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3 days of music, fun as Essence festival kicks off

The Essence Music Festival officially kicked off its 17th annual celebration of black culture and music Thursday with the traditional sounds of New Orleans' own Rebirth Brass Band leading the way.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The Essence Music Festival officially kicked off its 17th annual celebration of black culture and music Thursday with the traditional sounds of New Orleans' own Rebirth Brass Band leading the way.

"We feel so at home in this city and this state," Michelle Ebanks, president of Essence Communications Inc. , said during a news conference inside the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center where a myriad of free activities linked to the festival will occur.

Ebanks reminded the crowd on hand why the festival began in 1995.

"When the idea to commemorate the magazine's 25th anniversary with a concert came up, our then-editor Susan L. Taylor, said we should have a party," Ebanks said. "But she reminded us that we're Essence. We can't just have a party. We must be present in the lives of the people in New Orleans, Louisiana."

And thus the idea of "a party with a purpose" was born.

"When we're present there's the possibility, through connections with others, to transform into your better self," Ebanks said. "This is where we can be present in the lives of people and feel at home."

The festival is expected to welcome more than 400,000 people to the city over the Fourth of July weekend, said Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who joined the stage with Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, who heads the state's tourism promotion programs.

"I continue to be overwhelmed with Essence and the reach it has," Landrieu said. "This partnership is a spectacular opportunity for the city."

Landrieu said those attending will have an opportunity to hear from people like Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to the White House, as part of the "weekend of transformation." He noted that New Orleans also is undergoing a transformation "into a city that we want to become" as it approaches the sixth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

During his welcome address, Landrieu surprised Ebanks and onlookers with a permanent reminder of the festival's impact on the city, naming a street Essence Way near the Mahalia Jackson Theatre and Congo Square.

"This sign will light the way ... and remind everyone that Essence will always be a part of us," he said.

"Wow!" Ebanks said after hearing the news.

In addition to the empowerment discussions, the festival presented by Coca Cola, will feature nightly concerts by such artists as Usher, Jennifer Hudson, Kanye West, Fantasia, Mary J. Blige and Chaka Khan.