It looked to its past and future this past weekend with some big successes and a few scheduling issues.

michelle obama photo
Michelle Obama appeared at Essence Festival 2019 on Saturday night.

This past weekend, Essence Festival celebrated its 25th anniversary, and thinking about how differently it handled the occasion from the way Jazz Fest celebrated its 50th is instructive. Like Jazz Fest, Essence Festival played to its base—African-American women. Two of the three headliners—Mary J. Blige and Frankie Beverly and Maze—are Essence Festival regulars, and Friday’s headliner—Missy Elliott—performed a confused set in 2015 that ended with the power cut on her before she had finished. 

This year’s set was far more successful, and it made clear what she was going for in the 2015 set. Elliott wanted to establish her place in the music world by featuring not only her songs but songs she wrote for others, and Monica came out Friday night to further that cause and sing “So Gone.” Elliott’s breathless enthusiasm sometimes made that hard to hear, and the cavernous sound in the Superdome made some of the sonic details that make Elliott’s songs special were hard to hear. Her occasional desire to stop and do things kept her set from ever getting too slick, but she always got back on track and ultimately delivered the set that she and the crowd wanted. The audience loved Elliott’s warmth and willingness to follow her impulses, regardless of the consequences. She decided to take her dancers into the crowd to perform the set-closing “Lose Control,” even though that meant much of the audience in the Superdome could barely see her. After they returned to the stage and with fewer than seven minutes to go in the set, Elliott decided it was time for the dancers to get their introductions and showcase dances. That should have killed the moment, but instead it added to the chaotic energy. The crowd loved her and her crew to the end. 

But unlike Jazz Fest, Essence Festival also looked forward, so much so that when it was over, organizers announced that it would be known as the Essence Festival of Culture. That doesn’t have the same ring as the previous Essence Music Festival or the last few years’ Essence Festival, but at least it’s accurate. This year, Essence mirrored the magazine that spawned it and mimicked its format on its stages. Think of the headline sets as the features; there were also shorter, news-you-can-use moments as well that addressed Essence readers’ more peripheral interests. On Friday night, the festival gave up part of its prime time on the main stage for a preview of a world music show that Estelle would host later that night at Republic, and the smartly curated lineup that include dancehall artist HoodCelebrityy, and Nigerian lover man Rotimi. They and the other artists on the bill got the crowd dancing even though only Rotimi had much fame, and that was as a cast member on Empire. “King of Soca” Machel Montado in particular was a rock star and supercharged the energy in room and sent dancers into the aisles. I’d see him again tomorrow and the day after that.

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That nod to American R&B’s African roots also led to the Jam Africa Superlounge, which featured contemporary club music from Africa, most of which had something to recommend it. South African rapper Nasty C.’s subject matter got pretty routine, but he opened strong with the boasting “Imaginary Lyrics.” He undercut the big talk when he rapped in the chorus, “I'm just being legendary me /  When I'm feeling humble smoke some ordinary weed.” The artists were eclectic as a matter of course, merging R&B, trap, hip-hop, and their native cultures, and I enjoyed sets by Tanzanian artist Vanessa Mdee and Kenyan Afro-pop band Sauti Sol. The superlounge closed on Sunday night with a dance party hosted by Estelle and DJ’ed by Jasmine Solano, whose mix only hinted at the amount of fresh, club-friendly sounds out there from Africa and ex-pats in England. That party was the natural conclusion to that superlounge and the superlounges in general, which tended toward world-friendly dance music. Since the audience largely expected Estelle to sing, she bought their indulgence and forgiveness by pouring and doling out cups of rum to the crowd. It took two bottles but it worked as disappointed fans gave the music a chance and danced. 

The biggest twist in Essence’s lineup this year was putting Michelle Obama’s conversation with Gayle King in prime time on Saturday night. She preceded Mary J. Blige, and the pairing smartly presented two visions of the same woman. That point was underlined when Obama left the stage while the DJ played Roy Ayers’ “Everybody Loves the Sunshine,” which Blige sampled for “My Life,” and many of Obama’s comments were echoed in Blige’s songs. When she said, “Too many of us women walk around with scars,” Blige’s catalogue came to mind. When Obama spoke of how many women have a hard time making themselves their priority—more Blige. “One thing people are afraid of is the strength of a black woman.” More Blige. Obama and Blige told success stories, but their successes came with costs. 

Obama’s strength was evident in her personal discipline. While talking to King, she didn’t give away anything she didn’t want to reveal, and she repeatedly threw elbows at President Trump without acknowledging him in the slightest. She said, “When you’re the leader of the free world, the job’s not about you,” and it was impossible to miss the dig, though she didn’t pause, blink, or signal in any way that she was talking about anyone other than Barack and his experience. When she said, “You have to read everything and know everything—more than everybody in the room,” she elegantly and imperceptibly buried a steak knife between Trump’s shoulder blades. 

Blige looked glamorous for her set in a shimmering leopard-print romper over a bejeweled bustier accented by black suede boots and red sunglasses. The struggle is never far from the triumph in her songs, but perhaps because she followed a crowd-pleaser like Michelle Obama, Blige started in her most fun, upbeat mode. Lil’ Kim made a surprise guest appearance to join Blige on “I Can Love You” before Blige took a costume break before returning to play 1994’s My Life in its entirety, though not in order. Since the album has some of her most loved songs, the set worked, but not even resequencing the songs could obscure the similarities in tempos and moods that handicap album recreation shows including this one. 

While Essence celebrated the 25th anniversary well, not everything worked. There are times when #essencewillbeessence. Pre-festival press promised the performance of a dozen albums from the ‘90s in their entirety, but a number of artists whose albums were scheduled to be featured—Da Brat, Big Daddy Kane, Scarface and Brandy among others—were parts of multi-artist showcases, which didn’t allow them the time to present full albums. 

The festival also booked Miami’s City Girls to play one of the superlounges, and the packed room got 20 to 30 minutes of the Girls’ DJ before one member, Yung Miami came onstage obviously pregnant and alone. Earlier last week, her partner JT turned herself in to the police to start serving a two-year sentence for credit card fraud. Yung Miami did what she could with a song or so, engaged in a little crowd work, shouted out “Free JT” and left early. 

Some missteps were more consequential. The festival-closing set was billed as a “Tribute to Frankie Beverly,” which the fans who packed the dome took to be a set with Frankie Beverly and Maze. Instead, they got Anthony Hamilton fronting Maze for two songs, then a video tribute to Beverly, then Michelle Ebanks, Mayor Cantrell, and Essence Festival founder Ed Lewis honoring him. By the time that was done, the band wedged in five songs before its 1 a.m. closing time. The audience loved what it got but wanted more, and that kind of misread of the mood of the last hours of the festival is hard to understand. 

Similarly, this year’s Essence Festival opened with a set titled “Welcome to the 25th Anniversary Show” that was even more inexplicable. It promised tributes to Aretha Franklin and Patti Labelle, the latter presumably because she is one of the festival’s biggest stars. When Prince became one of those to receive a tribute with songs by Morris Day and an epic version of “Purple Rain” performed by a film of Prince backed live by the NPG alumni band, I googled a second time to confirm that Labelle really hadn’t died. Ledisi, New Orleans’ Luke James, and Major sang Labelle songs before bringing her onstage, along with Ebanks and Cantrell, to receive an award. At 8:10 p.m. with the dome less than half full, the fans in the room called for a song—a request Labelle answered first by singing her apology, “I’ll sing for you. I just don’t know what,” and then, while a bassist pulled his instrument out of a gig bag, she sang an impromptu a cappella verse of “Love, Need and Want You.” Two hours later between the set by the New Edition remnants RBRM and Elliott, that moment would have melted down the Superdome, but it was oddly wasted and put the honoree in the strange position of having to rescue her moment. 

Then, oddly, Sheila E. followed her with a close facsimile to her BET Awards tribute to Prince from 2016. It, like everything else in the set, was strong and funky, but breaking up the Prince tribute with the Patti Labelle time out was a bad look for almost everybody involved. 

Clearly, Essence needs to work on its tribute game going forward, but by focusing harder on what the festival is and how it relates to its current and future audience, it solidified itself and the audience gains it made after the success of the movie Girls Trip. The album showcase didn’t quite happen, but it was clearer than ever before what the nebulous phrase “old school” means to Essence, and that kind of definition helped. The slushy revue-style showcases were crowd-pleasing even if, like Teddy Riley’s “The Legends of Music” on Sunday night, the legends weren’t equally legendary, and the show didn’t hang together the way last year’s Riley-led celebration of new jack swing did. That model seems far more sustainable than the search for on-brand headliners who can deliver 30-40,000 fans. This year, Essence really made its brand the star, and it paid off. 

The top YouTube embed is a playlist of songs from this year's Essence Festival.