NEW ORLEANS — One of the premier music festivals celebrating black culture and music is branching out, extending its footprint in its 18th year to embrace the next generation of artists while still trumpeting industry veterans such as Aretha Franklin.
The Essence Music Festival has added a fourth day to its concert series in New Orleans. On Thursday – its opening day – Essence will focus solely on youth, including rapper Diggy Simmons, the Disney Channel's Coco Jones, the OMG Girlz and New Orleans' own The Roots of Music.
Essence runs through Sunday with performances set for the Superdome.
"I've never been, but I know it's important," said 14-year-old Coco, who was discovered on the Disney Channel's "Next Big Thing" and starred in its TV musical movie "Let It Shine," which aired last month.
Coco will debut music from her yet-to-be-named album due out next year. She plans to deliver a high-energy show packed with tight choreography and some theatrical elements.
"I'm excited for everybody to see it," she said. "Sometimes just singing alone can be boring, but when you have dancers, and B-boys and flipping, it adds so much excitement to the show."
On Sunday, the Queen of Soul will be crowned with the Essence "Power Award" for four decades of hits including "Respect," "I Say a Little Prayer," "Chain of Fools," "Think" and "Son of a Preacher Man."
"She said she's going to sing it all, from A to Z," said Essence Communications President Michelle Ebanks. "This Sunday night will be, we believe, an electric celebration."
Essence has been held every Independence Day weekend since its inception in 1995, when it marked the 25th anniversary of Essence magazine. Among the big names expected to perform this weekend are Mary J. Blige; Chaka Khan; Trey Songz and D'Angelo, who last month made his first live performance in the United States in 12 years at Bonnaroo as he makes a comeback.
Coco said she's grateful for the new youth-focused day and the opportunity to learn from veterans in an industry that can be a lot like a game of Chutes and Ladders: "You can shoot up to the top or in a minute have a pitfall and slide right down to the bottom. A lot of people make one mistake that ends their careers."
Friday through Sunday, singer Kourtney Heart and rapper Doug E. Fresh are hosting a block party outside the Superdome before the nightly concerts begin. Rapper MC Lyte and disc jockey Spinderella formerly of Salt-N-Pepa are also expected to appear.
"An old-school block party is going to be the ultimate," Fresh said. "It'll be something for everybody, family and friends."
Fresh, a beat-boxing rap pioneer, knows a little something about having staying-power in a fickle industry. The popular dance move "The Dougie" was named after him and has been used by younger artists such as Justin Bieber, and there's even a YouTube video online showing First Lady Michelle Obama doing the dance to promote her Let's Move campaign to fight obesity in children.
"Everybody's doing it," Fresh said. "When I'm performing and I do the Dougie, the fans lose their minds."
Fresh said he hopes the block party can serve as another tool by Essence to bridge the gap between what he calls the "classic generation" and up-and-comers.
"There's something Mary J. (Blige) can bring to a new artist. That connection is what Essence is supposed to do. We're supposed to come together, grow together and share these experiences," he said.
As in years past, Essence will also tackle hot issues important to African-Americans like education and the upcoming presidential election, Ebanks said.
There will also be presentations from New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and his wife, Cheryl. Mitch Landrieu launched a mentoring project called "Saving Our Sons," to help curb crime and violence in the city while Cheryl Landrieu's "Girl Up NOLA" seeks to inspire and motivate young girls.
"Crime is an epidemic in every major city across the nation," Ebanks said. "The mayor is calling on the entire community to invest in the lives of young men to help prevent violence by putting them on a path to where they are able to focus more on school, on getting an education, to be less likely to get involved in violence."