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Leading ladies, education take center stage at Essence Fest

JEANETTE TOOMER | 4/12/2011, 5:29 p.m.
Jada Pinkett Smith (Belve Music Lounge/Frank Micelotta photos)

Morial continued, "Make it a priority to build first-class schools in our cities today. Why not start school at age 3? Universal pre-kindergarten yields good results." Morial also suggested a longer school day and school year and that we hold "them [teachers and administrators] accountable."

Rev. Al Sharpton began his remarks with some dire statistics. "In fourth grade, Black students are three grades behind their peers in reading." He said, "I am not going to support unions over our kids. The professionals are teaching the kids in the suburbs, but not our kids." He also recommended, "We have to change the culture of low expectations. We are not a race of niggers. We are a race of proud Black people."

Bill Cosby, actor, author, educator and activist, encouraged parents, families and communities to get in touch with our youth. He said, "Get into people's business. Some of the parents don't know if their children have homework. We need you. You have to take pride in your Black self. Do something with these children. Talk to them."

Cosby responded to the startling statistic that revealed that 84 percent of Black boys and men, ages 10 to 24 are victims of gun violence. He questioned parents, saying, "You're going to let them play Grand Theft and practice to be in prison? Say to yourself, 'We've got to speak up.' Your apathy is strangling you to death...Make your nephews, your nieces and your cousins strong."

The summit continued with a panel on preparing for college that featured Dr. Michael Lomax of the United Negro College Fund, Dr. Robert Michael of Morehouse College, Dr. Julianne Malveaux, Tom Joyner and Dr. Tanya M. Jones, the Upward Bound director at Tulane University.

Sunday's Empowerment Seminars were presented to an overflowing, capacity crowd who came to worship God and witness an all-star gospel tribute to music legend Pastor Shirley Caesar, innovator and gospel recording artist Kirk Franklin and New Orleans-based advocates Bishop Paul and Pastor Debra Morton. Tyrone Foster and the Arc Singers, the Ebenezer Baptist Church Choir, Karen Clark Sheard, the Clark Sisters and Marvin Sapp were among the amazing gospel performances of this day.

At the Convention Center, festival sponsors expanded their outreach with large displays and services. The Army featured its band, Group Therapy, performing live onstage. Festival patrons could take advantage of free HIV/Aids testing. New Orleans ranks third on the list of cities with the highest number of HIV infections. The WE network auditioned brides to be for its "Fair Wedding" program, and Ford gave away one of its cars during Saturday's program at the Superdome.

Other festival highlights included Charlie Wilson in concert at the Superdome on Friday night. Wilson took time out from his performance to thank and praise God for saving him from drug addiction and turning his life around. On the first night, El DeBarge also showed up to sing a duet with Keri Hiltson.

Rap legend LL Cool J excited the crowd and rapped like there was no tomorrow. Saturday featured an impromptu rap from T.I., who appeared onstage to much applause to rap alongside Mary J. Blige. Trey Songz also partnered with Blige in a short duet, to the delight of fans. On Sunday, Jill Scott preceded Blige with a warm and electric charm that infused her performance.

The 16th annual Essence Festival closed with Earth, Wind and Fire this year instead of Maze featuring Frankie Beverly. EWF brought the funk with "Boogieland," "September," the ballads "Reasons" and inspirational "Keep Your Head to the Sky," among many others. In spite of the unexpected change, at the end of it all festival-goers partied and danced again in the aisles with the electric side.