Mary J Blige, H.E.R. & More Discuss the Importance of Essence Fest on Its 25th Anniversary

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Mary J Blige performs at the 2018 Essence Music Festival at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on July 7, 2018 in New Orleans.

“It is like a shared family reunion with the theme of party with a purpose,” says festival co-founder Ed Lewis.

This Fourth of July weekend (July 5-7), Essence Festival is celebrating its 25th anniversary in its hometown of New Orleans. According to president of Essence communications Michelle Ebanks, the festival started as a one-time event to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the magazine geared toward black women and has grown into the largest annual consumer event over the last quarter of a century.

This year’s milestone for the festival will see an expansion of the founders’ visions for the event with 100,000 sq. ft. of the Beauty Carnival, health and wellness tracks, the new Global Black Economic Forum, after dark event series and an evening with former first lady Michelle Obama.

“We are so humbled that Michelle Obama will be at the festival this year,” Ebanks tells Billboard. The former first lady graced the cover of Essence magazine in December of 2018. Being touted as Essence’s ‘Forever First Lady,’ Mrs. Obama will close out her Becoming book tour with the July 6 conversation at the Mercedes Benz Superdome in New Orleans.

“She is coming home. Essence is home and she is coming home to celebrate,” adds Ebanks. “That speaks volumes to what Essence has meant since 1970s.”

This year’s festival will also see 80 performances throughout the Superdome with highly anticipated sets from Missy Elliott, Lil Jon, H.E.R., MC Lyte, Musiq SoulChild, Estelle, Sheila E, Big Freedia, Normani, Franky Beverly, Pharrell Williams, Timbaland and many more. Headliners Mary J. Blige, Nas and Brandy will also be celebrating iconic anniversaries for their returns to the New Orleans stage. Nas will celebrate the 1994 release of his seminal album Illmatic. Brandy’s debut self-titled album was released the same year and Mary J Blige will honor the 25th anniversary of her release My Life.

Blige is a staple for the Essence Festival having played more than a dozen times in its 25-year history. The “Family Affair” singer continues to return to the event thanks to the incessant demand from the loyal fanbase.

“I remember the first couple of times I tried not to go and it was a big deal all over the internet,” Blige tells Billboard, joking that she can’t be there every year due to other projects. “I am so grateful for the outpour of love. It is a hardcore fanbase. There are people who can’t get to your concert or didn’t have time to make your tour. They all show up [at Essence Festival]. It’s like 70,000 people out there and the majority of them are hardcore fans."

Blige explains that she continues to appear at the festival because it is just as much part of her culture as she is the culture for the fans.

“I am the culture. 90% of those women, I am what they are. I am who they are,” Blige says. “They can relate to my music because the majority of them have been through some of the same things I’ve lived through, come through some of the same things I’ve come through. I am Essence. I am black, real black.”

As for whether Blige will play My Life in its entirety at the festival, she says “You’ll have to come to the show and see.”

Blige is one of many artists who have returned to the Essence stage several times. Franky Beverly closed out the festival for the first 15 years and will revive his culmination ceremonies again this Sunday.  

“It speaks volumes of how the festival appeals and connects to the people. Mr. Beverly is a legend in terms of his 50 years of music and you’re going to 50,000 people dancing on the floor for him,” says Essence Festival co-founder Ed Lewis.

"There is a connection. There is a deep feeling of being in a venue that welcomes you. They want to put their best on," says Lewis of returning artists. "I remember when Kanye West made his first appearance here. He was a dud. He came back and he was well-received. The audience lets you know if they love you or don’t love you."

H.E.R. will return to Essence this year for her second set at the festival. Last year, the R&B superstar played the lounge causing a stir when they had to stop letting fans in due to capacity. This Saturday, H.E.R. moves to the big stage at the Superdome.

"Essence is dope because it is one of the only festivals where you see all these beautiful black women come together to enjoy music. I think that’s what it’s really about," H.E.R. tells Billboard. "There is so much history in Essence Fest. All the people that I look up to have done it and to be on the main stage is a really big deal for me."

Since the 1970s, Essence Festival has seen performances from Prince, Beyoncé, Luther Vandross, Aretha Franklin, Janet Jackson and many more.

“I grew up listening to Mary J. Blige and a lot of Missy Elliott. That’s one of my favorite artists,” adds H.E.R. of her fellow 2019 main stage performers. “It’s crazy.”

For artists and fans alike, the festival fosters a sense of community on an annual basis.

“I always know some of the people who are there, so it is nice to see them,” adds Blige. “It is nice to have everybody come together that you haven’t seen in years. It’s nice to see Missy. I don’t get to see her much or Queen Latifah. It’s nice to see my friends that I don’t get to see because they are just as busy as me. [At Essence] it’s like we haven’t missed a beat.”

Essence has grown to welcome 500,000 attendees every year with a healthy return rate from those looking for community, networking, entrepreneurial endeavors, entertainment and more.

“There is no magazine that I am aware of locally, nationally or internationally that has the capability of bringing half a million people over a weekend to a city,” says Lewis. “The reason is that Essence, in terms of the promise it’s made to black women to be there for them and to serve them, continues to deliver.”

With a handful of democratic presidential nominees (Senator Kamala Harris, Senator Elizabeth Warren, Senator Cory Booker, former Representative Beto O’Rourke and Mayor Pete Buttigieg) also attending the festival, Lewis says Essence is also a forum for black women to flex their power in the social, economic and political arena.

“With the political arena that’s happening now and for 2020, black women are playing an increasingly important role in determining who gets the [Democratic presidential] nomination and certainly the next president,” says Lewis. “Essence is at the forefront of having this opportunity to be a beacon, to be a voice, to demonstrate to black women their own power.”

“It is like a shared family reunion with the theme of party with a purpose,” adds Lewis.

“Essence has to be about not just celebrating where we are today but reaffirming what we need to do to continue to progress as a community,” Ebanks tells Billboard. “The first year was such a success that it became in an annual event. That foundation really was strong enough to provide real staying power.”