Leading ladies, education take center stage at Essence Fest (40033)

This past weekend at the Essence Music Festival, top recording artists Janet Jackson, Mary J. Blige, Gladys Knight and Alicia Keys showed off their singing prowess and star power in exciting live performances. Each brilliantly delivered an outstanding array of familiar hits that wowed the crowd. Blige, Keyes and Knight demonstrated powerful voice and soulful phrasing while Jackson, who appeared in her first concert since her Madison Square Garden concert in 2005 skillfully reprised her large repertoire backed by stylish choreography with a corps of dancers and smart costumes.

Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation,” “That’s the Way Love Goes” and “Control” proved memorable. After opening with songs from her “Control” album, Jackson asked the audience, “Do you want this?” with that seriously fierce look she has brandished in previous concerts. Other favorites, “Miss You Much,” “If” and “Black Cat” followed in expert execution.

A male fan, plucked from the large audience, enjoyed special attention from Jackson onstage as she thrilled him up close in an explicit, sexual display based on “Any Time, Any Place.” In a tribute to her brother, Michael, she closed with “Everywhere I Go” with childhood photos of her and Michael projected onto large video screens.

At the Morial Convention Center, the Essence Fest launched its first Education Summit with keynote speaker Dr. Bill Cosby and host Dr. Steve Perry, principal and founder of the Capital Prep School in Hartford, Connecticut. Perry’s school enjoys a 100 percent graduation rate and operates a year-round school schedule.

Angela Burt-Murray, Essence magazine’s editor-in-chief, introduced Perry saying, “There is no greater issue of our time than the education of our children…Less than half of Black children graduate from high school. One out of two Black teens become pregnant. We are losing this war. Where is the outrage? Consider today your wake-up call. It is possible for us to change the trajectory of our young people, to let them know that they should not be called the ‘b’ or ‘h’ word.”

Alluding to Barack Obama’s election as America’s first Black president she added, “My boys will now know that they can be anything they want to be. T.D. Jakes said that, ‘We have to understand that our biggest challenge will be our biggest blessing.’”

Dr. Perry, author of “Man Up: No One Is Coming to Save Us,” spoke on his concerns and experiences as a school and education leader. “This right here is our responsibility. You have to stop getting in bed with people who are in bed with the status quo…Hate comes in every single color. My soul aches. Everywhere I go, I see children are dying. You can’t call a school a school that doesn’t educate.” He warned, “If you get too comfortable, you get what we have today.”

Perry introduced Marc Morial, National Urban League president, who said, “There is a huge debate going on about how to fix our public schools. We will not survive as a nation with only 50 percent of our children graduating from high school on time.”

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.