Each year, the Essence Festival suggests there are more divisions than we realize between black and white cultures in America.

missy elliott photo by erika goldring
Missy Elliott at Essence, by Erika Goldring

[Updated] In a way, the Essence Festival is yet another measure of how different the experience is between white and black America. Thursday night, the festival sold out its three-year-old “Essence Now” night at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome with headliner Kevin Hart, who is only starting to find a white audience even though Hart’s 2011 “Laugh at My Pain” was one of the year’s top-selling comedy tours. Similarly, Charlie Wilson, Maze featuring Frankie Beverly, and—really—most of Essence’s headliners—are favorites to the Essence audience and mysteries if they’re known to white music fans at all 

I’ve long thought that the African-American middle class—which I assume dominates the Essence Festival audience—is perhaps the most invisible demographic in America. When people point to African Americans, they look at the wealthy as evidence that economic success is possible or, more commonly, the poor as emblems of failure on somebody’s part—whose depends on the speaker’s political orientation. After Hurricane Katrina, much was made of the devastation in the Lower Ninth Ward but less was said about Gentilly and New Orleans East, which were less impoverished. Essence Magazine speaks to and for the women of that demographic, including who and what they’re nostalgic for. Hip-hop history from Kurtis Blow to Bell Biv Davoe can always start people dancing between sets, and the hip-hop superlounge was packed for Slick Rick, Doug E. Fresh, and for the first time at Essence, Mystikal

Obviously, Essence helps shape the story, and it has had a complicated relationship with hip-hop. For a long time, rappers’ ease with the N- and B-words and the corresponding points of view put much hip-hop at odds with magazine and festival’s pro-black, pro-woman principles. But rap is the music that black America has partied to as much as Al Green and “Brick House,” and it has been instrumental in shaping the sounds and images of some of the festival’s biggest stars, including Mary J. Blige and Erykah Badu. In the past, LL Cool J and Kanye West have played the main stage, but this year’s main stage had the most hip-hop yet with Missy Elliott, Kendrick Lamar and Common. The Thursday night audience was into R&B lover man Trey Songz’ set opening for Kevin Hart, but people jumped out of their chairs to dance when Trigga brought out Juvenile, who performed “Slow Motion.”  

Hart’s set began under an oppressive cloud as physical signs, powerpoint slides on the video system, an announcer and the comedians opening for Hart all reminded the audience that if people had their phones out and on during his performance, the phones would be confiscated and they would be thrown out. Hart understandably wanted to keep his jokes off of YouTube, but all the warnings would have had a chilling effect if they weren’t enforced by middle-aged ushers in yellow windbreakers with glow sticks tied to their wrists. In my section, Grady from Sanford and Son appeared to be enforcing the ban. Hart wasn’t playing though, and the next night I met one woman who was thrown out for texting during his show.

Hart referred to himself a thug, but he’s a thug in style and attitude. Otherwise, he’s a hip-hop Cosby. His comedy is about trying to trying to be the man he’d like to think he is while being a family man. How does being one of the boys square with being part of the family? In his current show, those issues crop up as he deals with fear in a number of contexts, whether its a menacing raccoon or a wife who wants to know why he hasn’t come home. The results were hilarious, and Hart often cracked himself up while telling the stories.

But the show’s subtext—fear—seemed very of the moment. As a friend pointed out, this last year has made clear that to live black is to live in fear, and while so many stories of white people acting out of fear end up with black people dying, nobody died or got seriously hurt in Hart’s stories. He speculated about how a shark attack on his wife might affect their relationship, but over and over his response to fear in whatever form it came was to get out of the situation, no matter how cowardly or shallow it made him look. Obviously, these were jokes and not a guide to life, but in a time when acting aggressively out of fear seems to be a legitimate response, the patterns in Hart’s stories jumped out.

I covered Essence for The New Orleans Advocate, including this preview interview with Erykah Badu, and reviews of Frankie Beverly and Maze, and Missy Elliott and Common. Kendrick Lamar closed Essence Sunday night, and much of the talk going into the night was what would happen during his set. Would he be left to perform to a largely empty Mercedes-Benz Superdome like Lionel Ritchie did last year? Who would be there? It turns out, a lot of people. The usual Sunday night dwindle began after Mary J. Blige’s set. Many of her fans left immediately afterwards, while others gave Lamar a chance and at some point filtered out. 

But Lamar generated far more excitement than Ritchie or Earth, Wind & Fire did when they closed the Sunday night in 2010, and he was likely responsible for more ticket sales than any of the retro hitmakers who have occupied that slot. Sunday night’s attendance was soft, but Lamar likely did as much if not more for sales than his predecessors in recent years in that time slot. 

Sunday night, Lamar lived up to his promise. Since the 2012 release of good kid, M.A.A.D City, Lamar has been touted as the next rapper to become a major figure in music, not just hip-hop. But he wasn’t quite reaching people as an arena artist, and when he played New Orleans in 2013 opening for Kanye West at the Smoothie King Center, he was fine but forgettable. When he walked onstage Sunday to “Money Trees,” the crowd was spontaneously electric. I prefer my hip-hop with DJs who actually spin, but Lamar’s funk-metal band made his grooves arena-sized and immediately physical, so much of the audience danced or were at least on their feet and moving for the entire set. 

Lamar successfully made the dome seem smaller with the granular level of his crowd work. Between songs, he didn’t simply engage sides of audience; he spoke to individuals, pointing out people he recognized from previous gigs in New Orleans. He spotted individuals, described them, and let them know he was talking to them. Perhaps because of that—or because of the quality of the material, or the ease of his performance—Lamar’s audience was rapt, particularly in the front third of the audience, the part closest to the stage. The in-house video system caught three guys rapping his songs to each other as if they wrote “Alright” from To Pimp a Butterfly, and a woman in the front row looked at him with such adoration that it felt indecent to watch. 

When Lamar saw a kid with his mom and dad in one of the front rows, he stopped to talk specifically to him, and told him to listen to God, “He’ll never steer you wrong.” He then dedicated “Alright” to him and closed his set on a spiritual note. The moment, the song, and To Pimp a Butterfly put Lamar squarely inside the Essence aesthetic as he took a clear-eyed look at African-American life and celebrated the role of spirituality and community in dealing with challenges. And just as important, he made all that real and joyful.

Sunday night, Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue made its debut on Essence’s main stage with mixed results. After a parade of compelling lead singers and with Mary J. Blige waiting in the wings, Shorty was outgunned at the mic. He has made himself a much better singer, but the great singers at Essence make the moment about them. The songs are just vehicles to help listeners better connect to them. Shorty quickly realized that it wasn’t going to happen with his sunglasses on let people see his eyes. The band broke out a version of Kool and the Gang’s "Get Down on It," but with the band all on a riser 15 to 20 feet from the lip of the stage, they were too far from the audience to wholly connect. 

Still, Shorty found a way to get the crowd involved. A quick cover of DJ Jubilee’s “Get Ready Ready” turned into a goofy dance routine, with the sax players sent out to show off their dubious moves. It was corny, old-school comedy and it helped to turn the corner. A half-vocal/half-instrumental version of “Let’s Get it On” kept the crowd on his side, and he augmented the onstage star power by calling out Mystikal, who joined him for “Shake Ya Ass” and “Feel Right,” Mystikal’s guest spot on Mark Ronson’s Uptown Special. Mystikal’s larger than life quality helped 

The show said that Shorty’s still got things to figure out, but he’s clearly smart enough and hard-working enough to figure out how to be personally compelling onstage. Sometimes it’s not enough to be cool; sometimes you have to heat up.

Final Notes:

- The superlounges are rarely “super” with tough sight lines, low ceilings and erratic sound. But star-time light show beyond Tank and the Bangas suggested how they should be seen. Their ADD funk-pop—give a song a moment and something else will happen to get your attention—had enough style and excitement on its own that it should be dramatically, theatrically lit. In their case, such lighting just accentuates who they are.

- Andra Day’s music brings 1 a.m. and a smokey bar with it. She was torchy and retro, but her set never felt calculated, nor was it letting the retro vibe do the work. After her set, I wanted to listen to her more attentively on Spotify.

- If Andra Day came with her own atmosphere, Lianne La Havas’ set suggested a club—maybe a club scene—in England where rather than liking their dance music in one genre or another, clubgoers embrace exotic looks and sounds. The lovely La Havas is of Greek and Jamaican heritage, and she makes jazzy decisions as a singer, writes songs that are fundamentally folk rock. Her rhythm section finds club-friendly grooves that match the confident drama in voice, and the results inspired the crowd that came to see her Sunday night to pack up close to the stage even though there was room to spread out. Her new album, Blood, is due out at the end of the month, and her set made a compelling argument to pay attention.

Updated July 8, 9:49 a.m.

The publicity photo of Kendrick Lamar was replaced with a photo of Missy Elliott by Erika Goldring.