Times are changing, and the Essence Music Festival in New Orleans celebrates a year of momentous change with its 15th “party with a purpose” concert series from July 3 to 5 at the Superdome and the Morial Convention Center.

Its past includes returning triumphantly to the Crescent City after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, paying an all-star tribute to legendary artist Luther Vandross, and two years ago introducing a senator from Chicago running for president, and now, with the historic installment of America’s first Black president, the Essence Festival continues with a lineup that features Grammy Award-winning artists Beyonce, newcomer Jazmine Sullivan, veterans Anita Baker and Lionel Ritchie, as well as trailblazing hip-hop group Salt-N-Pepa.

The festivities begin Friday morning, on July 3, in the cavernous convention center with free seminars. The first speaker is prophetess Juanita Bynum, who delivers her treatise on “Living an Authentic Life.”

Sheryl Lee Ralph follows with an informative panel on HIV/AIDS and the crisis in the Black community. Next, New York’s own Dr. Suzan Johnson Cook delivers views on “Getting the Love You Deserve,” and, later in the afternoon, Steve Harvey arrives to discuss his best-selling book “Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man.”

Later that night, on the main stage at the Superdome, Beyonce, John Legend, Ne-Yo, Salt-N-Pepa and DJ Soul Sister kick off the series. The music starts at 7 p.m., and most nights will last until midnight, with Sunday night artists often jamming until 1 in the morning. On Saturday, Independence Day, Maxwell and Sullivan debut at the Essence Fest with returning solo artists Anita Baker, Robin Thicke and Charlie Wilson. The Sunday night lineup stars Lionel Ritchie, who returns for his second appearance at the Essence Festival. Al Green and En Vogue join Maze, featuring Frankie Beverly, for an exciting R&B and soul vibe to culminate this historic music event.

Yet, there is even more to enjoy at the Dome in nightly performances in the Super-lounges, which boast extraordinary talent you may not see in other cities. Among the solo artists and impressive bands appearing are Eric Benet, Solange, Ledisi, Big Sam’s Funky Nation, Lalah Hathaway, Blind Boys of Alabama, Raphael Saadiq, Little Freddie King, Marva Wright and Rebirth Brass Band, among others.

The July 4th holiday workshops, collectively titled “Reclaiming the Dream,” at the Morial Convention Center, feature talks and presentations on education and politics with journalists Roland Martin, Ed Gordon and Soledad O’Brien; educators Dr. Bill Cosby and Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum; NAACP President Benjamin Jealous; Rev. Al Sharpton; and Donnie McClurkin. On Sunday, Grammy Award-winning gospel artists Kirk Franklin and CeCe Winans perform in afternoon concerts. The final day of the “purpose” seminars pay tribute to Bishop T.D. Jakes, with readings and dedications presented by Holly Robinson Peete, Mrs. Serita Jakes and Essence magazine editor Angela Burt-Murray.

All festivities and workshops are free and open to the public at the convention center and include interactive displays, dance stages, corporate promotions, free products and contests from corporate sponsors Coca-Cola, Ford, McDonald’s, CoverGirl Queen, TBS, Wal-Mart, CNN, TV One and the U.S. Army. Moreover, a food court of vendors with delectable New Orleans cuisine is not only mouth-watering but affordable. For a full schedule, visit www.essence.com. Concert tickets are still available for purchase through Tickemaster.