NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Black culture, in all its glory, will be on display over the 4th of July holiday weekend in New Orleans as thousands converge on the city for the in-person return of the Essence Festival of Culture.

The multiday event begins with a Thursday performance by comedian Kevin Hart in the Smoothie King Center, followed by ticketed concerts at the Louisiana Superdome Friday through Sunday. First-time headliner, rapper Nicki Minaj, performs Friday along with another first-timer, country singer Mickey Guyton. Music icon Janet Jackson, who took the stage in 2010 and 2018, is the featured artist on Saturday and fan favorite, 80s R&B group New Edition, will close the event on Sunday. Other artists scheduled to perform include Jazmine Sullivan, City Girls, Summer Walker, The Roots, The Isley Brothers, Method Man, Tems, Patti LaBelle and Stephanie Mills.

In addition, free experiences are being offered inside the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center including a tech summit, an opportunity for men called “In His Zone,” a marketplace highlighting local vendors, a food and wine experience, a beauty carnival, and the ever-popular gospel celebration.

Organizers encourage all participants — whether in-person or virtual — to download the festival’s app and register through EssenceFestival.com. In addition, in-person participants are required to show proof of a COVID-19 vaccination even though that requirement was dropped in March by the city since the pandemic had eased.

Festival organizers have said “vaccination is for everyone’s protection” and proof of such is needed for admission.

The festival, much like others the city is known for, has been on an in-person hiatus since 2020 because of the virus outbreak but was held virtually in 2020 and 2021. Before that, it had been held in New Orleans every year except in 2006 when it moved to Houston while the Superdome was being repaired following Hurricane Katrina.

This year’s theme is “It’s The Black Joy For Me” and the 2022 festival will be the brand’s first to offer a live component and the option to connect virtually.

“As the nation’s largest festival by per day attendance, the Essence Festival of Culture is a staple that celebrates community and empowers equity,” Essence CEO Caroline Wanga said in a statement. “We are excited to welcome the family back to New Orleans and thrilled to connect with more of our diasporic family through new digital experiences.”

Erika J. Bennett, chief marketing officer for Essence Ventures, said she’s looking forward to what she describes as a “reunion” that has attracted more than 500,000 visitors to its events in past years.

“We know the festival is an opportunity for people, all over the world, to come together, to unite a culture, whether that’s through fashion or music or food or all the wonderful other ways we express ourselves. Particularly after some really hard years of not being together, our theme of Black joy, really resonates,” Bennett said.

Bennett said their digital experience opens access globally and has attracted more than 100 million online views.

Essence, in its 27th year, started in 1995 as a one-time salute to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Essence magazine and was known as “a party with a purpose” with an original mission to give back to the community through free seminars designed to enrich women’s lives. It has since evolved into the world’s largest celebration of Black women, culture and community, organizers have said.

Bennett said Essence Ventures, the parent company of Essence, supports economic equity for people of color and works to ensure that through all of its brands as part of its purpose.

“It’s important for us to support and uplift a city that’s embraced us for so many years,” she said. “Through our marketplace and through Essence Eats, we have been able to generate a $2 billion economic impact, over nearly 30 years, to the City of New Orleans. And that is a bigger part, a deeper part of our overall mission.”

The city did not immediately respond to an email seeking details about the city’s current contract with the festival. The current contract runs through 2024. Discussions are currently being held regarding a contract extension, said John F. Lawson, deputy press secretary for Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration.

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