Essence Music Festival gets back to New Orleans

A New Orleans brass band led feathered dancers through the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, kicking off the three-day Essence Music Festival on Thursday.

"The party has officially started," said Michelle Ebanks, president of Essence Communications Inc., which owns the event.

Fans and performers said the return of the festival to New Orleans for the first time since Hurricane Katrina is cause for celebration.

It's "a homecoming, a reunion," said Lionel Richie, who performed at the festival in 2005 - just weeks before Katrina struck the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, 2005, flooding 80 percent of New Orleans.

The festival, which runs through Saturday, had been held in New Orleans over the Fourth of July weekend since its launch in 1995. Last year it was moved to Texas because of Katrina.

Richie is among the dozens of hip-hop, R&B and gospel artists slated to perform this year.

"I would have played in New Orleans no matter what," said Richie, who performs Saturday, the festival's closing day.

He also was among the headline performers in the first New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival after Katrina in the spring of 2006.

"The incentive for coming is what the city is going through," he said. "I can't imagine a city with that much life in it dying."

Among the others performing this year are The O'Jays with Keith Sweat and Johnny Gill, Ludacris, Ciara, Beyonce, Robin Thicke, Mary J. Blige, Chris Brown and Kelly Rowland.

On Thursday, thousands of participants filed into the convention center, perusing the rows of booths selling clothes, hats, jewelry, quilts, books, paintings and pottery.

"We needed this," said Belinda Robertson, who missed last year's festival because she was rebuilding her flood-ravaged Mid-City home. "The city needs this."

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin called the return of Essence "psychological salve to the wound."

"It's much more than music ... this year is extra special," he said.

Besides the music, Essence hosts free, daily "empowerment" seminars with top voices in the black community tackling social issues. For example, Public Enemy's Chuck D is a rapper and hip-hop statesman slated to participate in a panel discussion on Saturday.

Two Democratic presidential hopefuls, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, scheduled appearances during the festival. Obama was to take the stage Thursday night during the concert portion of the festival.

Clinton was to participate in a Friday empowerment seminar with motivational speaker Marcia Dyson.

The concerts are being held at the Louisiana Superdome, while the empowerment seminars are being held at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. Both buildings sheltered masses after Katrina.

Essence recently agreed to a deal to keep it in the city through 2009.