The starpower at the annual Essence Festival is as dazzling as Independence Day fireworks. Headliners in the Superdome include Beyonce, Keyshia Cole, LL Cool J, Maxwell, Janelle Monae, Jill Scott, Big Daddy Kane and many others, and there's an additional day of music at Woldenberg Park. There also are panel discussions and speeches by inspirational speakers, authors and politicians including Rev. Al Sharpton, Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker and former New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center.
On the Superdome's mainstage, there's no bigger star than Beyonce (10:40 p.m. Sunday). The Houston native fronted Destiny's Child, the best-selling girl group of all time, and as a soloist is more or less queen of the entire pop world. The monolithic pop R&B singer has headlined Essence on numerous occasions and always puts on a multimedia song and dance spectacle.
Also on the mainstage is Beyonce's sister Solange (6:30 p.m. Saturday). The younger but no less talented Knowles helped write hits for Beyonce before launching her own, by comparison, low-key career. Solange's 2008 album Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams was produced with heavyweights including Cee Lo Green and it featured guests including Raphael Saadiq.
The R&B trio Tyrese, Ginuwine and Tank, dubbed TGT (8 p.m. Sunday), combined in 2007 to serve a sexy suckerpunch to female fans. The trio has released several sweaty singles including "Sex Never Felt Better." Though long ago signed to Atlantic, they are scheduled to release their debut album 3 Kings in August.
Essence traditionally obliges fans of old-school rap and R&B. Grammy-winning rapper Big Daddy Kane (9:10 p.m. Saturday) emerged when mad skills were essential to outperform the competition. He produced his own albums, and released hits including "Wrath of Kane" and "Smooth Operator." Kane also wrote hits for Biz Markie and was among the first to promote young Jay-Z.
Doug E. Fresh (7:30 p.m. Thursday), the world's first human beatbox, is most famous for his Slick Rick duet "The Show (La Di Da Di)," but Fresh has maintained a consistent presence as a gifted, family-friendly live performer ever since his late 1980s heyday. His first LP, 1986's Oh, My God! incorporated rap, reggae and gospel, and his second album, 1988's The World's Greatest Entertainer, featured the Yo! MTV Raps! Hit "Keep Risin' to the Top." Like a hip-hop Bobby McFerrin, Fresh mixes bodily percussion, rapping, dancing and even a bit of singing into a spellbinding old-school act.
A 14-year career doesn't reach far enough back to be considered old-school, but the latest incarnation of Blackstreet (8:35 p.m. Friday) features Teddy Riley. A well-known R&B producer since age 15, Riley created Blackstreet with Chauncey Black after the breakup of his seminal act, Guy. Known as the originators of the upbeat 1990s hip-hop-meets-R&B sound called New Jack Swing, this reunion of the original Blackstreet songwriting duo invites audiences do their dance "The Lean," to hits like "No Diggity."
Atlanta's Wondaland Arts Society label is making 2013's Essence Fest the year of the guitar. Singer/songwriter Janelle Monae (9:15 p.m. Sunday) helped found the funky music collective, which also serves as Monae's boutique label of producers, musicians and designers. Monae's wonderfully ambitious first official Afro-futuristic concept album The ArchAndroid displays influences from OutKast to Ziggy Stardust-era David Bowie to Disney's Fantasia, and she continues to produce eclectic music. The duo that produced most of Monae's music, Deep Cotton (7:10 p.m. Friday and Saturday) also perform. Chuck Lightning and Nate "Rocket" Wonder, sometimes known as the Punk Prophets, first showed the world their faces (and Mohawks) as Deep Cotton via their video for the song, "We're Far Enough from Heaven Now We Can Freak Out." Wondaland's singing duo St. Beauty (7:10 p.m. Friday and Saturday) combines Alex Belle's passionate but smooth lead vocal with Wondaland member and former Monae backup dancer Isis Valentino's colorful, minimalist guitar and bass work to create a delicately unique folk-soul sound.
Singer Kourtney Heart (8 p.m. Sunday) gained local fame at age 16 with the local hit "My Boy," which featured Soulja Boy and the late local bounce rapper Magnolia Shorty. In 2010 she was signed to Jive Records. Now 19 and free from record label obligations, Heart continues on her solo career path. Managed by DJ Raj Smoove, her latest album is 2012's A Gemini's Diary.
The lineup for Family Reunion Day in Woldenberg Park on July 4 enabled Essence to bump up the number of local bands at the festival. New Orleans' hottest genre-crashing brass unit the Brass-A-Holics (3:20 p.m. Thursday) combines disparate influences from Miles Davis and Nirvana to Wham! and Kanye West. Trombonist Winston Turner, who has been a member of St. Augustine High School's Marching 100 and The Pinstripes and Soul Rebels brass bands, launched the hybrid style by merging the sounds of New Orleans brass and Washington D.C. go-go music.
Locals Lou Hill and J. Sharp lead Water Seed (4:40 p.m. Thursday), combining sophisticated jazz with nasty party funk and Caribbean sounds. Sharp attended the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA), Southern University and Dillard University, and Hill graduated from Xavier University. Collaborators Cinese (flute) and gospel-influenced singer Shaleyah round out Water Seed's sound, and the band's 2013 album Wonder Love Pt. 1 also incorporates hip-hop and electronica. The band and the Family Reunion Day lineup showcase New Orleans' musical diversity for festival attendees visiting the city.