Audra Day smiles for photographers before her concert performance. (209604)
Credit: Contributed

In more ways than one, the Essence Music Festival legacy is expanding. The series of concerts at the New Orleans Superdome last weekend featured several recording artists with histories stretching back 20 years or more.

Friday night Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds lit up the stage with a medley of hits from 1983 to the new century. Holding the gold standard in Billboard hits, supreme songstress Mariah Carey also graced the main stage with a brilliant display of her five-octave vocal range. And Bad Boy Entertainment founder and rapper, Puff Daddy, celebrated 20 years with a powerhouse display of hip-hop artists, including Mace, Faith Evans and French Montana Sunday night.

For 14 years McDonald’s has supported the Essence Fest and hosted its annual 365Black Awards at the Morial Convention Center. In a live television taping of the awards ceremony, hosted by “The Wiz” actress Amber Riley and “House of Payne” actor Lance Gross, Michelle Ebanks, president of Essence Communications, described it as “one of the marquee events of the year and adds to the excitement of the festival.” The show featured a moving musical tribute to Toni Braxton with performances of her songs by her sisters, Eric Benet, Kenny Lattimore and Kelly Price. Wendy Raquel Robinson (“The Game”), former NFL football player Charles “Peanut” Tillman, businessman/philanthropist Larry Tripplett and Lonnie Bunch III, founding director of the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture, accepted their honors for this recognition from McDonald’s for dedication to improving their communities 365 days a year. It airs on BET TV Sept. 1.

Another expansion of the Essence Festival is to the motherland. This international cultural event is destined for Durban, South Africa this fall from Nov. 8 to Nov. 13, which Ebanks announced on the Essence center stage at the Convention Center.

“We are so proud that we are really going home,” she said. “Durban is a sister city to New Orleans. It is a very warm and welcoming city.”

South African singer and recording artist Lelo Green then sang her songs, “Hey Mister” and “You.” Zulu Nation dancers also took to the stage for an exciting dance performance.

Charlie Wilson, another long-distance entertainer, formerly with the Gap Band, gave another high-powered set, complete with talented dancers and robust choreography. He ended with his timeless classic, “Outstanding.” New Edition, another Essence Fest returning group, reprised several hits from their long career. Highlights of their concert included the ballads, “I Apologize,” and “Can You Stop the Rain.”

Common, who made music history with “Glory” from the movie “Selma,” appeared on the main stage and paid tribute to Muhammad Ali. His remarks during a press conference underscored his reasons. “Love … we have to speak that and live that … we have to express that and spread that love and reach out to our youth,” he said. “It’s important to me because I am a hip-hop artist. I’m a Christian and believe in Christ. Do your best to live it.” He reported that he has a new project coming out in September.

New recording artist Andra Day bared her emotions and jazz stylings in her performance Sunday night. Her band also featured a few blistering hot guitar solos. Her performance of “Rise Up” was nothing short of inimitable and forever memorable. Rising star, V. Bozeman, not only wowed the audience at the McDonald’s 365Black Awards show but also gave an exciting performance on the main stage at the Dome. In the superlounges, returning Essence Fest performers included Ledisi, Lalah Hathaway and the band Brand New Heavies.

At the Morial Convention Center producers, directors and actors in upcoming TV series participated in celebrity talks and interviews. Among these participants were Ava DuVernay, director of the “Queen Sugar” dramatic series, which will air on the Oprah Winfrey’s OWN Network; Issa Rae of the fall HBO dramedy “Insecure”; and actor Morris Chestnut, starring in the feature film, “When the Bough Breaks.”

Producer, TV host and actor Oprah Winfrey made her first appearance at the Empowerment Seminars in the Great Hall at the Essence Fest.

The Essence Fest honored the late icon and music legend, Prince, during the final night of concerts. Luke James, Larry Graham and Marsha Ambrosius sang “Purple Rain,” and “1999.” Next, the New Orleans Brass Band paraded onto the floor and played a suitable upbeat homecoming song to honor him. Prince had performed twice at the Essence Festival, drawing huge crowds to the Superdome.

In the Convention Center, there were more than four stages with daily schedules of events and appearances. Among them were Coca-Cola, which gave festival patrons the opportunity to sing karaoke backed by a live band, and the Walmart platform presented gospel artists such as VaShawn Mitchell (“Nobody Greater”). Ford ran a three-day Ride and Drive campaign for festival goers to test their latest models.

More than 450,000 people were reported to have attended this year’s festival. The Essence “party with a purpose” has not only grown bigger but also better.