. The majority of festivities took place at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center and Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
“This year’s extraordinary turnout reflects Essence’s uniquely powerful engagement of Black women around personal empowerment, community, and culture as only Essence can,” said Essence Chief Executive Officer Michelle Ebanks.
In honor of Essence Festival’s milestone anniversary, here are our 25 music highlights from the fun-filled weekend.
The Amours light up Essence in the Park.
Dressed in a matching denim ensemble and rocking beautiful long braids, emerging R&B duo The Amours graced the stage at Essence in the Park, which was held on July 4. The two sisters, who are signed to PJ Morton’s label Morton Records, gave the audience a sweet taste of some songs from their debut EP, Mon Amour, including “Runaway” and “Billionaire.”
Phony Ppl showed their real talent at Essence in the Park.
Brooklyn-based R&B band Phony Ppl made a lasting impression to the crowd at Essence in the Park. The five-man-band, led by Elbee Thrie, performed tracks from their major label debut album mō’zā-ik, including “Something About Your Love” and “Cookie Crumble.” The band also performed some of their early material like “Compromise” and “One Man Band” from their 2015 project, Yesterday’s Tomorrow. The latter track also appears on mō’zā-ik. As the group performed, more people huddled around the stage until it was hard to maneuver around. Part of the attraction stemmed from the amazing sounds from their band — especially when lead guitarist Elijah Rawk did his spine-tingling solo.
LeToya Luckett did an impromptu performance.
Former Destiny’s Child member LeToya Luckett was asked to sing a little something, something while she made an appearance on the Coca-Cola stage at the Convention Center. At first, she was hesitant but she went forward and sang along to her hit song “Torn.” While it was hard to hear her sing over the track, she made sure everyone could hear her when she did an acapella version of “Regret.”
— Rated R&B (@RatedRnB) July 6, 2019
Ledisi paid ‘respect’ to icons.
Ledisi paid tribute to the Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin on the mainstage on Friday night. The New Orleans-born singer performed Franklin’s signature hits “Chain of Fools” and “Respect.” Later in the show, she brought out MAJOR. and Luke James to perform Patti LaBelle’s “On My Own.”
Patti LaBelle makes a surprise appearance.
Patti LaBelle shocked the crowd when she made a surprise appearance at the opening night of Essence Festival. After watching her tribute performance, LaBelle was invited on stage where she did an acapella rendition of “Love, Need and Want You.”
Prince was honored.
Prince was a staple at the Essence Festival when he was alive. He performed at the 10th and 20th anniversary. So, it’s no surprise that he would get a lot of love at the 25th celebration. His longtime collaborator Sheila E. paid respect to him on the first night. She performed “A Love Bizarre” and “Glamorous Life,” which he wrote and produced.
Morris Day made time.
Looking sharper than a razor, Morris Day made a cameo on the first night to perform “Jungle Love” and “The Bird,” which were both composed by Prince.
VanJess showed what harmonizing sounds like.
VanJess played at the Hot Right Now Superlounge on Friday night. Donning brown silk outfits, the two sisters demonstrated what it means to harmonize. They performed tracks off their debut album Silk Canvas, including “Cool off the Rain (Interlude),” “‘Til Morning,” “Honey Wheat,” “Filters,” Another Lover,” and their fan-favorite “Touch the Floor.”
BJ The Chicago Kid sang his heart out.
BJ The Chicago Kid rocked the Golden Era Superlounge on the opening night. Sporting a black jacket and white t-shirt, the R&B gent put on a chilling show in the packed room. “I love that Essence empowers our black women,” BJ said during his set. His setlist included a mix of old and new tracks such as “Time Today,” “I’d Rather Be With You,” “Church,” “Worryin’ About Me,” “Woman’s World” and more.
PJ Morton made history.
PJ Morton pushed the envelope at the Essence Festival. The New Orleans native made Essence Festival history as being the first artist to ever do a live recording. He didn’t do it alone, though. Backed by a full band, PJ invited some of his musical friends to share the spotlight in the packed Playlist Superlounge. He opened his set with “New Orleans Girl” from his Bounce & Soul, Vol. 1 project. Rapper Mia X joined him on stage to deliver a fire verse.
Pell came out to perform their song “Claustrophobia.” The crowd roared when JoJo graced the stage to sing their adoring duet “Say So.” Luke James flexed his acrobatic vocals to perform his rendition of The Gap Band’s “Yearning For Your Love.” Probably the most special part of PJ’s set is when his father Bishop Paul Morton joined him to perform “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright.”
— Rated R&B (@RatedRnB) July 6, 2019
Elle Varner took her fans to another level.
After appearing on Good Morning America on July 4, Elle Varner brought her soulful voice to the Golden Era Superlounge. In addition to performing material from her debut album, Varner also delivered a live rendition of music from her new EP, Ellevation.
Missy Elliott brought fiyah to the stage.
Missy Elliott is a legend, period. The multi-talented rapper/songwriter/occasional singer was the headlining act on Friday night. She set the stage ablaze with her electrifying performance. She took fans on a trip through memory lane with her many hits like “I’m Really Hot,” “We Run This,” “I Can’t Stand The Rain,” “Pass That Dutch,” “Sock It 2 Me,” “Gossip Folks,” “Get Your Freak On” and “Work It,” to name a few. One of the highlights of Missy’s performance is when she brought out Monica to perform “So Gone,” which she co-wrote and co-produced for Monica’s 2003 LP After the Storm.
— Rated R&B (@RatedRnB) July 6, 2019
Keri Hilson rocked with pretty girls.
Keri Hilson treated fans to a spare-of-the-moment performance while serving as a judge for Fonzworth Bentley and Kenny Burns’ lip-sync contest. After a group of women chose her song (“Pretty Girl Rock”), it was only fitting for Hilson join them to perform the track for the audience.
Tevin Campbell talked that talk.
R&B veteran Tevin Campbell made a surprise appearance at the Convention Center on Friday. He was brought on to the Coca-Cola stage to perform “I’m Ready” and his 1993 hit “Can We Talk.”
Raphael Saadiq’s pop up performance in French Quarter.
You don’t need a stage to put on a good show. Raphael Saadiq embraced New Orleans culture by holding his own pop up performance in the French Quarter.
NAO played at the Hot Right Now Superlounge on Saturday night. Rocking big curly hair, the British singer took her fans to another planet. Her set included songs from her sophomore album, Saturn, including fan-favorite “Make It Out Alive” featuring SiR. Although she is known for her light and airy voice, NAO showcased her lower register.
— Rated R&B (@RatedRnB) July 7, 2019
Brandy took us back to the ’90s.
Brandy, whose music has been streamed over 1.5 billion times, delivered a memorable performance on the Coca-Cola stage. Donning a beautiful colorful dress, the Vocal Bible performed a medley of her chart-toppers, including “I Wanna Be Down,” “Baby,” “Boy Is Mine” and “Almost Doesn’t Count,” to name a few.
H.E.R. had everyone focused.
Although H.E.R.’s set was only 30 minutes, she wasted no time to win over the concertgoers with her pristine vocals. The two-time Grammy winner performed songs like “Carried Away,” “Best Part,” “Hard Place,” “Focus,” “2,” “Make It Rain (Ed Sheeran cover).” She closed her set with a spine-tingling guitar cover of Prince’s classic “Purple Rain.”
Mary J. Blige gave us life.
Mary J. Blige was the headlining act for night two of the Essence Festival. Like Essence, Blige is also celebrating the 25th anniversary of My Life. The Queen of Hip Hop Soul rocked the main stage with her classics like “Share My World,” “Not Gon’ Cry” and “No More Drama.” One of the highlights of the night was when she brought out Lil Kim to perform their 1997 hit “I Can Love You.” Aside from music, Blige is also known for her taste in fashion. It was no surprise the legendary artist did three outfit changes during her set.
Lucky Daye had the crowd wanting some mo’.
Rising R&B act Lucky Daye delivered an epic performance at the Golden Era Superlounge on Sunday night. The New Orleans native captivated the audience with his refreshingly soulful vocals. He performed tracks from his debut album, Painted, which Raphael Saadiq co-signed at the 2019 BET Awards.
Teddy Riley put on a memorable show.
Let’s be clear: Teddy Riley is a legend. He reminded the crowd with his extensive set on Sunday night. He took fans on a journey through his production discography, covering his hits such as Michael Jackson’s “Remember The Time.” His set also included guest appearances from Timbaland, Pharrell, Blackstreet, Wyclef Jean, Doug E. Fresh, Coko of SWV, Teyana Taylor, Ro James and MAJOR.
Normani shined bright like a diamond.
Former Fifth Harmony member Normani performed at the Hot Right Now Superlounge on Sunday night. It was a special moment for her because it was the first time she performed at Essence Festival, which is located in her hometown (New Orleans). Her family (grandmother, aunt and cousins) were in the audience to show their support. Normani did what we expected — she slayed in every way, from her dancing to her styling. “Normani is that bitch,” a fan shouted.
The 23-year-old was tickled by the compliment and asked him to repeat it so everyone could hear him. During her set, she paid homage to the late Aaliyah by incorporating her cover of “One in a Million” when she was singing “Waves,” which features Atlanta-based artist 6LACK. Normani also showed love to Rihanna with a sweet medley cover of “Diamonds,” “We Found Love” and “Run This Town.”
— Rated R&B (@RatedRnB) July 8, 2019
RBRM proved they still got it.
RBRM (Ronnie DeVoe, Bobby Brown, Ricky Bell and Michael Bivins) took the main stage by storm. The legendary acts performed songs from their original group New Edition, as well as Bell Biv DeVoe. Brown also lit the stage with some of his solo hits like “My Prerogative,” “Every Little Step” and “Roni.”
Dawn Richard demonstrated Black Excellence.
Dawn Richard dripped heavy in sauce in the Playlist Superlounge on Sunday night. Back by a group of dancers in matching lime green attire, the former Danity Kane member delivered an electrifying show. Since it was Richard’s first time performing at the Essence Festival, which is held in her hometown, it was only right that she paid homage to where she grew up. Her set design was inspired by Jonlee Drive, a residential street in the ninth ward.
transformed the entire stage into Jonlee Drive. From one way signs to telephone booths, street lamps and park benches. indie can still be major. ⚜️
— DAWN (@DawnRichard) July 8, 2019
Maze Featuring Frankie Beverly continued the tradition.
Sunday night was all about Maze Featuring Frankie Beverly. Anthony Hamilton paid tribute to Frankie Beverly with his live rendition of “Too Many Games” and “Can’t Get Over You.” Following Hamilton’s performance, Beverly was awarded the keys to New Orleans by Mayor LaToya Cantrell.
For the first 15 Essence Fests, Beverly and Maze closed out the show and returned in 2015 to do the same thing. Keeping the tradition going, Beverly and Maze (dressed in their signature all-white outfits), took center stage to perform a 30-minute set full of some of their biggest hits and fan-favorites. The celebratory setlist included “Back In Stride Again,” “We Are One,” “Joy and Pain,” “Happy Feelings” and, of course, “Before I Let Go.”