Essence Fest holds many vivid and very individual memories for those who’ve attended the fest, as well as those who’ve performed. There was Aretha Franklin’s stunning appearance at the first event, with notables like Jesse Jackson sprinkled through the audience. A disguised Prince roller-skated on stage for a surprise cameo in 2004 before his set. Who can forget Stevie Wonder, Solomon Burke, Etta James, and our own Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews—the first New Orleans artist (with bows to DJ Soul Sister) to perform on the main stage.
We talked to a few local musicians to get their Essence thoughts:
Irma Thomas, vocalist New Orleans Soul Queen, Irma Thomas was in the mix from Essence Festival’s start—attended the first press conference, did promos, and performed in a Superlounge.
“It drew a lot of people who normally wouldn’t go to a show of any kind, and when I say that, I mean people who were past 50. It drew a more mature crowd because Bobby “Blue” Bland was alive, B.B. King was alive. Frankie Beverly used to close it out, which everybody looked forward to every year.”
Thomas did appear on the main stage once when a trio of woman vocalists paid tribute to Patti LaBelle. “At the end of the performance, Patti called me ‘Carla Thomas’ in front of all those people and the audience went, ‘Whooo.’”
Keith Frazier, bass drummer Rebirth Brass Band “People from Orlando or Arkansas, they didn’t know what a brass band was—didn’t know it from a hip-hop band,” Frazier remembers of the time Rebirth played its first Essence Festival. “When people trickled into the Superlounge, they had a whole new experience. I was surprised how long they stayed, but they seemed to be enjoying it, and we had a great time. The next year, there were more people, I guess by word of mouth, and the audience just keep growing.
“After we performed that first year, Chuck Brown came on and it was our first time seeing him live. He played for two hours straight and that was quite an experience for us.”
PJ Morton, keyboardist and vocalist This will mark Morton’s fourth Essence appearance, and to celebrate the occasion and the Fest’s 25th anniversary, organizers wanted him to do something special. He came up with the idea of recording and videoing his show, the results of which will be used for a future project. “I think we’re making history,” exclaims Morton of capturing his performance. He’ll be playing with his touring band, adding horns, and inviting special guests including rapper Pell and vocalist Mia X. “It’s going to be a party,” promises Morton.
“It’s always been a full circle moment for me because I grew up going to the festival and was inspired by it as a young musician. Seeing Mint Condition in the Superlounge when I think I was 14 or 15 years old, blew my mind.
Nigel Hall, keyboardist and composer Though five years ago Hall performed at Essence’s Family Day, this show will stand as his debut in the Dome. He’ll lead a band with bassist Eric Vogel, guitarist Derwin “Big D” Perkins and drummer Charles Haynes. “There was a time when I didn’t think that my music was reaching Black people like I wanted it to,” Hall offers. “The fact that I was invited to come back to Essence Festival is a great honor to me. I’m glad somebody got the memo.”
Big Freedia, bounce artist “Essence is as important to me as Jazz Fest and Mardi Gras,” says Big Freedia, who has been attending the event “for as long as I can remember.”
“It’s about celebrating African-American culture, so the artists are all the acts I grew up with—Diana Ross, Missy Elliott, Charlie Wilson, Janet Jackson. The bounce queen’s favorite shows have included those by Elliott and Jackson—“Janet killed last year.”